The first new federal holiday in the United States in almost 40 years was recently approved by the U.S. Congress. Earlier this month, the Senate and the House voted to establish “Juneteenth” as a new federal holiday, and when President Biden signed the law into effect on June 17, he said, “All Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history.”
June 19 or “Juneteenth” is a day to reflect on and commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery. Yet it wasn’t until two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, that this notice of freedom was received across the country. Since then, Juneteenth has come to mark not only the effective end of slavery, but the reality that freedom and justice had been delayed for far too long for far too many.
The commemoration of Juneteenth reminds Americans of our responsibility to grapple with the enduring legacy of slavery within our own society and to tackle the barriers to full equity and justice for African Americans. It is also a day to honor the extraordinary contributions of the African American community to our nation in the face of ongoing adversity and systemic racism.
As President Biden noted, the United States is taking steps to root out and dismantle existing institutionalized racism and deep-seated inequities. That starts with holding ourselves to the highest possible standards of accountability on our obligations and commitments, acknowledging our failings, and dealing with them transparently. It also means honoring the universal values of equality before the law, and inclusion – and respecting all people of every race, creed, and background.
Juneteenth is not a celebration of victory. Rather, it is an affirmation of strength and resilience, and a reminder that we must continue to work for equality and inclusion tirelessly, even when it is not easy. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I share Dr. King’s optimism, cognizant that our sustained efforts are needed to bend the arc. Change may take a long time, but it does happen, and working together we can, as Dr. King envisioned, ensure the moral universe is bending toward justice.