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Don’t let the left ruin Juneteenth’s true meaning
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Don’t let the left ruin Juneteenth’s true meaning

It’s a day of building our country up, not tearing it down. We have an opportunity to reject racial divisions and the revisionist history of the ivory tower.

America on Wednesday will celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday for the fourth time. Yet the holiday, born out of bipartisanship, is becoming more divisive each year. The left has co-opted Juneteenth to push for radical racial policies like reparations and exclude most Americans from its celebration. As a result, many conservatives now oppose the federal holiday.

But in the eyes of this Texas historian, it’s a mistake to abandon a unifying national holiday to the manipulations of the Left. We should instead do what conservatives are best at: get back to the roots.

It’s not too late to save the holiday from those who would abuse it.

Until the last four years, Juneteenth was an uncontroversial celebration of American freedom and the end of slavery in Texas. The holiday commemorates the day General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, informing Texas of the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the state’s slaves, and marking the end of slavery in the Confederacy. The next year, in 1866, residents of Galveston began celebrating “Jubilee Day,” which eventually became what we know as Juneteenth. In 1979, Al Edwards, a Democratic state representative from Houston, sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a paid state holiday. Governor Bill Clements, a Republican, signed the bill into law, and the holiday was born.

The national acceptance of Juneteenth also began in a bipartisan fashion. President Trump was the first president to call for its adoption as a federal holiday in 2020, though it took a year for Congress to act. When it did, the bill passed the Senate with unanimous consent and 415-14 in the House.

With that kind of history, one would expect conservatives, even those wary of the pitfalls of identity politics like me, to embrace Juneteenth’s consistency with the principles enshrined in our founding documents. The holiday celebrates what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom” for America. It celebrates the completion of the work of July 4, 1776 — the extension of liberty to all Americans. It also commemorates the untold numbers of young men who died in the war fighting for that freedom.

If it’s good enough for Texas, why are some conservatives starting to oppose the holiday?

Unfortunately, the answer lies mostly on the left.

The left has worked hard to co-opt the holiday and use it as a tool to divide their countrymen and to replace the real Independence Day. It began on the very first federal Juneteenth, when Democratic leaders tied the 156-year-old holiday to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Then, they named the national holiday “Juneteenth National Independence Day,” setting it up in opposition to July 4.

What was once a broadly accepted state holiday celebrating a significant moment in Texas history became a pawn in the national game of identity politics and subject to the division of the 24-hour news cycle. The Guardian published a story calling Juneteenth “the real Independence Day” — a slap in the face to both our founders and all Americans who celebrate July 4. Activists have called for Juneteenth to be used to explore “racial trauma” and enact reparations.

Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that Americans are souring on Juneteenth. What they hear from the media and elected leaders on Juneteenth is a self-righteous, anti-American drumbeat of criticism and division. Most Americans are excluded from the celebration, as is anyone who believes in America’s founding or doesn’t buy the narrative that America is “systemically racist” today.

But it’s not too late to save the holiday from those who would abuse it. Here’s one way: Celebrate it as the first day of a two-week-long national celebration of independence and freedom, stretching from June 19 to July 4.

We should remember the wars in which Americans fought and died to defend our shared heritage of liberty and expand it to all Americans. We should commemorate the armies of young patriots — black and white — who fought wars against tyrannical elites, whether it was the English crown or the plantation owner. We should consider how elites today are trying to take away the very freedoms that were secured on June 19 and July 4 through the blood of our forefathers and work with our neighbors to protect our liberties.

That’s the true spirit of Juneteenth. It’s a day of building our country up, not tearing it down. We have an opportunity to reject racial divisions and the revisionist history of the ivory tower. It’s long past time conservatives start reclaiming our institutions — let’s start on June 19.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts

Dr. Kevin Roberts is the president of the Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action for America.