Posted on June 20, 2024

As Juneteenth Grows in US, Southern States Cling to Confederate Holidays

Leonie Chao-Fung, The Guardian, June 19, 2024

Juneteenth has been recognized as a US federal holiday since 2021 and acts as a day to celebrate the end of slavery in the country – but millions of Americans will not have the day off today, 19 June, to mark the occasion.

At least 30 states – including most recently Rhode Island and Kentucky – and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as an official public holiday, according to the Pew Research Center.

Yet as the number of states to legally declare Juneteenth a holiday rises, other states continue to cling to holidays that honor the Confederacy.

Ten states – all in the American south – have at least one day commemorating the Confederacy, according to Axios, and six former Confederate states do not officially recognize Juneteenth: Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Mississippi and Alabama each celebrate three Confederate holidays – paid holidays for state employees: Confederate Memorial Day; the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy; and Robert E Lee Day, to commemorate the leader of the Confederate army. In both states, Robert E Lee Day is also used to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day.

In Alabama, the Republican governor, Kay Ivey, has authorized this year’s Juneteenth as a state holiday for a fourth year, amid faltering legislative efforts to make it a permanent holiday.

A bill proposed earlier this year would have added Juneteenth as a permanent holiday in the state, but state employees would have been allowed to choose between taking that day or Jefferson Davis’s birthday off from work. The Alabama house of representatives approved the bill, but it did not get a vote in the state senate.

“It is not a perfect bill, but it is one that will at least be put on the books that will declare Juneteenth as a state holiday,” the bill’s sponsor, state representative Juandalynn Givan, told the Washington Post. “It’s an acknowledgment that history happened, and I think we need to do whatever we can to make sure our history is not lost.”

Some Black lawmakers objected to Alabama’s HB4 bill, pointing to how Davis was an enslaver who believed Black Americans were inferior to whites.

“The compromise it’s asking me to make is just difficult,” said state representative Chris England, who ultimately abstained from a vote. “Black Americans often have to accept really big compromises to make really small progress.”

Others warned that the compromise bill could be used to overturn measures adopted in some Alabama cities, like Tuscaloosa and Northport, to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday.

“Not treating Juneteenth the way all other holidays are treated is a slap in the face to African Americans,” Lisa Young, president of the Tuscaloosa county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told the Washington Post.

South Carolina saw a similar bill that would have given state employees the choice of observing Juneteenth as a holiday instead of Confederate Memorial Day, but the state house did not hold a vote.

“With the attempt and the assault by the Republican party to eliminate the education of our history in public education, it is essential at this time in our history that we have every attempt to acknowledge the history of African and enslaved people,” South Carolina state representative John King, a co-sponsor of the bill, said.

Efforts to separate the joint state holiday celebrating Robert E Lee Day, a Confederate general, and the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr also appear to have stalled in Alabama, as have efforts to abolish Confederate-related state holidays in other states.

“We’re trying to separate the holidays of two men whose ideologies were totally separate, from one end of the totem pole to the other,” Alabama state senator Vivian Davis Figures told Associated Press. “One believed in justice and fairness for all, and another believed in slavery.”

The continued recognition of holidays that honor the Confederacy “speaks to the blatant disregard of the humanity of Black Alabamians”, Camille Bennett, the founder of the social justice non-profit Project Say Something, told the outlet.

DaMareo Cooper, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, told Axios: “There’s no way that you can compare someone who literally fought for the highest ideals of human beings … to someone who was like: ‘I think these humans are checkbooks, they are cow, they’re like animals.”