It’s difficult to understate the gravity of what it means to celebrate Juneteenth in the United States, a country that for all its virtues, is often approvingly over-simplified as a nation “of laws, not men.” The sentiment, attributed to founding father John Adams, usually relates to the country’s remarkable traditions of equal justice under the law and peaceful transfers of power between democratically elected representatives.
But Juneteenth lays bare a central paradox in the American story; how the laws of a democratic nation developed to create and sustain an institutionalized regime of barbarism that enslaved Black men, women, and children for nearly the first 100 years of the country’s existence.
Juneteenth, celebrated annually on June 19 and now approaching its first birthday as a federal holiday, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. It derives its significance from the day in 1865 when word of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in confederate states reportedly first reached the enslaved population in Texas, more than two years after it was originally signed.
In today’s ultra-connected information age, such a delay in transmitting world-shaking news to the people most desperate in need to hear it is nearly impossible to imagine. But so too is the concept – especially for recent law school graduates – that the laws which lawyers swear to uphold and defend today once mandated the atrocity of slavery, and for another 100 years thereafter, were catastrophically slow to dislodge Jim Crow, segregation, and institutional racism from legitimacy in statute.
In that respect, Juneteenth is a welcome reminder of how far the country has come, but also how much further it still must go to ensure equal justice under the law. It is a celebration that lawyers today dare not ignore or minimize, as it strikes at the heart of our collective responsibility to say never again when confronted with justification in law that which cannot be justified in the heart or mind.
Thankfully, the American Bar Association and its regional affiliates have embraced Juneteenth celebrations and educational programs. On June 16, 2022, the New Jersey Bar Association will be holding a free in-person event at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. For more information and registration, please click here.
Daniel J. Haier is an associate in CIPRIANI & WERNER, P.C.’s Philadelphia office.