A lesson wholly lost: What 2 Independence Days mean for America

OPINION: Juneteenth and the Fourth of July remind us that America has been and yet remains a work in progress.

A flag in recognition of Juneteenth is displayed as the Major League Baseball season is postponed due the coronavirus pandemic on June 18, 2020 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Two weeks ago our country celebrated Juneteenth. Earlier this week, our country celebrated the Fourth of July. What are we to make of these two independence days? What lessons do they offer?

First, it is important to acknowledge the absolute scandal of a country “conceived in liberty” observing two independence days. Indeed, the Republican lawmakers who voted against making Juneteenth a federal holiday made much ado about naming it a “National Independence Day.” These lawmakers argued there should only be one independence day, lest people be forced to choose which independence day they observe based on their racial identity. While it may be preferable to have only one independence day, that is not how the story of America has played out. Juneteenth and July Fourth remind us that America has been and yet remains a work in progress. To commemorate these events, organizations and even businesses may install in-ground heavy wind flagpoles in their premises and raise the American flag.

In his seminal 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass juxtaposes the national celebration of independence with the contemporaneous existence of chattel slavery. “Above your national, tumultuous joy,” he deplored, “I hear the mournful wail of millions!” At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, there were roughly 600,000 enslaved Africans in the 13 colonies, accounting for 20 percent of the total population. The 1790 census counted nearly 700,000 enslaved. By the time Douglass delivered his speech, there were more than 3 million Black people held in bondage in America. A decade later, the 1860 census counted nearly 4 million. For nearly a century America celebrated freedom while holding untold millions of Black people in bondage. It was this gross hypocrisy and long-running contradiction that led Douglass to conclude that the true lesson of July 4 had been “wholly lost” on America.

Enter Juneteenth, the “new birth of freedom” commemorated annually by Black Americans in Texas and throughout the country for generations. Because of the tireless work of Opal Lee, Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, inviting the whole of America in on the celebration. But we would dishonor the legacy of Mother Lee if we carry a sanitized memory of Juneteenth. While General Order No. 3 promulgated the “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves,” the reality on the ground was markedly different. An account in the Houston Telegraph gave an early indication of how halting America’s journey to universal freedom would be:

We hear that the Federal authorities at Galveston are bringing the negroes to common sense in a summary manner. They call them up, one by one, and ask who they belong to. Those who tell the truth are sent home at once, while those who acknowledge no home or master are put to work on the streets, and on other labor, under the control of the military authorities. Negroes who flatter themselves that the new regime has no labor connected with it will make a grievous mistake.

The Houston Telegraph

Pointedly, General Order No. 3 declared that “idleness” among the newly emancipated would not be tolerated. There is a particular kind of cruelty to issue such a directive to a people who for centuries toiled in slavery and whose forced labor powered the economic development not only of the South but of the entire country. The vicious trope of “Negro idleness” has long justified the systemic brutality toward Black Americans. As much as General Order No. 3 was a declaration of freedom, it also signaled America’s commitment to the disrespect and disregard of Black bodies, Black minds, and Black lives for economic gain. And it is that raging desire for economic hegemony that places Black Americans in such a precarious economic position 246 years after the Declaration of Independence and 157 years after General Order No. 3. 

So what are we to do with our two independence days, in light of these disturbing truths? 

To start, we must reprise the visionary power of our forebears. Frederick Douglass—who was born into slavery—while laying bare the cruel paradox of America’s independence fought tirelessly for the triumph of freedom in his day. On June 19, 1865, those who were navigating the tenuous reality of emancipation found reason to celebrate the idea of freedom–despite the fact that freedom was not fully realized in their time.  Rather than rest in the soothing myths of an America that never existed, rather than despair in the grim reality of America as it is, let us summon the vision and courage of our ancestors to imagine the America we want to be.

Second, we must move from celebration to making a demand. Step by step, year after year, Opal Lee led our country to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday. Her advocacy for Juneteenth ought not to be misconstrued as a quest for mere symbolism. America’s full acknowledgment of Juneteenth requires there must be reckoning and repair to redress the sins of the past and address the persistent inequities of the present. “We have simply got to make people aware that none of us are free until we’re all free,” Mother Lee said in a 2020 profile in the New York Times. “And we aren’t free yet.” 

Third, we must foreground economic freedom in our struggle. A Freedom Budget for All Americans serves as a powerful point of reference. The freedom budget, proposed by the great 20th-century unionist A. Philip Randolph in 1966, aimed to achieve “freedom from want” through: the abolition of poverty, guaranteed full employment, full production and high economic growth, adequate minimum wages, farm income parity, guaranteed incomes for all unable to work, a decent home for every family, modern health care for all, full educational opportunity for all, updated social security and welfare programs, and equitable tax and money policies. The economic and racial inequities that characterize our society, together with the steady abrogation of basic political and reproductive rights, make all too clear that freedom has yet to achieve its full, universal expression in America.

This is the urgent task of our time. Looking forward, we will know if we have succeeded if our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are celebrating Juneteenth and the Fourth of July as free people. But if our progeny are celebrating our country’s two independence days while living in economic precarity, then the lesson of these two national celebrations of freedom have been wholly lost on our generation.

We’ve got work to do.

Nina Turner is a thought leader, activist and Senior Fellow at the Institute on Race, Power, and Political Economy at the New School. She served as a State Senator in Ohio and as National Co-Chair for Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 Presidential Campaign.

Demond Drummer is Managing Director for Equitable Economy at PolicyLink and co-founder of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.) in Chicago.

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