Is Juneteenth the New Independence Day? | Opinion

A neighborhood church in our woodsy Seattle suburb recently placed a provocative proclamation on its reader board.

"JUNETEENTH: THE REAL INDEPENDENCE DAY," the message declared.

With all due respect to our well-intentioned neighbors, that statement ought to strike every open-minded American as misguided and destructive.

It also illustrates the way that official recognition of the Juneteenth holiday, meant to provide a much-needed moment of consensus in the midst of partisan polarization, might actually intensify the deep divisions that already afflict our republic.

Namely, if Juneteenth counts as "the REAL Independence Day," then that means there's something fake about the old Independence Day that Americans have proudly celebrated for the last 245 years.

Yes, the United States was an imperfect work in progress in 1776 and remains an unfinished project, still grappling with remnants of racism to the present day. The Founders who guided the American Revolution never achieved political perfection during their eight years of bloody struggle against the overbearing Mother Country, nor did the 25,000 American patriots who gave their lives to achieve independence deliver a new republic without flaws. But they did usher into existence an unprecedented experiment in liberty and self-government, taking a significant step toward justice with the announcement to Texas slaves on June 19th, 1865, that efforts by all three branches of the federal government had combined with battlefield victory to assure their emancipation.

In this context, celebration of Juneteenth can be an appropriate and meaningful supplement to observance of July 4th, without being a replacement for the parades, barbecues and fireworks that have illuminated American summers for more than two centuries. Unfortunately, the headlong congressional rush to authorize the holiday in time for this year's Juneteenth led to needless confusion about what, exactly, our elected representatives meant to authorize. Their near-unanimous vote showed clear support for the new holiday: unopposed in the Senate, with only 14 GOP House skeptics dissenting from their 415 colleagues. But the title of the historic legislation—the "Juneteenth National Independence Day Act"—raised doubts as to the future status of the old "National Independence Day," scheduled to turn up on the calendar just 15 days after the new holiday. The eager politicos would have served the public better with the designation "Juneteenth National Emancipation Day" or "Juneteenth National Liberation Day."

Fourth of July fireworks
Fireworks spell out "USA" as they explode over the Lincoln Memorial during the Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, DC, July 4, 2019. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP/Getty Images

In any event, today's legislators are hardly the first racial justice activists to express discomfort at Independence Day's emphasis on "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" given that, at the republic's founding, nearly 700,000 slaves found themselves regularly denied all three. Perhaps the most famous Fourth of July oration ever delivered came from a former slave—the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In 1852, 13 years before the announcement of emancipation on Juneteenth, Douglass spoke at Corinthian Hall near his home in Rochester, New York. Addressing the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, he thundered:

Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?... What to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

Despite having endured the cruelties of slavery, he insisted:

I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too—great enough to give fame to a great age.... They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

Douglass recognized that common celebration of American independence could go a long way toward achievement of this unity:

For who is there so cold, that a nation's sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation's jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs?

In his great speech, the abolitionist orator and liberated slave invoked both "the gross injustice and cruelty to which [the American slave] is the constant victim" and the necessity of adding his voice "to swell the hallelujahs of a nation's jubilee."

As we move forward to this upcoming celebration of America's origins, we shouldn't allow either a freshly minted national holiday nor an old, cherished, celebratory tradition to lay exclusive claim to authenticity. We need to recollect past pain and to invoke future promise, embracing both holidays as a source of community rather than conflict.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.