With marches, music and speeches, Americans on Saturday celebrated “June,” the new national holiday that marks the end of slavery and comes a year after the murder of George Floyd sparked protests against racism.
Hundreds of events were planned across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, and notably in Galveston, Texas, the symbolic heart of the commemoration of the Juneteenth.
For on June 19, 1865, it was in this coastal area of Texas that the Union Army – victorious after the bitter civil war – announced to African Americans that while some in Texas tried to ignore it, the slaves were now free.
Slavery was formally abolished in December 1865, with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but June 15 remained the iconic date marking the liberation of American slaves.
This year’s June 17 celebrations are all the more festive, coming just days after President Joe Biden signed a law making June 19 a national holiday, and at a time when restrictions imposed by the pandemic on public gatherings are gradually relaxed.
“It was a long time coming,” said Cheryl Green, 68. She attended the unveiling in the New York neighborhood of Brooklyn of a bust of George Floyd, the black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020.
“It’s good that people recognize what happened,” said Green, an African-American resident of Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. “Changes are coming slowly, but we will surely get there.”
In Washington, hundreds of people celebrated on Black Lives Matter Plaza, a section of 16th Street near the White House that was renamed by the city amid massive anti-racism protests galvanized by Floyd’s death.
Kevin Blanks, a 29-year-old black man, said he came to denounce racism which is “still very much in the DNA of this country”.
He wore a T-shirt that paid tribute to black leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman.
Danique McGuire, a 51-year-old black woman, said that by signing Juneteenth’s law, “President Biden recognized the importance of black Americans.”
She added, however, that “the fight is still long” for complete equality.
Floyd’s murder sparked global protests against racism and police violence against minorities.
This move helped raise the profile of Juneteenth – a date many Americans, including many African Americans, had not heard of just two years ago.
An opinion poll released Tuesday by the Gallup Institute found that 28% of Americans knew “nothing at all” about the anniversary.
“I didn’t hear about Juneteenth until I got to high school,” said Farah Louis, a black city official in New York City, who was attending Floyd’s unveiling in Brooklyn.
She said Juneteenth should be used to “educate our youth” on the treatment of blacks throughout American history.
“While the iron is hot”
Celebrating Juneteenth now seems “a bit surreal” as many Republican-led states pass laws that limit voting options in a way that “affects communities of color the most,” tweeted Sharif Street, a black Pennsylvania lawmaker.
From January to May, 14 states, including Georgia and Florida, passed laws limiting voting opportunities – measures seen as aimed at reducing the influence of minority voters, especially African Americans.
For Sharif Street, it is “a reminder that our victories are not permanent”.
A bill to protect voting rights is currently being debated in the US Senate, but with many Republicans opposing it, its fate appears uncertain.
For Farah Louis, the proclamation of Juneteenth as well as the impetus of the George Floyd movement present an opportunity.
“You have to strike while the iron is hot,” she said, citing among other things the idea of government paid reparations to compensate the descendants of those enslaved.
On Friday, the mayors of 11 US cities, including Los Angeles and Denver, pledged to pursue the question of how best to carry out the repairs. They called on Congress and the US government to follow their example.
“We are seeing change” in the country, said Terrence Floyd during the unveiling in Brooklyn of the bust honoring his brother George.
Terrence Floyd, who lives in New York, recently created a group called “We Are Floyd” to help “keep the change going,” he told AFP.
“Because right now, it’s not a moment. It’s a movement.”
– AFP, Thomas Urbain