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Juneteenth becomes official

Holidays matter.

Memorial Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving have lasted long after the initial acts of Congress that created them. They have become days of communal appreciation, respect and tradition. They are days to party, to celebrate community, but first to solemnly remember our roots — what we have and whose sacrifices won it for us.

On May 4 the Connecticut General Assembly in an emotion-filled and nearly unanimous vote, established Juneteenth as a state holiday, starting June 19, 2023. Once the governor signs the act, the state will officially observe a holiday that has already been celebrated for decades, although not by everyone. Last June, when President Biden signed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday, he said, "I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another."

But since not every American knows what Juneteenth commemorates, and some confusing explanations are floating around, the first goal for the new holiday should be for all to understand why Juneteenth matters.

As The Day noted in its editorial welcoming the proclamation of the federal holiday last year, "Even after President Abraham Lincoln, on Jan. 1, 1863, issued the 'emancipation proclamation' that 'all persons held as slaves ... shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,' enslaved Blacks remained unaware and in bondage as the Civil War raged and the South fought to secede and remain slave states.

"On June 19, 1865, with the South's resistance crumbling, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, acting in accordance with Lincoln's proclamation, declared 'all slaves are free.'  June 19 commemorates that long, long waiting and joyous revelation."

The new holiday may seem to echo the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s January 15th birthday, but Juneteenth's origins are very like those of Labor Day: They lie in the struggles of Americans who fought against entrenched systems of unfairness, discrimination and economic suppression. By the time these commemorations became official holidays, millions were already joyously celebrating the victory each represents.

Now is the time to build on those earlier celebrations with traditions that will put Juneteenth on people's calendars. Norwich, so often the regional pioneer in cultural observances, has been celebrating Juneteenth with a festival for three decades. Both the city and town of Groton have now made it an official observance. New London will have its eighth annual observance this June, and state Rep. Anthony Nolan, who represents one of the city's two legislative districts, played a key role in getting the Connecticut holidays statute amended to include Juneteenth.

Holidays will always need tending to. In the early 2000s, the message of Veterans Day — that there are heroes among us who deserve our continual gratitude and respect — was getting lost in the sameness of another Monday off. When the East Lyme Public Schools took the lead by making the observance not a day off but a school day for inviting veterans to meet with students, some objected. But it was the right move. Keeping alive the meaning of the day is why holidays matter in the first place.

Holidays morph. In recent years Columbus Day became tarnished by the growing awareness that Christopher Columbus was not only a world-changing explorer but a serial exploiter. What he gained for the European world inflicted subjugation and near-extinction on people whose lands were overrun. Indigenous People's Day, on the same October date, grows every year in importance, acceptance and balancing of historical facts. Juneteenth can also set the record straight.

Holidays are supposed to sustain and enhance the way Americans perceive themselves as "We the People." Those first words of the U.S. Constitution get appropriated for all kinds of motives but they make a fine litmus test for proclaiming a holiday: Does it unite us as a people? Create a more perfect union? Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity?

The Day would like to see communities follow the examples of Norwich, New London and Groton and the imaginativeness of East Lyme. Come together to develop Juneteenth traditions that celebrate freedom, history and community in a big way next year. It's official.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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