June 8, 2016

Why I celebrate Juneteenth

By: Sen. Lena Taylor

To most people, the Fourth of July is recognized as “Independence Day.” Not everyone was granted freedom the day America declared independence from Great Britain, however.

Juneteenth Day, June 19, 1865, is also known as “Emancipation” or “Freedom” Day for African-Americans. On this day, all slaves in the United States were officially set free. Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It is a time of remembrance, reflection, and celebration across the state and the nation. It is a day we honor the elimination of slavery and celebrate the proclamation of freedom.

When President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 to end slavery, the country did not change overnight – it took almost two and a half years for the news that the war had ended to reach Union soldiers in Galveston, Texas.  Most slaves lived in territories controlled by confederate forces that did not recognize slaves’ freedom.  It was not until June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas and issued the emancipation order that the last of the slaves were set free.

I believe that this historic day should be remembered. That’s why I co-authored and passed legislation in 2009 making Juneteenth Day a legal, official holiday in Wisconsin. While I have worked on many bills during my time in the Senate, passing 2009 S.B. 170 remains one of my proudest accomplishments for the symbolic victory it brought to the Black community.

The fight for basic human rights has been and continues to be a struggle, but the efforts commemorated by Juneteenth have helped strengthen our community. Juneteenth Day represents hope and equality for all people. The hardships of our Black ancestors provoked the fight we continue today for a brighter future for our children. However, we must not rest on our laurels at a time when 42% of Milwaukee’s children are living in poverty.

While we should come together as a community to celebrate our victories like the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we must also fight efforts to roll back the clock on voting equality. In just the past few years, Republicans have passed law changes that will impact Black voter turnout. These measures include mandated photo IDs for voting, longer residency requirements to register to vote, and shorter early-voting periods. Though these restrictions are currently being challenged in the courts, we must remember that our freedom is never guaranteed and requires constant vigilance.

The Black community has come a long way since June 19, 1865, yet we still bear the burden of years of oppression. Though we may be free from the bonds of slavery, the struggle is far from over.  When we come together this June 19, we should celebrate that our struggles were validated when in 2009, Juneteenth became an official state holiday. We should also celebrate that last year, Congress made Juneteenth an official National Day of Observance in America.

Yet we must all realize that true liberty and justice for all still elude many of us.  Those who suffer through poverty, injustice, and racial hatred still carry the chains of our ancestors.

On this Juneteenth Day, join me in the continued effort to raise awareness about the erosion of our Civil Rights, the efforts to marginalize our voices, and our continued fight for full equality. I hope to see you at the day-long celebration of Juneteenth in the Old World Neighborhood on Martin Luther King Drive.

Connect with Senator Lena C. Taylor on social media on Facebook.com/SenLenaTaylor, Twitter.com/SenTaylor or follow her at Instagram.com/Lena.Taylor.