What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a holiday to mark June 19th, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned – from the Union army – that they were free. The Union army was the army that fought to keep the United States a union during the American Civil War (1861-65), which was fought between the U.S. and eleven southern states that had seceded from the union, forming the Confederate States of America. The Confederate states were against the abolishing of slavery, on which their economies were built.

On January 1 1963, almost three years into the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all who were held as slaves within the “rebellious” states , “are, and henceforward shall be free.” There were some four million slaves at the time.

It took years for slavery to end in reality. The proclamation did not apply to border states which were loyal to the Union, nor to some parts of the Confederacy. Second, even after the fall of a Confederate state, such as Texas, plantation owners decided to withhold the announcement until after the harvest. Two and a half years after the proclamation and two months after the end of the war, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger, marched into Galveston, reading out the proclamation.

Texas officially made Juneteenth a holiday in 1980. Forty seven of 50 states and the District of Columbia either officially observe Juneteenth or have recognized it as a holiday, as per the Congressional Research Service. U.S. Presidents – including George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have issued messages of observance on the day.

Read | Should America pay reparations for slavery?

Is Juneteenth this year different from the past?

With the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta by white policemen and the continuing protests over the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement, there is much discussion and introspection about race in America. Consequently, Juneteenth is likely to have a special significance this year.

Virginia and New York are giving state employees a holiday on Friday and their governors said they would propose legislation making Juneteenth a fully paid holiday in their states. Several high profile companies and organizations like Twitter, Nike and the National Football League have also declared Juneteenth a holiday this year.

Also Read | Twitter to mark June 19 as a holiday

What is the current controversy around Trump and Juneteenth?

Donald Trump had scheduled his first MAGA (Make America Great Again) rally since the lockdown began for June 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The city was the site of one of the worst cases of racial violence in American history and Mr Trump’s action was criticized as being disrespectful and racist.

Upto 300 people had died in Tulsa in the racial violence of 1921 when a white mob burned down more than a thousand homes and businesses in the well to do African American neighbourhood of Greenwood (“ Black Wall Street” ). The proximate cause for the violence was an unsubstantiated rumour that a white woman, Sarah Page, had been raped in an elevator by the black elevator operator, Dick Rowland. Tulsa city authorities continue to look for mass graves – in search of what happened to the victims’ bodies.

After being criticized, Mr. Trump backtracked and said he was postponing the rally by a day out of “ respect for this Holiday, and in observance of this important occasion and all that it represents.”

“The dog whistle was still heard loud and clear,” Senator Kamala Harris of California – who is a possible Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, tweeted in response to news of the date change.

There is significant opposition to the postponed rally on public health grounds.

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