The commercialization of national holidays in the US from Christmas to Memorial Day has become normalized over the years, but activists want to prevent the same fate for Juneteenth by working to preserve its meaning.
Sunday marks the second year that the holiday honoring June 19, 1865 — the date that African American slaves in Galveston, Texas found out they were free following the Civil War — will be officially observed nationally in the US.
Black communities in Texas and beyond have commemorated Juneteenth since 1865, but President Joe Biden signed legislation in 2022 establishing the day as a federal holiday following years of advocacy by Black activists. The day's importance was acknowledged by a wider audience during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and received renewed attention after the murder of George Floyd.
Corporations and institutions recently received backlash for trying to co-opt Juneteenth and failing to treat the day with sensitivity.
Walmart released Juneteenth ice cream, Dollar Tree started stocking Juneteenth-themed paper plates, and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis attempted to sell Juneteenth watermelon salad — all prompting apologies and leading items to quickly be pulled from shelves.
Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder is one activist emphasizing the need to ensure that the history of Juneteenth isn’t lost as it becomes more widely recognized.
Originally from Georgia, Linder had never heard about Juneteenth growing up. When he moved to Texas in the 1980s, he remembers Juneteenth was usually observed at small hometown family gatherings.
“The problem is that a lot of the younger people don't know the history,” Linder told Global Citizen. “This is a capitalistic nation and unfortunately there are a lot of folks who embrace the money, but forget the heritage of what this tremendous holiday means today. Money talks and people don’t quite understand what they’re losing in the process. We don’t really address the impact of war and what it did for people who died for our freedom.”
The bittersweet nature of Juneteenth can’t be diminished, Linder said. He wants more people to remember the Emancipation Proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln signed in 1863, but that didn’t guarantee freedom for slaves living in Confederate states.
Linder also explained that while Black soldiers helped turn the tide during the Civil War, it was at a cost.
“A lot of Black soldiers lost their lives, I think about 40,000. And that was a tremendous sacrifice,” Linder said. “I always remind people of what freedom really means; it means sacrifice, it means death, and people fighting for your survival. You think about what folks went through in order for us to have, including death, it gives it a whole different tone.”
Since 1865, Juneteenth has traditionally been a time for Black families to gather at BBQs, attend special church services, reflect and seek out education on Black history. But some activists don’t think Juneteenth should just be a Black holiday — they invite allies to join the day’s celebrations while remaining respectful and open to learning its significance.
Activist Opal Lee, also known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth” for her work to make Juneteenth a national holiday, told Time she hopes Juneteenth becomes a day of service when people can carry out acts of kindness for each other.
Meanwhile, President of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation Steve Williams envisions public readings of documents that helped abolish slavery, including the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, becoming more commonplace as part of the holiday gatherings.
Rather than water down Juneteenth by turning it into another Hallmark holiday, activists advise corporations use the day as an opportunity to uplift its original intention to heal and correct the wrongs of slavery by partnering with and supporting Black businesses. The day can also serve as a reminder of the need to maintain a year-round dialogue about racial inequities.
Gathering with friends and family on Juneteenth isn’t completely discouraged, but activists are promoting more education and efforts to support the Black community in addition to festivities.
Other meaningful ways to observe Juneteenth can include visiting a local or national museum to learn about Black history, carving out time to read literature and watch documentaries about Black history, getting involved in the community, and participating in racial justice work.
Every Juneteenth, Linder wakes up and says a prayer for the people who lost their lives and sacrificed so much for enslaved people in the US to be free.
This year, Linder is driving home that Juneteenth can stand as a reminder not to take freedom for granted, especially in the wake of the Jan. 6th attacks on the US Capitol that attempted to overthrow the US government.
“Freedom is a precious thing,” he said. “Let's understand, it really is a sacrifice. So unless you maintain to understand what freedom really is in terms of sacrifice and education, you can lose it just like that.”