Free Speech & Peace

Juneteenth: Celebrating freedom, dignity, and charting America's continued path to racial healing

June 15, 2023

On June 19, 1865, two and half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the remaining enslaved people in the United States finally heard that they were free when the news reached Galveston, Texas. Known as “Juneteenth,” this historical moment of freedom was established as a federal holiday on June 16, 2021, when Congress passed legislation that President Joe Biden signed into law.  

We asked Branden Polk, Fellow for Free Speech and Peace at Stand Together Trust, to give us some insight into the history and significance of the holiday. In a time when it’s evident there is more progress to make on racial healing, but polarization of the issue is hindering productive, solution-oriented conversations, Branden’s thoughts provide clarity, compassion, and inspiration.  

Stand Together Trust: Though the holiday has long been celebrated by people across the country, there are some individuals who might not understand its full significance. Can you unpack this for us?  

Branden Polk: When it comes to Juneteenth, I think — what a crazy, complex, and amazing journey this country is on at the moment.  

We’re still a baby nation. We are the greatest country in the world, too. But why are we the greatest? It’s because of our values and our principles. And since we’re young, we’re still figuring out how to fully put them into action.  

Right now, doing our part for progress includes being able to look at those principles and say we have a lot that we’ve self-corrected from, and we have more work to do. If you look at our history, it’s clear we have not always lived in accordance with our founding principles. Yet, that doesn’t take away from the fact that we still have much to celebrate. In celebrating the Juneteenth holiday, we seize the opportunity to both celebrate the progress we’ve made as a country toward racial justice and acknowledge the places where we aren’t seeing sufficient movement. From the abolition movement to the Civil Rights era to the continued growth in opportunities for Black Americans to seek the education, career, and home options they desire, it’s evident that with each passing year there is progress and there is reason to stay vigilant until equality of opportunity exists for all. 

By commemorating Juneteenth, we get to reflect on the rich traditions that remind us of the resiliency of Black people who suffered – from slavery to Jim Crow – while also embracing the continued need for progress, for justice and equality, that is promised to all people in the Declaration of Independence. From this meditation, I have hope that we double our commitment to see that promise come true for all individuals, including Black people who continue to be disproportionately impacted by poverty, educational achievement gaps, violence, and more.  

Some people wonder why we need to celebrate Juneteenth when we have Independence Day — what do you think?  

When Juneteenth officially became a holiday, there were some who asked, “why do we need two Independence Days?” I find this question interesting. Is freedom achieved in a day? Does it only have to be celebrated once a year? Hasn’t our own story with “liberty and justice for all” been more like a journey over time? We don’t need to see Juneteenth and July 4th as somehow being in competition with each other. They complement each other.  

In one holiday, we commemorate America’s Declaration of Independence, the fight for our right to exist as an autonomous country apart from tyranny and inequality. In the other, we celebrate America’s reckoning with sanctioned injustice, dehumanization, and violence against Black people. Emancipation is an important, but singular chapter in our story in the fight for freedom. So, both remind us that we can’t rest on our laurels. We need to stay at attention, holding fast to the principles and practices that will keep driving progress and integration for those that need it most. 

So, how can Americans celebrate and participate in the progress that Juneteenth signifies?  

One of the best ways to engage during Juneteenth is to participate in conversations about the past and the lessons still to be learned. Stand Together has partnered with a number of organizations that have resources to help navigate the sometimes-tough dialogical terrain.  

Essential Partners (EP), a grantee of Stand Together Trust, does this sort of community building across differences day in and day out. Drawing on behavioral health research, EP has created Reflected Structured Dialogue — a framework that helps individuals build relationships across differences of identities, values, and perspectives. The organization’s “Race in America” dialogue guide is a helpful tool for any individual who is looking to start new conversations about race in their communities.  

These conversations don’t just have to happen around Juneteenth, either. Living Undivided, another grantee of Stand Together Trust, offers seven-week experiences meant to inspire meaningful action for racial healing and justice. These trainings can happen in businesses, churches, or other community organizations. More than just discussion groups, these interactive experiences help individuals really see, experience, and understand things like the impact of exclusion, the power of story, and how to lead with empathy.  

Irshad Manji, educator and bestselling author, in this Stand Together video, recalls her own experiences transforming from a combative conversationalist to a problem-solving bridge builder. Her five simple skills are easy for any individual to adopt and implement in their regular conversations.  

Cultivating spaces where people can have conversations, across differences, about the atrocities that are connected to racial discrimination, past and present, is essential for building a movement of healing and justice.  

As a Black American, a reverend, licensed social worker, and thought leader, can you share with us what your family’s Juneteenth celebration looks like?  

When my family gets together for Juneteenth, it’s a similar sort of celebration we have for July 4th.  Everyone brings their favorite food and their favorite drink. It’s potluck style where we’re intentionally bringing things we know the family is going to love to chow down on. 

And there’s a lot of dancing but — we love to mix it up with some Salsa and Merengue. We love embracing other traditions while celebrating our own contributions to music, to creative cuisine, and really anything that makes the experience of living in this country filled with richness. It’s times like these that remind me to honor my family’s dedication to love our neighbors and commit to building a better society that works for everyone.  

As I move about the cookout, I will always hear the telling of family stories. For instance, my great-grandmother Ruby had a lot of kids and therefore I have a lot of cousins. The stories that are told about her, or my Uncle Carroll who died in the Korean War, remind and cement us in those values that have caused many of us to take up life-long occupations as pastors, lawyers, doctors, and educators. We can’t help but connect, sometimes humorously, with how our family’s style of discipline instilled in us the principles and the fortitude to become the people we are today, despite the harmful and complicated realities about race in America. Juneteenth honors that determination, inspiring us to lead with courage and resiliency in the face of adversity. 

For the past few years, though, I’ve spent Juneteenth away from my family. On the heels of Juneteenth being recognized as an official holiday, the Stand Together community and Heal America partnered with the Robert Randolph Foundation, founded by award-winning artist Robert Randolph, to host the first Juneteenth Unityfest in 2021. The now-annual event features many artists and cultural influencers, all coming together to ignite an inspirational and authentic way forward on racial healing. I carry the spirit of my family’s Juneteenth celebrations into these national events, too.   

What do you think it looks like to live the meaning of Juneteenth, not just on the holiday but every day? 

Of course, we can’t talk about Juneteenth without talking about the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” Ms. Opal Lee. Ms. Opal has spent her life educating and advocating for understanding and appreciation of Black history. Her life’s work as an educator and an advocate led her to push for Juneteenth to become a national holiday. In 2016, at the age of 89, she set out to walk from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., walking 2.5 miles a day to signify the 2.5 years it took for the news of the Emancipation to reach the remaining slaves in Galveston.  

Yes, her story and her walk attracted attention to the holiday. Ms. Opal, however, issues an invitation beyond the moment of Juneteenth into a movement of bridge building, racial healing, and justice.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in talking about what he called the Beloved Community, places emphasis on how we respond to injustices like poverty, racism, and war. Its ethos is counterintuitive to the human impulses for vengeance, spite, and greed. Instead, it is a way of being, where you fight for equal rights for every individual with the superior values of dignity, respect, compassion, and love. King believed, as do I, that it’s possible to build a world that suffers not violence, nor coercion to advance as a people, but rather through love that we will create a world where people are being treated equally based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin.   

The real work continues in the spirit of this blessed holiday – that is the work of building hope in the face of hopelessness, peace when the storms of injustice rage, and when all justice seems unattainable holding onto faith, hope, and love. My hope is that we can still hold to the vision of the Beloved Community. Together we can seize this as an opportunity to not just love our neighbor, but to also love our enemy, generating an exemplary and unorthodox positioning that desperately needs modeling in our country today. Let’s celebrate Juneteenth this year with vigor, and sign up to be a part of a movement striving for reconciliation, justice, and compassion for all.  

Join Heal America for an inspiring celebration and conversation with Dr. Opal Lee. This virtual event will take place on Thursday, June 29th at 7 p.m. ET. RSVP here.

To learn more about Stand Together Trust’s work on racial healing, visit our Free Speech and Peace page. 

Photo by Stand Together photographer Daniel Houghton at Heal America’s 2022 “Summer of Healing” during Juneteenth Unityfest in Brooklyn, NY.

Watch this documentary produced by Our Daily Bread to learn more about Opal Lee and Juneteenth.