How will you recognize Juneteenth?
Editor’s Note: The GreenBiz Group team honors Juneteenth Friday as a moment of reflection on the broader imperative to support diversity, equity and inclusion and the more specific intersection between environmental justice and durability. This essay originally appeared on the WeSpire Blog and is republished with permission.
Opal Lee’s first march to make Juneteenth a federal holiday took place around his church in Fort Worth, Texas. As she described to NPR, “I gathered people here. We had a rally, and so after the rally, people walked with me, and we’ve been going ever since.”
Opal Lee ended up walking to Washington, DC in 2016. Quite the company but even more inspiring because she was 90 years old. She has continued to push Congress ever since. As of this writing, his petition on Change.org has 1.6 million signatures. Last year, she finally saw legislation introduced, on June 17, to make it a public holiday. It was not adopted at the time but was reintroduced this year. (Editor’s note: Since this article was first published, both houses of the US Congress have voted overwhelmingly to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Joe Biden signed the bill on Thursday.)
What is Juneteenth?
The Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas 150 years ago to commemorate the day news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Galveston, almost 2.5 years after its publication. Texas made it a public holiday in 1980. Since then, 47 states have added it as a public holiday or commemorative holiday. A growing number of companies such as Quicken Loans, Nike, Citigroup, Target and, yes, WeSpire, view it as paid time off. Big banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Capital One, PNC and Fifth Third, close early.
For many who celebrate Juneteenth, it is an opportunity to teach about African American heritage and culture. Traditions include reading the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional gospel songs, and reading works by renowned writers such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou. Barbecue and soul food anchor many celebrations, and red food and drink are served symbolizing ingenuity and resilience in bondage.
We need to be aware that there is much more we can do together than be apart.
For Lee, commemorating the holidays means more than recognizing a historic moment. It is about embracing unity and fairness as a nation more boldly. She points out in her petition that the slaves did not free themselves and that they had the help of allies – politicians, abolitionists, soldiers and others who gave their lives for the freedom of slaves.
“We need to be aware that there is much more we can do together than be apart,” Lee told CNN. “We can pull our resources (together), learn from each other, and make the world a better place to live.”
Continue to fight for equity, unity and justice
It was this feeling that ultimately motivated our decision to celebrate Juneteenth at WeSpire. We, as leaders, need to recognize that the work of empowerment is still not done: not in our businesses, our cities, or our nation.
We must actively do more every day to achieve racial fairness, unity and justice. It starts with increasing awareness and education, but ultimately it requires changing our behaviors. How we hire and promote. How we treat people in meetings. Who we choose to sponsor and sponsor. Who we sit with for lunch and include in casual and informal after-work events. And believe it from someone who knows a lot about behavior change: this job is tough.
But it is arguably the most important job we can do. Inclusive and fair businesses are better and stronger businesses. Inclusive and equitable communities are better and stronger communities. And inclusive and equitable nations are ultimately better and stronger nations.
By taking a day to honor and celebrate when we have done the right thing as a nation, we will also have the opportunity to reflect and re-commit to fixing all that we still have not achieved. So if you haven’t asked your business or school to make Juneteenth a holiday, go ask. If you’ve never celebrated it, start. The promise of emancipation may have started in 1863, but it is up to us to carry it out.