CLEVELAND, OH — January 13, 2022 — “June-what?” was the reaction of most Americans last June when they discovered a new federal holiday called Juneteenth National Independence Day would be added to the calendar. Despite an aggressive year-long campaign to raise awareness of the June 19, 1865 proclamation by the commander of Union troops in Texas heralding the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in that state, a Gallup poll found only 35% of Americans in favor of elevating “Juneteenth” (a peculiar portmanteau of “June” and “Nineteenth”) to federal holiday status. The same poll showed more than six in ten Americans know only “a little bit” or “nothing at all” about the date’s significance. Putting aside the obvious contradiction of making such an arcane event into a national holiday and the dubious wisdom of giving government bureaucrats another day of paid vacation, Juneteenth will prove useful in the future. No, it is not because it will give the June 19th anniversary of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 NBA Championship deserving national recognition. Juneteenth’s primary value will be as a readymade replacement for the federal holiday formally known as the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The recordings and related transcripts from the FBI’s electronic surveillance of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. are scheduled to be released by the National Archives on January 31, 2027. But we do not have to wait that long to learn that King was an accessory to rape at Washington’s Willard Hotel in January 1964. That bombshell was revealed by King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer David Garrow in 2019. Garrow’s shocking discovery came from researching FBI reports and summaries that were surrendered to Congress in the 1970s and released to the public via the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act. Department of Justice personnel have already publicly verified the genuineness and accuracy of the tapes and transcripts.
The contradictions between King’s private life and his public persona as a man of God have been known for decades. Nevertheless, Americans have heretofore afforded King the status of a secular saint, honoring him for fighting and dying for the principle of racial equality. Hundreds of streets and schools are named in his honor. The National Park Service maintains a four-acre Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in the nation’s capital. King and George Washington are the only two Americans whose birthdays are federal holidays. Strangely, Garrow’s recent revelations have not caused King’s commemorations to suffer the same reevaluation that has plagued tributes to other historical figures. Perhaps King’s heinousness will enter the public consciousness a la the accusations of sexual violence against Bill Cosby, only when stand-up comedian Hannibal Burress mentions it onstage.
Regardless, in five years the public will hear King in his own voice laughing and advising a fellow clergyman committing rape. Undoubtedly, there will be attempts to prevent the release of the tapes based on their surreptitious nature. But the evidence against King was obtained lawfully and with the approval of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. And even if it had not been, there is no escaping the terrible truth. It is time to judge King by the content of his character.
One of history’s great ironies is that King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the same year he aided and abetted rape. Unfortunately, his famous insistence on nonviolence did not extend to his personal life. But his public life is something worth celebrating and the streets, schools, and monuments named in his honor should remain. The tapes may even add to the canon of King’s famous utterances engraved in the granite wall surrounding his D.C. memorial. But the federal holiday honoring his birth is a different story. A society constantly razing monuments and renaming buildings as it attempts to conform the past to the present is sick. But a society that honors the birthday of a sex criminal is even sicker.
There should be one federal holiday dedicated to the long struggle for racial equality. Two would be too self-congratulatory considering the work that remains unfinished. Juneteenth is a particularly poor choice for a federal holiday because even after slavery was eradicated in Texas, there were still states where slavery remained legal. Juneteenth is a Texas-centric holiday, evidenced by the fact that prior to 2020, only Texas observed Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees. The anniversary of the 13th Amendment’s ratification or Lincoln’s birthday are superior candidates for a federal holiday. If Congress wanted to nationalize a Texas holiday, it should have picked Texas’ permanent state income tax holiday. But Congress’ blunder will become a blessing when MLK Day goes away.
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Paul F. Petrick is an attorney and former member of the NAACP.