Jewish World Review June 19, 2006 / 23 Sivan, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Juneteenth: At last it's official | This is the first year Juneteenth has been officially observed in Arkansas. It was about time. Because the 19th of June was an unofficial Freedom Day long before it was decreed Juneteenth Independence Day by the Arkansas state Legislature.

Some holidays don't need an official proclamation. They spread by word of mouth, just the way news of the Emancipation Proclamation rippled out of the port of Galveston through the old Trans-Mississippi Department of the defeated Confederacy.

It was on June 19, 1865, that Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, U.S.A., landed at Galveston with the news that The War was over and, by the way, Mr. Lincoln had freed the slaves two and a half years before.

It would take a while, a long while, for the tidings to slowly filter through every plantation this side of the Mississippi. And even longer — 140 years! — for Juneteenth to be officially recognized in Arkansas.

Through all those years, Juneteenth was a word-of-mouth holiday, more custom than law, more story than decree. One day every June, the downtown streets and squares of small towns in this part of the South would suddenly fill with black folks, mystifying the white ones till they remembered: Oh, yeah, this is their holiday.

As if freedom were not indivisible. It's taken us in Arkansas a long, long time to recognize it, but freedom is never just theirs, it is ours.

Once again Americans are divided over a war of liberation, and there are those who can't see the connection between another people's freedom and our own in the wider world.

Much like freedom itself, Juneteenth spread only slowly, unevenly. Just as jazz, another great American invention with its roots in the African-American past, came up The River from New Orleans, so Juneteenth came out of Galveston more folklore than law, its future always uncertain, its origins half forgotten. But there was always something about Juneteenth that got hearts beating and feet tapping.

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Some holidays wax and wane. Freedom isn't always proclaimed on a given day, like July 4, 1776. It doesn't always arrive among signs and wonders as the waters part and a Promised Land beckons. It's not always a pillar of fire by night; sometimes it's just a pillar of cloud afar off. Sometimes freedom is more a mundane legal process than a Voice from the Heavens proclaiming liberty throughout the land.

Mr. Lincoln's emancipation proclamation was an exercise of the commander-in-chief's war powers rather than some great declaration that all men are created equal. To this day, around Civil War roundtables and in dark corners of the still unreconstructed past, the constitutionality of his action is hotly debated by unorthodox historians and the South's Forget, Hell! crowd. Hard thing to accept, freedom. Always a debatable subject, presidential war powers.

How strange: Abraham Lincoln, who bequeathed two messages of near-biblical vision to American history in the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural, gave us an Emancipation Proclamation that has all the romance of a real estate deed, and not a single stirring line.

On closer examination, The Great Emancipator turns out to be a cautious lawyer. To assure the legality of his proclamation, the president and commander-in-chief proclaimed liberty only in that part of the land where he had no power to enforce it — in the "rebellious" states. He sought to make it clear that he was using emancipation as another weapon of war, like the blockade of Southern ports or the Army of the Potomac, rather than usurping any power not constitutionally his.

The embattled president knew it was the right thing to do, but was it the prudent thing? He waited and waited before issuing the Proclamation, hoping for some propitious omen. He saw it in the terrible battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862 — the bloodiest single day in American combat history, with a total of 23,000 casualties on both sides. Neither could claim victory, but Lee's hardscrabble army had been turned back. And Lincoln proclaimed freedom.

The president and commander-in-chief was well aware that emancipation might prove unpopular. Hey, this was supposed to be a war to preserve the Union, not free the Negroes! But he was also hopeful that it would in time spell the end of slavery throughout the Union. And so it did.

Sometimes freedom comes not with drums and bugles but almost surreptitiously, whispered from slave to slave, like some preposterous rumor. That's how Juneteenth came. Some of the bondsmen were freed at once, others were kept in the dark. Some heard about it, others did not. Some believed it, others did not. Freedom is like that; it requires belief.

It will take more than official proclamations to make Juneteenth a holiday for all. But it can be done. Because not only is Juneteenth connected with all-American ideals like freedom and independence but it's got . . . food! Ain't nobody of any race, color, creed, religion or national origin gonna turn down good barbecue. We could get a whole national dialogue started on that spicy subject alone. Now that would be a real national conversation — instead of one of those hoked-up political dialogues with all the spontaneity of a panel discussion. Barbecue has at least this much over political indoctrination: It comes with a side order of good will and no condescension.

Nobody knows the trouble Juneteenth's seen, but this year it was finally, officially celebrated in Arkansas, and its prospects are promising. The holiday's past may be vague, its origins misty, its spread uncertain, but like many a good thing it is there for the taking. Like freedom itself, it all depends on what we make of it.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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