By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
One year after Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law the bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday, Gallup took a poll. The majority of Americans had heard of Juneteenth. However, when probed about it, a majority knew little to nothing about its significance or why it was declared a federal holiday.
Editor’s Note: This column is the second in a two-part series discussing the campaign for a Juneteenth federal holiday, based on the forthcoming book, “The Juneteenth Drama,” by Earl Ofari Hutchinson (Middle Passage Press).
Many states took their cue from the public’s ignorance, but most of the states did not give their employees a paid holiday day off. Most private businesses followed suit. They did not give their employees the day off, either.
There was nothing that Congress or the White House could do about that. They did not have the power to compel individual states to observe a federal holiday because the only workers who are legally entitled to a paid day off work are federal employees and employees in the District of Columbia.
The issue of who does and doesn’t honor it has been a point of sharp contention and controversy in the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, from the moment President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in 1983. For the first two decades, most businesses did not give their employees a paid day off. Most states followed the same pattern.
That gradually changed as more states and businesses came on board to acknowledge the date with a paid day off for workers. Yet, fierce resistance continued. In 2020, the King holiday was a working day for more than 80% of employees in manufacturing. That remained the case in 2023.
Despite recognition as a national holiday by all 50 states, observance of the King Holiday remained largely a discretionary matter for most state officials. Mixed reaction to the King holiday ranged from turning a blind eye to indifference or just outright ignoring it in many quarters.
In signing the King holiday bill, Reagan strongly signaled that this was not likely to change how the country viewed the occasion.
“To make it a national holiday, in the sense of businesses closing down and government closing down and everyone not working?” he said. “I’d like to call your attention to (the fact that) we only really have a couple of those. … Not even Abraham Lincoln has that kind of a national holiday.”
In far too many public and private circles, the King Holiday was regarded as a “Black holiday” or, more charitably, a “civil rights issue.” That reinforced the chronic fiction that King was solely a Black leader, that the civil rights movement was a movement only for Blacks, and that his holiday should be celebrated exclusively by Blacks.
The same tag was inevitably slapped on Juneteenth. That fiction was amply reinforced by photos of marches, rallies, events and festivals on that day, in which most instances showed the marchers and celebrants were African Americans. There is also the question of numbers.
Juneteenth is the 11th federal holiday, and in the century before Juneteenth was added to the federal calendar only four federal holidays were established. That is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, purely in terms of numbers, there is a scarcity of federal holidays. On the other, some consider that there are too many.
It’s a Hobbesian Choice dilemma. The more holidays on a calendar over time diminishes their impact and importance to many Americans. It’s just another day off for many.
However, holidays such as the King and Juneteenth observances were intended to cajole, educate and remind Americans of America’s history of racial turmoil, struggles and progress. They are not holidays for leisure or shopping.
“Juneteenth marks the date of major significance in American history,” said Democratic Rep. Anthony Nolan, who fought to make Juneteenth a paid holiday in Connecticut. “It represents the ways in which freedom for Black people has been delayed.”
“If we delay this,” he added, “it’s a smack in the face to Black folks.”
The irony is that Republican legislators in some of the states where they have been dragging their feet on Juneteenth have moved with lightning speed to limit what’s taught about systematic racism in classrooms. They have also moved swiftly to introduce and pass bills to scuttle critical race theory lessons, even when almost none of the nation’s school districts mandated in 2023 that critical race theory be taught.
They likewise moved speedily to torpedo the expansion of voting rights protections and meaningful police reforms.
Yet, despite the foot-dragging and obstructionism, 50 states, in one way or another, recognize Juneteenth. That speaks for itself.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.