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Activists Are Pushing to Make Juneteenth a National Holiday. Here’s the History Behind Their Fight

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The Democrat-led U.S. Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would make June 19 a federal holiday, and now goes to the Democrat-led House of Representatives for approval. Already celebrated each year as Juneteenth, the date marks the day in 1865 when enslaved men and women in Texas found out they were free.

In June 2020, then-President Donald Trump raised awareness of the holiday with plans to hold a campaign rally in Tulsa on June 19, near the site of a 1921 race massacre. The decision sparked backlash, and the rally was pushed back a day. The Senate’s move comes a year after a global conversation about race has continued amid the protests that have followed the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Several prominent companies, such as Twitter, Target, Nike and the National Football League, declared Juneteenth a company holiday. (TIME also observes Juneteenth as a company holiday.) The road to such a holiday becoming a reality has been long.

Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who has introduced a resolution to recognize the historical significance of Juneteenth, told TIME in June 2020 that while it took nearly 20 years for Martin Luther King Jr. Day to become a national holiday, she is optimistic that the time is right for increasing awareness about slavery and how its legacy has carried over into modern racism.

“There needs to be a reckoning, an effort to unify. One thing about national holidays, they help educate people about what the story is,” Jackson Lee says. “Juneteenth legislation is a call for freedom, but it also reinforces the history of African Americans. We’ve fought for this country. We’ve made great strides, but we’re still the victims of sharp disparities. Our neighborhoods reflect that. We’ve been denied the same opportunities for housing, access to healthcare and, in 2020, [during] COVID-19, all of the glaring disparities are shown. Because of that, I think this is a time that we may find people who are desirous to understand the history not necessarily only of African Americans, but the history of America.”

The origins of Juneteenth

Some details about the origins of Juneteenth are lost to history, and many of those details that do survive only became more widely known later on.

On June 19, 1865—two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox—the Union Army’s Maj. General Gordon Granger reached Galveston, Texas. There, he read aloud General Orders No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Why it took two and a half years for the news of emancipation to reach Galveston is not clear, but a combination of factors are thought to have been at play. According to Rashida Harrison, Assistant Professor of Social Relations and Policy at James Madison College at Michigan State University, the most popular theories involve the idea that “there weren’t enough Union generals who could get over there, white slave owners wanted to maintain hold [on enslaved people] by not alerting them, and slaveholders wanted to get one more crop out of enslaved folks.” Some stories about why it took so long for news to hit are the stuff of legend, such as one that says Lincoln sent a soldier on a mule to ride to Texas spreading the news along the way.

In fact, however, the scene in Galveston was one repeated frequently throughout the South. “Juneteenth is the best-remembered date but it’s by far not the only date; as the Union Army continues to win battles and occupy territory, versions of General Orders 3 are read throughout the South,” says Greg Carr, Chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. African Americans in Mississippi and Alabama have celebrated emancipation in May, for example, and William H. Wiggins Jr.’s 1987 book O Freedom! Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations details some of these stories.

After General Orders 3 was handed down, many formerly enslaved African Americans left the Galveston area to find family members who had been sold away from the region. As they moved north or west, they brought Juneteenth with them. In years to come, many would return to Texas to celebrate its anniversary, and to this day many Juneteenth celebrations are like homecomings or family reunions. (Carr also points out a George Floyd connection to this history: a formerly enslaved man named Jack Yates led to 1872 effort to wrangle land in the Third Ward of Houston, where Floyd grew up, for Juneteenth celebrations; that land is now known as Emancipation Park, and a rally to remember Floyd, who was a graduate of Jack Yates High School, took place in the park on May 30.)

But, as history has made clear, freedom from slavery didn’t mean freedom from white supremacy. Local and state laws, policing practices and lynchings restricted the “absolute equality” promised by General Orders 3. Thus, the holiday has come to represent a promise unfulfilled, and each Juneteenth is a time to both reflect on that need and to bolster the hope that full equality and freedom can yet be achieved.

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The movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement brought a new push for America to live up to those ideals—and with it came a renewed awareness of Juneteenth.

One turning point in awareness came in the aftermath of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968. At the time of his death, much of King’s work was focused on economic justice, and he was in the middle of planning a Poor People’s Campaign march for the coming months. After he died, the work went on—including via a Solidarity Day rally held in Washington, D.C. that Juneteenth. Organized by King disciple Ralph Abernathy, the rally, which boasted more than 50,000 participants, capped off about six weeks during which activists lived in an encampment called Resurrection City to raise awareness of inequality. Wiggins believes that the success of the rally helped inspire participants to host Juneteenth celebrations in their own communities in the years and decades that followed.

Poor People's Campaign
Protestors wading in the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool in Washington, D.C., during the Poor People's Campaign, or aka the Poor People's March on Washington on June, 19, 1968.John D. Bunns Jr./Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos—Getty Images

It was during this period that the modern effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday developed. Amid a widespread push to raise awareness of Black history, many felt that the American calendar ought to reflect that past. The fight over a national Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday—which would first be celebrated in 1986—was underway, and some felt that Juneteenth was also a crucial part of the story. Thanks to the efforts of State Representative Al Edwards—known as “Mr. Juneteenth”—Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. (Edwards died this April.)

In 1994, a group of ministers in New Orleans founded the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, in the wake of a period of uproar over police brutality that echoes today. Around that time, it was being reported that the majority of police brutality complaints in the U.S. were directed at New Orleans, per a draft of a 1992 Department of Justice study. As Rev. John Mosley, one of the co-founders, tells TIME, “We were inspired by the horrific incidents [such as the videotaped beating] of Rodney King and the mistreatment of Black people by police in New Orleans and others around the country.”

Today, every state except North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii has some sort of Juneteenth observance, according to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. Over the last 25 years, the group has developed a network of organizers in each state and advocates that Congress make Juneteenth a national observance, like Flag Day, or an official federal holiday, like Thanksgiving. To help promote the holiday, the group created a Juneteenth Flag, with a broad red stripe to represent the blood Black people shed to create the country and a white star over the blue horizon, guiding them towards freedom in the future.

“We wanted to use Juneteenth to call attention to the world that things are not right, and Black people are people too, and we want equal treatment for being people too,” Mosley says. “It was not just to have a party and have a good time. It’s a rallying cry for us.”

Cliff Robinson, who in 1997 started the website Juneteenth.com as a clearinghouse for information on Juneteenth celebrations, says that the growth of the Internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s has made Americans much more aware of the holiday. Its history became further part of the national conversation when Ralph Ellison’s posthumously published second novel entitled Juneteenth, with a key plot point occurring during a Juneteenth celebration, came out ahead of the holiday in 1999. Certain TV shows like Black-ish and Atlanta have run Juneteenth episodes, too—but, Robinson says, nothing so far generated momentum for the holiday the way news of the Trump rally did.

Opal Lee of Fort Worth, Texas, the 93-year-old Juneteenth advocate who started the “Make Juneteenth a National Holiday in 2020” petition on Change.org, says that coronavirus stay-at-home orders have also allowed time for the significance of the protests and Juneteenth to finally sink in. “I hate to say the pandemic helped,” she says, “but people have had to stay home, and they are doing thinking and noticing that they didn’t have time to do.”

What Juneteenth means today

As companies declare Juneteenth a corporate holiday, many Americans are learning about the day’s history for the first time, and scholars hope that long overdue conversations about white people’s role in this story will finally take place.

Juneteenth is “a way to enter conversation with people who have experiences, memory, culture different than yours and helps us imagine living together in a plural country,” Howard University’s Carr points out. “What we’ve seen over the last two centuries is an attempt to forge a national identity without first engaging in a truthful reflection of how the idea of freedom and liberty is taken for granted. This country’s national narrative does not apply to everyone and everyone doesn’t observe it.”

Even within the African American community, the full story behind Juneteenth is not known; at Howard, the historically Black university where Carr teaches, he says his students from Texas or activist families will know what Juneteenth marks, but the rest might recognize the name but not know what it means, underscoring society’s lack of understanding of Black history.

Michigan State’s Harrison hopes the attention to the holiday will spark discussions about not just that history, but also the present.

“Even as freedom is a legal right, the actualization of that freedom is thwarted at different institutional levels,” she says. “There is a push to maintain control of every aspect of life. That control is met, however, with persistence and struggle on the part of African Americans. One of the most pressing institutions responsible for controlling and minimizing those freedoms is that of the criminal justice system—and more specifically the branch of policing and Law Enforcement.”

At a time when incidents of racial violence are making headlines on a daily basis, Opal Lee sees Juneteenth as an opportunity for a national conversation about why these incidents still take place, and a reminder of the power of voting for elected officials who will pursue reforms. And for her, the crusade to make Juneteenth a national holiday is personal: It brings back memories of Juneteenth 1939, when she was 12 years old and a white mob burned down her family’s home because her parents had bought a house in a white neighborhood.

“We need to get together. We need to be unified,” she says. “Juneteenth is a unifier. Things haven’t advanced as fast as they should. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com