Two and a half years after President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months following General Lee and the Confederacy’s surrender, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived on the island of Galveston, Texas. He came with 2,000 Union troops to occupy Texas on June 18, 1865, and the following day—June Nineteenth—on the balcony of Ashton Villa, he officially heralded the news of the Civil War and slavery’s end in the treasonous Confederate States (Abraham Lincoln immorally allowed all states in the Union that did not secede to continue the gross practice of slavery). Known as General Order Number 3, Granger declared:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Juneteenth represents the day the whole of America was set on a trajectory of freedom and justice for all.Some African Americans were immediately freed as Union Army soldiers executed the orders, while others were illegally held captive or killed in an attempt to act upon their freedom. One lady was illegally enslaved and whipped by her mistress for an additional six years following the General Order. Even so, many African Americans celebrated the date of this proclamation freely for decades, some even returning to Galveston to reunify with family and friends for encouragement, prayer, and celebratory activities.
The Juneteenth holiday was finally recognized as an official holiday in the state of Texas in 1980, due in large part to the efforts of then Houston Democrat Al Edwards. It wasn’t until 1997 that the United States Congress recognized June 19 “Juneteenth Independence Day.” To date, only five states do not recognize the date as a holiday or note it as an observance: Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
In 2016, Volney Gay—professor of religious studies, psychiatry and anthropology at Vanderbilt University and the author of On the Pleasures of Owning Persons—argued that Juneteenth should be celebrated by all Americans, because, “The very fabric of our society depends on our shared religion of inalienable rights.” But I wonder if Juneteenth should actually be regarded as the standard of America’s celebration of independence and freedom. America is heralded as a country that esteems freedom, independence, and liberty as the unique cultural marker that differentiates it from every other country around the world. But for almost 100 years since the country’s inception, freedom was limited to only white males.
Juneteenth marks the beginning of America’s self-actualization of its foundational principle of freedom. Obviously, it would take over a century for African Americans to begin fully participating in this American freedom sans the threat of Jim Crow laws and violence. But Juneteenth remains the one identifiable mark where America’s truer and better Independence Day begins. Van Newkirk, writer for The Atlantic, probably puts it best: “As a national holiday, Juneteenth, immersed as it is both in the canon of old history and in the ongoing struggle for civil rights, would be the only one that celebrates liberty in America as it actually is: delayed.”
If anyone understands this concept of freedom in America, it should be the Christian. Christ died for us while we were yet his enemies (Romans 5:8). We were in bondage to sin and forced to serve the flesh (Romans 6:17–20). But thanks be to God for the person and work of Jesus, who freed us from sin and saved us to God for a future that ends and begins in eternity with him (Romans 6:22). When Christ saved us, he redeemed the whole of us. He didn’t just save the clean parts of us. He didn’t only accept the parts of us that we can easily manage or the parts of us that are morally acceptable. He accepted the dark, vile, disgusting, lustful, racist, and secret parts of us, and redeemed all of it for his glory. It would not be much of a reason to celebrate Easter or Christmas if Christ only came to save the parts of us that are “good.”
So in similar fashion, Christians living in America should champion Juneteenth as the standard for America’s Independence Day. It represents the day the whole of America was set on a trajectory of freedom and justice for all. No longer was it legal for people to own people—though many would find ways to keep various forms of slavery the standard. Juneteenth marked the beginning of wiping away the stain of hypocrisy from the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Our typical July 4 celebrations rightly focus upon the traits that define the potential for a nation’s greatness. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are noble, lofty goals. But reality is often more grim than the ideal. In reality, our nation’s foundation was stained with greed, a need to own, conquer, and prosper. Those base traits define us as much as the noble ones. Juneteenth gives us the opportunity to celebrate rightly, from reality. Acknowledging what is true, even the vilest truths, enables our nation to celebrate from a place of humility and contrition. Such a people is one our Creator is happy to bless.