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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Juneteenth 2021

We need more exclamation points around here! June 19, 2021 at 8:33 a.m.

Who put Juneteenth so close to Flag Day? As if the flag of the United States was meant to be waved over all people longing to be Free At Last, Free At Last! Why should all the fireworks be saved for next month? Let's celebrate.

And what better way to celebrate than with food. Why, of course. It's the all-American way. On Thanksgiving, we'll have turkey and all the trimmings. On Valentine's Day we'll have chocolates. On Easter Sunday we'll eat ham and mom's potato salad. And on Opening Day (another all-American holiday) we'll have hot dogs at the ballpark. Today, we suggest anything that will keep you away from a hot indoor stove. How about an overload of ice cream? Let's make that a new tradition.

This year, Juneteenth will be a little more free than last year. The nation is coming out of the sickening doldrums, which is good imagery for Juneteenth. Somebody is saying go, do, be. Make a life. You are free now.

Covid-19 kept us all away for so long. And although still not defeated, many of us are vaccinated and no longer fearful. This Juneteenth will sure beat last Juneteenth. This year, there'll be baseball and neighborhood cookouts and pool parties and normality. We're not waiting until the Fourth of July this year. Free at last, indeed.

That is, free at last, indeed!

A HOLIDAY requires more than an official proclamation; it needs a story. Like Easter, and The Story. Or Labor Day, and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Or Veterans Day, and the Frozen Chosin.

Thankfully, today's holiday has an original narrative, too.

Much as freedom came to the slaves of the American South, Juneteenth has spread slowly, unevenly, moving in fits and starts. Just as jazz, another great American invention with its roots in the African American heritage, came up the river from New Orleans, so Juneteenth moved like a ripple out of Galveston, Texas.

That's where the Union commander landed on June 19, 1865, with the news that The War was over and, oh yes, the slaves had been freed--two and a half years before!

No wonder Juneteenth was slow to catch on over the years; the end of slavery on this continent did not come on one definite date amid lightning and thunder. No date written in stone, or at least ink, such as July the Fourth. Instead, the wheels of emancipation ground slow and exceedingly fine. Some slaves were freed at once, others were not. Some heard about it, others did not. Some believed it, others did not.

Emancipation was more a mundane legal process than a voice from the heavens proclaiming liberty throughout the land. Mr. Lincoln's proclamation was an exercise of the commander-in-chief's wartime powers rather than some great declaration that all men are created equal.

How strange, too, that Abraham Lincoln, who contributed two almost biblical messages to American history in the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, should have written an Emancipation Proclamation that has all the romance of a real estate deed, and not a single stirring line.

The Great Emancipator had become, as in a way he always was, the cautious lawyer. He was careful to proclaim liberty only in that part of the land where he was sure he legally could, but practically couldn't: in the rebellious states. He was using emancipation as a weapon of war, aware that it could backfire but also hopeful that it would spell the end of slavery everywhere in the country soon enough.

It was all so indefinite, including the dates. Which explains why there's an emotional vacuum for Juneteenth to fill.

This year, however, Juneteenth will take on special meaning. Sort of like the Thanksgivings after major shattering events, when perspective comes, and we thank Him for keeping us safe. Sort of like the first Valentine's Day when you realize you're in love. We have more reason to celebrate today.

A pandemic is nearing its end. We can talk about other things now, which we are certainly doing. The virus is being pushed off the front pages by international summits and hackers and space flight and government spending and border security and . . . policing and the race divide and how to deal with a nation's past.

And even how to remember it. Lest we forget, slavery was the worst sin this nation ever placed on its legacy, and its people. But not every American participated in the awful "peculiar institution," as a president named Lincoln called it. As much as some current academics would like to rewrite the history of this country, it still remains a fact that most Americans, even at its founding, abhorred slavery. And many Americans died fighting a war to get rid of it. We should celebrate all the efforts of the abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, the intellectuals, those in the Church, certain newspaper publishers, the politicians who put their careers (and more) at risk, and all those who worked to bring Juneteenth to fruition. It didn't come fast enough, certainly.

But as we study this sin--as medical students would study a cancer--let's keep historical context. And realize that slavery was awful enough without having to make things up out of whole cloth, for example by claiming the Revolutionary War was fought to sustain it. We should be able to celebrate Juneteenth on its own merits, as a non-fiction chronicle, without distortion. It would help to read speeches by a man named Abraham Lincoln during the 1850s.

Remember when civil rights was somebody else's cause? Now it seems to be everybody's. Juneteenth also went from a parochial, informal, almost unknown holiday into a nationally accepted one in only a matter of a few years.

It's what we do in America: We adopt each other's holidays and make them our own. After all, on St. Patrick's Day, all Americans are Irish. And what American turns down a beer at Oktoberfest?

Juneteenth connects us all, and not just with food. But more important things, such as all-American ideals like freedom and independence. And liberty. And a rule of law that provides that liberty. And a Constitution, including its amendments, which guides that liberty. Today let's also give thanks for the Civil War Amendments, as they're known now, which took the cuffs off, and set us free. And for all the people who argued for them, who fought for them, who voted for them--even before it was popular.

More than a great past, Juneteenth has a great future. Like freedom itself, it all depends on what we make of it.

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