The Michigan Juneteenth Controversy of 2015

One could convince most white Americans, without too much kicking and screaming, to admit that slavery constitutes a national embarrassment and we should all celebrate its end. But doing that often requires that we close the book and pretend that equality came completely and permanently in 1865. This contradicts the rest of the popular historical memory, which also assigns that date to 1776 and 1965 but these things rarely demand consistency. The perfection matters more than the date and infinitely more than the facts. We unite to celebrate the wonder of our triumph over division and injustice, not recognize its persistence and use past victories as inspiration for future efforts. If we really believed otherwise, we’d more eagerly celebrate Juneteenth. All the same, one imagines that something so innocuous as a resolution on the occasion should sail through any state legislature.

Michigan, my state, aims to disappoint.

The Juneteenth measure, which Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson of Highland Park had hoped would be adopted on June 19 — the holiday — was instead referred to a Senate committee Tuesday after behind-the-scenes wrangling.


Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones, who is white, said unspecified GOP leaders asked him to change the “strange” and “quite shocking” resolution. The Grand Ledge Republican said parts of the measure are “sort of a political attack” instead of being celebratory in nature.

“When you do a resolution, this comes from all the senators, not just one. If he wants to make a tribute and have it just be from him, fine. But if it’s a resolution, it’s coming from all the senators,” Jones said. “It’s important that it be done appropriately.”

You can read the resolution here. The controversy arises over this passage:

After the emancipation from 246 years of slavery, Africans in American continue to experience the vestiges of slavery from challenges to voting rights, inadequate public education systems, lack of access to capital lending institutions, and other social and economic injustices; now, therefore, be it

Rick Jones informs us that the Republican leadership took this as a political attack. As the Republicans have a majority in the state Senate, their opinion generally prevails. Challenges to voting rights, poor schools, limited access to capital, and various other injustices disproportionately impact black Americans as much in Michigan as everywhere else in the nation. But to suggest that these flow from the original and greatest of injustices against them reaches out of bounds. It constitutes an attack. Such a resolution could not speak for the whole state Senate.

While slavery ended, de jure, in 1865 the injustices built into it did not all expire that year. For most of the subsequent century, save a promising decade or so, white Americans united to preserve most of them. We still do largely united around many of them, provided we can come up with a sufficiently colorblind pretense.

Confederate Battle FlagBut state Senators don’t always get the best history education. We can attribute the GOP leadership’s issue with the resolution to ignorance. If they genuinely don’t connect present injustices to past injustices from not knowing, fair enough. That would leave them with a distinct segment of the national population who do rather less well than the rest of us. Black Americans constitute far more of our poor, our unemployed, and our prison population than their numbers would account for. Looking at such a consistent pattern, one has only two explanations. Either America treats its black citizens disproportionately harshly and uncharitably or they have something conspicuously wrong with them. Otherwise, they would come out more or less the same as any other group of Americans.

Our white self-esteem suggests the latter option. Black Americans just gone wrong somehow. If they deserved equality or they would have it. We run a fair system here, dating all the way back to 1619. Nobody would enslave another unless they really had it coming. Our history, and an honest examination of the present, argue otherwise. White Americans have built and in many cases still build systems designed to use and exploit black Americans. If the GOP senators take that as a political attack, they ought to wonder why.

By denying that present injustices have their historical roots and implying them just rather than unjust, the Senate leadership have chosen to fly the same flag Bree Newsome took down last weekend whether they care to employ the colors visibly or not. That they did so in Michigan, rather than South Carolina, should remind us that systems of white supremacy only operated most notoriously in the South. Few white Americans, of any age or section, have cared to do much to disrupt them. Fewer still have cared to do so for those systems that benefit them personally. In this vein a past, Democratic state government convinced the Supreme Court to permit school segregation 1974, twenty years after Brown. It turns out that segregation meets constitutional muster provided one can erect a flimsy disguise around it.

I did not vote for Rick Jones or any other member of the GOP leadership, but the Michigan Senate speaks for all Michigan just as its resolutions speak for the whole Senate. I can only speak for myself, but I view the obstruction of the Juneteenth resolution as “quite shocking” and “sort of a political attack.” I cannot, however, say I view it as strange either in its content or in how it implicates me and millions of other Michigan residents. It speaks to one of the nation’s oldest political faiths and consequently seems to me, if not for the same reasons as it does to the Republicans, as entirely normal. I don’t know that we must uphold traditions, but it seems likely that we will choose to. In doing so, we say things about ourselves. We could choose to say better things and to undertake the obligations that they would entail. Or we can choose to keep flying a different flag.


Should we have an Appomattox Holiday?

Wilmer McLean's house, where the surrender was negotiated

Wilmer McLean’s house, where Grant and Lee met

The war did not end in Wilmer MacLean’s parlor, one hundred fifty years and one day ago today, but the surrender of the Confederacy’s premier field army on top of the loss of its capital and flight of its government made for something close to a final victory. The Americans on the winning side noted it as such. Some today think we should have a holiday to celebrate the anniversary of Lee’s surrender. I regret that I can’t recommend Brian Beutler’s two pieces on the subject. He appears to think that the white South today remains largely unchanged from that of 1865 or 1954. Kevin Levin has justly taken him to task for it.

But let’s take the question on its own. The holidays we recognize, the names we put on buildings, and all the rest constitute statements about ourselves. In having such a holiday, we would declare that we find the Confederacy’s defeat worthy of celebrating. Americans, with some exceptions, don’t normally celebrate the ends of wars. Few of us mark VE Day or VJ Day, though they occasioned great celebration at the time. We even turned Armistice Day, which in Europe carries a strong element of mourning and relief at the end of a great and terrible war, into the Veteran’s Day celebration of all former members of the military.

An Appomattox Day could be an American Armistice Day. A great many Americans died in the war, as people die in all wars. But we already have Memorial Day for remembering them. I suspect further that we have quite enough holidays dedicated in one way or another to the appreciation of the military. Another would neither say much more nor much new about Americans. It would quickly fall into the background noise of the numerous other patriotic observances. This might do for some other war, but Americans have only had the one Civil War. For such a sui generis event to vanish into the flag-waving haze misses the point entirely.

Should we then have a holiday that amounts to taking a victory lap around Lee’s house? Maybe at the end we could have a couple of professional wrestlers dressed up as Grant and Lee. Skullcrusher Ulysses could put the hurt on Lousy Lee while the crowd cheered. I suppose that I wouldn’t mind that, absurdity aside, but while Lee’s surrender constitutes a military victory I don’t see it as important just in light of that. Lee’s surrender signaled that the principle struggle of the Civil War had ended, but unmoored from why Lee’s army fought and what Grant’s helped achieve in defeating him we just have another one of those infamous dates to memorize from the history books. Appomattox matters because it serves as possibly the best place to mark where the Confederacy lost. With it died the dream of a new nation, conceived in slavery, and dedicated to the proposition that black lives belonged on white ledgers and the fruit of black labor belonged in white pockets. Most white Union soldiers did not fight for the freedom of black Americans. Nor did they all welcome the presence of black Americans, either as contraband laborers or fellow soldiers. But the presence of Union armies in the South resulted in the de facto freedom of countless slaves from the day Benjamin Butler invented the classification.

That deserves remembering and I think that it both differs sufficiently from Juneteenth or the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to warrant its own day. If those days could serve to celebrate the end of slavery, we could have Appomattox Day to remember how the nation achieved that end, the prices paid for it, and the Americans who had to lose so the slaves could win. I think that the last of those, however vindictive it might sound, deserves more remembering than it gets.

In the happy ending often given to the war, Grant gives Lee generous terms and Lee in turn doesn’t encourage any kind of guerrilla resistance to the Union’s victory. Whether Lee encouraged it or not that resistance, guerrilla and otherwise, appeared in depressingly short order. The defeated states promptly reelected their old politicians to go to Washington, some of whom had worn Confederate military uniforms. They embarked on turning the clock back as thoroughly as they could. On the ground, terrorist bands did the violent work of suppressing black agency. For a brief few years, despite all that, the American South had an  interracial political movement. Then the rest of the nation turned its back on the freedpeople and left them to the mercies of white terror for another century before we had another brief moment of interracial politics in the South. We’ve made some gains since then, but white Americans and black Americans still live in very different worlds. We vote accordingly. Those coalitions, like the partnership of whites and blacks during Reconstruction, did not confine their operations to the former Confederacy.

Maybe that’s the best argument for an Appomattox Day. We too eagerly congratulate ourselves for winning battles and pretend that each one ended the conflict that brought the armies, real or rhetorical, to the field. That day in Virginia brings with it all the continued, frequently vicious, complexities of life in America: the work done, the work ahead, the work left unfinished, and those who lost their war but won the next century’s peace, those who let them, and those sacrificed along the way.

Juneteenth Comes Again

I forgot Juneteenth again this year. Again, Andy Hall reminded me. This is a small reworking of what I wrote last year on the subject.

What’s Juneteenth? Today in 1865, the Union general who had just taken charge of Galveston and assumed the military governorship of Texas, issued an order that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This surprised no one, since the arrival of the Union army had meant freedom in fact since fairly early on the war and in law since the Emancipation Proclamation. But it mattered in that as of that date not a single slave remained in the United States.

If national holidays express something about national values, or at least what the nation wants its values to seem like, why have we not made Juneteenth one of them? I always hear about how the United States is a free country. Americans love their freedom. Doesn’t the literal end of slavery in America count as freedom?

I never heard of the holiday until the internet told me about it a few years back. One would think that a nation so obsessed with freedom would treat it, or maybe the day of the Emancipation Proclamation, as a second Fourth of July. I’m not a patriotic person; most of the flag waving celebrations leave me cold. But even I know when it’s the Fourth. My state recognizes Juneteenth, as do forty-one others, but we can probably all see how much that has done to raise its profile.

I suppose it gets ignored for the same reason we ignore Emancipation Day. To make a national fuss over it would require us to grapple with slavery and own up to freedom as a kind of national project, not a crystallized perfection handed down from men in powdered wigs.