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"Freedom is an ongoing fight:" Advocates say Juneteenth's recognition as a federal holiday is only the beginning

U.S. celebrates Juneteenth holiday
Americans celebrate Juneteenth, the first new federal holiday in 36 years 03:02

President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday this week, following decades of advocacy efforts to officially recognize the annual commemoration of emancipation in America. But while many advocates and politicians are celebrating the gesture, some believe it doesn't go far enough. 

Ninety-four-year-old activist Opal Lee, who had spent years campaigning for federal recognition of the day, cheered upon learning that the bill had passed. Lee was at the White House when the president signed the bill on Thursday.

President Biden Signs Juneteenth National Independence Day Act Into Law
Ninety-four-year-old activist and retired educator Opal Lee, speaks with President Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, D.C.  Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told CBS News in a statement that while he was "encouraged" by the move, "it is a reminder that freedom is an ongoing fight."

But Danielle Hawthorne, vice president of programming at the diversity nonprofit Code2040, told CBS News that the holiday's recognition is "performative" and "not enough." 

"It really does feel like a passive move in the midst of some really heavy conversations and asks that are being made by people in the Black community," she said, adding that "It really misses the mark of the true change that's needed for Black Americans to live into the freedom that the Emancipation Proclamation allowed for." 

On June 19, 1865, U.S. Army Major General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to announce that slavery had ended. At the time, many enslaved African Americans were unaware that Congress had passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, months earlier. The day of Granger's announcement is now known as "Juneteenth," "Emancipation Day" and "Juneteenth Independence Day."

Juneteenth: The story behind the 155-year-old holiday that commemorates the end of slavery 06:20

Centuries later, Hawthorne said that "freedom hasn't been achieved" for Black Americans, which ultimately makes the gesture of recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday "seem contradictory." 

Hawthorne mentioned voting bills that have been criticized for making voting harder for Americans, particularly minorities. She also discussed national debates around anti-lynching bills and the murder of George Floyd. "There are so many areas of our life where we still feel enslaved," Hawthorne said. 

Historian and assistant professor Jarvis Givens at the Harvard Graduate School of Education called the broad national attention being paid to Juneteenth "merely another symbolic victory" when it is not accompanied by any structural changes to the conditions of Black people. 

"[It] is important, but doesn't do much to address the accumulated suffering and debts owed to Black people as a result of slavery and generations of racial violence in this country," Givens told the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. 

In response to the new recognition of the day, Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush called for the prioritization of "Black liberation in its totality." 

"It's Juneteenth AND reparations. It's Juneteenth AND end police violence + the War on Drugs. It's Juneteenth AND end housing + education apartheid," the congresswoman wrote.

Hawthorne, who said that she has acknowledged the day with family long before its official designation, called for substantial reparations in the country — which to her takes on many meanings, like being able to know that her children will be able to live safely. On the first federally recognized Emancipation Day, she called for Americans to educate themselves on the history and impact of Juneteenth.

"[Freedom] goes back again to removing those oppressive barriers and systems in our countries that tell us daily that we aren't free," she said. "Juneteenth is sacred." 

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