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'It Cannot Be Merely Symbolic': Push To Make Juneteenth A National Holiday Takes On More Urgency

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — In the wake of recent protests sparked, the push to make Juneteenth — the day commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. — a national holiday has taken on more urgency.

Juneteenth dates back to June 19, 1865, when a Union general announced from a balcony in Galveston, Texas that enslaved African Americans were free. Galveston was the western-most outpost of the Confederacy, so slaves there were the last to learn of their liberation — two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Since then, Juneteenth has become known as America's other Independence Day. But it is not celebrated evenly across the country. USC Professor Dr. Sharoni Little said commemorating the holiday is a way for people to learn more about what led up to it.

"It really is important that we recognize that much of black history and especially Juneteenth has not been taught in many of our public schools across the country," she said. "And what is unfortunate is that it is central to our overall American history so we must look at why there has been an erasure and a silence around Juneteenth and the emancipation of slaves."

The day is a state holiday in Texas, and a paid holiday for state employees in Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania. This week, after weeks of civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, the governors of New York and Virginia say they're proposing legislation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday. In California, it's officially a day of observance.

Th e National Juneteenth Observance Foundation has asked Congress to recognize the date as a holiday equal to the Fourth of July. Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker say they are introducing a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday, something that 93-year-old Opal Lee of Texas would like to see in her lifetime — she's been walking across the country to collect 1 million names to give to Congress who are in favor of the push.

"No day is promised to us, and I just felt like I needed to do something to make people aware that Juneteenth a national holiday so, here I am, walking across the country and asking people to sign our petition," she said.

Private businesses have moved forward in making Juneteenth a paid holiday for their employers, including the NFL, Twitter, Nike, Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Football Club and Loyola Marymount University. But Professor Little said more is still needed.

"While it is excellent that many organizations and states are recognizing the holiday, we have to go beyond mere commemoration. There has to be systems changed, policies changed," she said. "There organizations, again, which are great to honor this as a state holiday must also look at their hiring and the diversity within their administrative ranks, on their boards.

"It cannot be merely symbolic, because for me, it recognizes an irony of still a delay in full freedom," she said.


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