Juneteenth: A day of joy and pain — and now national action

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FILE - In this June 6, 2020, file photo, demonstrators protest near the White House in Washington over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. In just about any other year, Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the day in 1865 that all enslaved black people learned they had been freed from bondage, would be marked with a cookout, a parade, or a community festival. But Juneteenth 2020 will be a day of protest in may places Friday, June 19. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

In just about any other year, Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the day in 1865 that all enslaved black people learned they had been freed from bondage, would be marked by African American families across the nation with a cookout, a parade, a community festival, a soulful rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

But in 2020, as the coronavirus ravishes black America disproportionately, as economic uncertainty wrought by the pandemic strains black pocketbooks, and as police brutality continues to devastate black families, Juneteenth is a day of protest.

Red velvet cake, barbecued ribs and fruit punch are optional.

For many white Americans, recent protests over police brutality have driven their awareness of Juneteenth's significance.

“This is one of the first times since the ’60s, where the global demand, the intergenerational demand, the multiracial demand is for systemic change,” said Cornell University professor Noliwe Rooks, a segregation expert. “There is some understanding and acknowledgment at this point that there’s something in the DNA of the country that has to be undone.”

Friday’s celebrations will be marked from coast to coast with marches and demonstrations of civil disobedience, along with expressions of black joy in spite of an especially traumatic time for the nation. And like the nationwide protests that followed the police involved deaths of black men and women in Minnesota, Kentucky and Georgia, Juneteenth celebrations are likely to be remarkably more multiracial.

“I think this year is going to be exciting to make white people celebrate with us that we’re free,” said 35-year-old Army veteran David J. Hamilton III, who has organized a Juneteenth march and protest through a predominantly black, Hispanic and immigrant neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

Hamilton, who is black, said this year is his first treating “Juneteenth with the same fanfare as the Fourth of July or Memorial Day.”