Why Juneteenth Deserves At Least As Much Recognition As Confederate Holidays
"... the South rebranded its role in the conflict with Confederate symbols that promoted a revisionist history, honoring traitors who fought to preserve the enslavement of Black people."
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Written by Lecia Brooks
Juneteenth, recognized by 45 states and the District of Columbia, serves as a celebration of the end of the system of American slavery.
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Consequently, it is also a reminder of lies the Confederacy spun to keep slavery intact – lies that still circulate today.
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that enslaved people were free in areas that rebelled against the United States, effective Jan. 1, 1863.
However, the proclamation was not fully enforced until April 9, 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, formally ending the Civil War.
The announcement of formal emancipation was slow to reach isolated areas of the U.S. for various reasons.
Some slaveholders purposefully hid the news. Since Texas was located farthest from Union borderlines, Southern planters bought enslaved people there to avoid the Union army, which would have freed them.
Because slaveholders did not believe that the Union victory was legitimate, their actions represented a last-ditch effort to hold African Americans in bondage and continue reaping the benefits of free labor.
It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 – when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston – that roughly 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were told they were “forever free.” That was more than 60 days after the Civil War ended and two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865 officially ended slavery in the U.S.
Decades later, the South rebranded its role in the conflict with Confederate symbols that promoted a revisionist history, honoring traitors who fought to preserve the enslavement of Black people.
Led by the well-endowed United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans organizations, hundreds of outsized Confederate monuments were erected in the early 1900s alone. Their influence facilitated the naming of government buildings, schools, parks, counties, cities, military bases, streets and highways after defeated Confederate leaders, granting them celebrity status. The shameful trend was resurrected during the civil rights movement, which dared to challenge Jim Crow racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
Symbols celebrating white supremacy were strategically placed in public spaces across the U.S. to intimidate African Americans into believing that even though they were free citizens of the United States, they were still inferior to whites.
Ultimately, Confederate symbols were created solely to erase and manipulate the facts of Civil War history – exactly what present-day Confederacy supporters claim they don’t want.
Their “Loyal Slave” monuments are a perfect example of how these symbols were used to romanticize a time when owning human beings was legal and morally acceptable.
The fight for states’ rights mantra is the biggest lie of all. While wealthy slaveholders clearly had more at stake, all who supported and fought on behalf of the “Lost Cause” understood that keeping African Americans enslaved was a direct consequence of their immoral choices.
June 19 will forever commemorate the story of emancipation of blacks from enslavement. Thankfully, Americans are learning not to believe the propaganda about Confederate “heroes.”
As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “One day the South will recognize its real heroes.”
Lecia Brooks is a member of the Senior Leadership Team at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She serves both leadership and staff to build a workplace culture that supports the SPLC’s ongoing focus on diversity and equity.
Learn about the impact of Confederate symbols on public land in the SPLC’s 2019 “Whose Heritage?” Report