Juneteenth Observance Goes National
When I was in middle school, a television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book “Roots” offered me the first visual exploration of the institution of slavery. Like many children, I heard stories that were passed down through generations about how my ancestors had been enslaved. There were adults in the neighborhood who frequently made mention of something about “forty acres and a mule.” And there was a blurred section in history class that raced through something about the Africa, the South and the Civil War.
However, “Roots” was the first real foray into this institution that was America’s dirty non-secret. Aired in 1977, the miniseries finale still holds the record as the third-highest-rated episode for any type of television series, and the second-most watched overall series finale in U.S. television history. “Roots” drew you into the life of Haley’s family member, Kunta Kinte, who was abducted from West Africa in 1767 by Europeans. He was sold to a slave trader and placed on a slave ship bound toward Colonial America.
Each day at school, my friends and I gathered around the lunch table to talk about the horror and inexplicable inhumanity endured by the enslaved Africans. Classrooms were silent, as even our teachers seemed to struggle with what we were witnessing on the miniseries. The anxiousness extended to our homes, barbershops and even houses of worship.
Questions for all involved, under skirted every conversation. What in the hell made white people believe they could and should own another person? How did “good” Christians justify the institution of slavery? How did Black people endure the whippings, “sun up to sun down” forced labor, rape and the selling of their family members?
And as easy as it was to get mired in these questions, I would always hear humming in my head. “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round, turn me round, turn me round. I’m gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marchin up to freedom land.” In those lyrics, I found solace, my heart stopped racing and my anxiety lessened. I would be an adult before I fully understood that the song captured the determination of the civil rights protestors of the 1960’s to be full citizens of this country, with all the rights afforded that citizenship.
However, long beforehand, Blacks had established a determination to survive and push forward.
I remember that this song was bellowed at marches and protests over the years. In the fight to get Juneteenth named as a federal holiday, supporters were determined that this nation commemorate the end of chattel slavery in the United States. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the push to have both King’s birthday and Juneteenth made national holidays began. It took 20 years before we nationally recognized King’s birthday.
It has taken more than 50 years to get to the recent passage of a bill declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday. To the legislators, at every level of government, the community activists and supporters, thank you for not turning around when the bill was derailed year after year. Interestingly, proponents of banning critical race theory would likely work to silence an Alex Haley today, while signing onto a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.