Juneteenth and Its Symbolic Significance for the Consistent Life Ethic

by Rana Irby



June 19th, or “Juneteenth,” commemorates the end of chattel slavery in the United States. For the Black American community, it is a day on which to celebrate as well as reflect on the de facto moment when we were free from the institution that called us property and enforced it with unimaginable cruelty and violence. While the lead up to the date in 1865 was marred with war, the day itself marked that freedom in actuality. Thus, June 19th is rich with significance for those who fight for the dignity of all people, especially the most marginalized.


On June 19th, 1865, Union troops led by Major General Gordon Granger reached Galveston, Texas. There, Granger read Order No. 3, which freed the enslaved Black people in the area. Not long afterward, the day became one for the newly emancipated people to commemorate, despite the risks of backlash. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes:


Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly “freed” black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, “Juneteenth”…

Celebrations of Juneteenth eventually spread from Texas across the United States. Through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era to the present, Juneteenth celebrations grew to the point where 41 states and the District of Colombia now recognize the day as a state holiday or observance. On June 17th of this year, President Biden signed a bill recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday.


Since that momentous day in 1865, Black people – once marginalized to the category of property under the law – commemorated June 19th as a means to uphold the dignity of their lives. Such a celebration has significant meaning for the consistent life ethic. As pro-life activist Gloria Purvis prolifically asserted in her recent interview on Jesuitical, “[b]uilding a culture of life and a civilization of love necessarily includes people outside the womb,” including those facing marginalization – which, disproportionately, are Black and other people of color.” This upholding of dignity is also at the heart of Juneteenth and the wider discussion of racial justice associated with the holiday. Such issues can be seen in Professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s description of the holiday’s use over time as an opportunity to recognize progress that has been made as well as the pressing needs of the moment in regards to racial justice. Juneteenth, then, has a meaning very much in line with the consistent life ethic.


From its beginnings, Juneteenth has celebrated emancipation from the degradation of years of chattel slavery and its aftermath for African-Americans. As it did on June 19th, 1865, the holiday continues to honor the worth of every life in this community, clearly resonating with the consistent life ethic’s stand against the dehumanization of all people.


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