14 Votes Against Juneteenth: A Racist Act In The Halls Of Congress

The "Absolute Equality" mural in Galveston, Texas, which, tells the story of the day in 1865 when the last enslaved African Americans in the city learned that they were free. (Photo by FRANCOIS PICARD/AFP via Getty Images)

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There is currently a fight going on in this country over whether we should celebrate the end of slavery. Yes, you read that right. A small number of elected officials and pundits are actually debating whether it is acceptable to have a holiday commemorating the American Emancipation. 

Yesterday, President Biden signed a law proclaiming Juneteenth a federal holiday. The legislation was sent to Biden’s desk with the support of almost every member of Congress. However, in the House, 14 Republicans voted against the measure and two others didn’t vote at all. 

Many people in the public sphere are already highlighting this and condemning it while stopping just short of calling it by its name. But this is not a subjective matter. Refusing to celebrate the end of slavery is racism. Something this simple and awful needs to be easily recognized for what it is.

Juneteenth marks an 1865 military order that informed people in Texas they were free. Thanks to persistent Confederate influence, that state was one of the last in the country where slavery was being practiced at the time, two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth has been celebrated in the Black community for over 200 years. Activists have pushed to make it a federal holiday for decades, and a renewed national effort to celebrate Juneteenth nationally gained steam in the wake of last year’s civil rights protests following the death of George Floyd. 

Ninety-four-year-old activist and retired educator Opal Lee, known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

As of Thursday, an online petition to have a Juneteenth holiday was signed by over 1.6 million people. Opal Lee, the 94-year-old activist who started that petition and has spent years pushing for the celebration, sat in the front row as Biden signed the law. Lee has described the holiday as an “embrace of freedom” that shows “people who have been taught to hate can be taught to love.”

This shouldn’t be controversial. Indeed, some activists have argued it’s an insubstantial gesture after a year of protests calling for concrete action to deliver equal rights for Black people. Slavery was one of the great evils in our country’s history. We should all be happy it ended, eager to celebrate that fact, and willing to contemplate its lingering impact. 

Opponents of Juneteenth have made various excuses for their position. None of them hold water. Conservative activist Charlie Kirk described the holiday as a threat to July 4th that’s part of some kind of larger liberal plot.  

“America only has one Independence Day and it's on July 4th, 1776.If you're a conservative who is okay with the ‘Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,’ you're not paying attention to what the left is truly trying to accomplish,” Kirk tweeted. 

Of course, there is no effort to cancel July 4, which will continue this year as scheduled. That didn’t stop Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT), one of the 14 House Republicans who voted against Juneteenth, from making the same ridiculous straw man argument as he described it as an effort to “pull down” America’s “legacy” in a series of tweets on Wednesday.

“This legislation is the culmination of decades of efforts by the Left to prevent unashamed celebrations of our national story, heritage, and history,” Rosendale wrote, adding: “Their intent is to replace the Fourth of July with this new day, one that will inevitably focus on America's darkest moments.”

While slavery is indeed a dark part of the American legacy, how could it possibly be a negative to celebrate its end? And what motivation could there be other than naked racism or cheap politics to go as far as making a false straw man argument like the July 4th replacement conspiracy theory in an effort to block a holiday dedicated to freedom?

Think tanker and writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry tried to take a more moderate approach as he tweeted a suggestion that the holiday was only an issue due to the current raging culture wars. 

“Look, in a good world Juneteenth would be a great national holiday about celebrating America,” Gobry wrote. “In *this* world this entire project is about creating more anti-American humiliation rituals.”

The implied argument here is that acknowledging slavery is embarassing for the country. That may be true, but isn’t the ultimate anti-American shame, the years this country spent hypocritically ignoring that foundational declaration that all men are created equal. Isn’t that ideal what we are supposed to be celebrating on July 4th?

This isn’t some debatable issue like the academic matters and questions of political correctness that have fueled the culture wars Gobry alluded to in his tweet. It’s not a complex policy question like reparations.  There’s no grey area like we sometimes see with questions of police violence. This doesn’t even bring up questions of potential alternate meanings or free speech issues as we might see with displays of the Confederate flag. This is a question of simply celebrating the end of slavery. Opposition to such a basic gesture isn’t a dog whistle — it’s a scream. 

When I started this newsletter, I promised to follow issues that were undercovered or had fallen out of the headlines. The opposition to Juneteenth has received attention this week, but it’s important for the coverage to be clear-eyed about what this is. It’s racism. You can believe your eyes on this one. An act so offensive should not be a single news cycle. I am planning to follow this issue and get answers from the members of Congress and others who fought against celebrating the end of slavery. It’s not acceptable to quickly move past something this shocking.

There are some who might argue calling this out as racism is not objective. I could not disagree more. Firstly, this is not a partisan matter. The Senate unanimously voted to approve the legislation making Juneteenth a holiday. In the House, 195 Republicans voted for the bill. Even President Trump has expressed support for the celebration. 

The 14 people who voted against this day clearly, objectively represent a radical extremist fringe within the GOP. They must be covered as such. Their two colleagues who avoided voting at all — Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) — also shouldn’t escape scrutiny here and have barely been discussed.

Unsurprisingly, half of the 14 members of Congress who voted against Juneteenth were among those who also voted against recognizing the bravery of police officers who fought the Capitol rioters. The group’s members also include Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and some of the others who have led the way in attempting to mischaracterize the attack and defend the participants. 

This is shocking, but it shouldn’t be surprising due to the strain of extremism and revisionist history we’ve been seeing grow within the Republican Party. We’ve also been here before. 

Prior to Juneteenth, the last new federal holiday was Martin Luther King Day, which was recognized by President Reagan in 1983. That celebration faced similar opposition and the holiday was not observed by all fifty states until 2000. 

As Martin Luther King Day was being debated the Senate in 1983, a leading opponent was North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, who had been an open segregationist. He temporarily blocked the bill with what the Washington Post described at the time as an “assault on King.” Helms made some of the same arguments that opponents of Juneteenth have cited about government costs associated with marking a holiday. However, Helms also said the quiet part out loud and made clear his opposition involved objecting to King’s famed dream of racial equality as he declared federal holidays should be reserved for “shared values” and said King’s "very name itself remains a source of tension, a deeply troubling symbol of divided society."

The late Arizona Republican Senator John McCain initially opposed Martin Luther King Day as a member of the House in 1983. Twenty five years later, he recognized that as a “mistake.”

“We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I myself made long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King. I was wrong," McCain said. "I was wrong, and eventually realized it in time to give full support — full support — for a state holiday in my home state of Arizona.”

Now, over a decade after McCain’s admission, a fringe within his party are failing to recognize what he came to know was objectively true.

A recent movement led by journalists of color has questioned the profession’s traditional notions of objectivity and advocated instead for “moral clarity.” Jim Crow is a central example posed by advocates of this approach. Segregation was objectively evil and should not have been covered with any false sense of balance. Opposing celebrations for the end of slavery is similarly offensive and indecent. We can’t inject our morals into everything, but something this clearly wrong can be acknowledged as such. 

I believe passionately in aiming for fair, objective reporting, but opposition to a celebration of the emancipation of our fellow citizens is one of those moments that calls for moral clarity. Part of being objective is maintaining a sense of objective truth and reality. Some things need to be objectively true. Some things need to be objectively good. If we lose sight of that, what are we? 

Objective reality is under assault more and more in the public sphere as officials and others challenge things like the results of a fair election and try to distort moments like last year’s tear gassing of protesters in Lafayette Park and the January 6 attack. Trying to rationalize or deny the racism ingrained in the opposition to Juneteenth is similarly detached from reality. 

I usually close these newsletters with a fun fact. Over the past two months, I’ve talked about architectural wonders, weird animals, and great music. Today’s issue doesn’t feel very fun, but I will leave you with a musical fact. 

Stevie Wonder was a leading supporter of the effort to recognize Martin Luther King day. The song “Happy Birthday” from his 1980 album “Hotter Than July” was written for the campaign. In that song, Wonder says it better than I ever could.

“You know it doesn't make much sense. There ought to be a law against anyone who takes offense at a day in your celebration,” Wonder sang. “

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