Mississippi is one of the few states that still celebrates Confederate Memorial Day, a state holiday that honors the soldiers who fought for the secessionist South in the Civil War. But this year, the state refused to close its offices for Juneteenth, a federal holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans.
State offices remained open in Mississippi during the Juneteenth federal holiday on June 19, even though they were closed for Confederate Memorial Day on April 27. The decision drew criticism from some civil rights activists and Democratic politicians, who said it showed a lack of respect for Black Mississippians and the country’s history.
Shuwaski Young, a Democratic candidate for secretary of state, said in a statement: “In Mississippi, Confederate Memorial Day and Confederate Heritage Month are recognized by the governor and statewide offices are closed—even though these so-called holidays are not federal holidays. But on Juneteenth, a federal holiday, statewide offices remained open today. Not closing all state offices on Juneteenth sends a message that here in Mississippi, we don’t respect Juneteenth, and we do not recognize the importance and sanctity of this day. Furthermore, it speaks volumes to the Republicans’ misguided statewide leadership, lack of respect for Black Mississippians and our country’s history.”
Gov. Tate Reeves’ office defended the decision by saying that Juneteenth is not a state holiday in Mississippi and would require legislative action to change that. “State holidays are set by statute and thus would need to go through the legislative process before being sent to the governor for consideration,” the governor’s office said in a statement.
President Joe Biden signed a law making Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021, after decades of grassroots efforts by Black activists and lawmakers. The holiday marks the day in 1865 when the last enslaved people in Texas learned they were free, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth is also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day or Jubilee Day. It is celebrated with parades, festivals, musical performances and cookouts across the country. Some states have also recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or a day of observance.
However, Mississippi is not one of them. Several bills to make Juneteenth a state holiday or to remove Confederate Memorial Day have failed in the past. The state also has a history of celebrating the Confederacy and its symbols, such as the Confederate flag, which was part of the state flag until voters approved a new design last year.
Laura Smalley, who was freed from a plantation near Bellville, Texas, remembered in a 1941 interview how her former master did not tell her and other enslaved people that they were free until six months after the end of the Civil War. “Old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free,” Smalley said. “I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day.”
The contrast between how Mississippi treats Juneteenth and Confederate Memorial Day reflects the ongoing struggle over how to reckon with the nation’s racial history and present. As some states and cities have removed Confederate monuments and renamed streets and schools that honor Confederate leaders, others have resisted such changes or enacted laws to protect them.
Meanwhile, some conservative lawmakers and activists have also attacked efforts to teach about systemic racism and critical race theory in schools and workplaces, claiming they are divisive and unpatriotic. Gov. Reeves himself has publicly acknowledged Juneteenth only once in a 2020 tweet. “Today, we celebrate Juneteenth—the day we recognize the emancipation of slaves. We should always remember our history. We should confront it and work to improve,” he wrote.
But for many Black Americans, Juneteenth is more than just a day to remember history. It is also a day to celebrate freedom, resilience and hope for the future.
-Mississippi Closed Offices For Confederate Day, Not Juneteenth, Mississippi Free Press, June 19, 2023
-Juneteenth: how did the holiday start and how is it celebrated today?, The Guardian, June 19, 2023
-‘Confederate Memorial Day’ Still Celebrated in These Three States, Newsweek, May 10, 2023
-Mississippi Free Press on Twitter, Mississippi Free Press, June 19, 2023