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Should Juneteenth be a National Holiday?

Aired June 19, 2001 - 13:38   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Should there be a national holiday to mark the end of slavery in the United States? Celebrations are being held in at least 13 states and the nation's capital to mark what is known as Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when word reached slaves in Texas that they had been freed. It came 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Jeanne Meserve has the story from Washington -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, in many African-American communities across the country, Juneteenth is a day for remembrance and reconciliation. At a rally outside the Capitol right now, Republicans and civil rights activists called for a commemoration of Juneteenth. They also used the occasion to demand an end to slavery in the Sudan.

Joining me in the studio is an expert on race relations in the U.S.: George Mason University history Professor Roger Wilkins.

Thank so much for coming in.

ROGER WILKINS, PROFESSOR, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: My pleasure.

MESERVE: You were telling me you have a family story about Juneteenth.

WILKINS: My uncle wrote his autobiography about a story that his grandfather, who was born into slavery, told him about the day he was released from slavery. He didn't know it was coming. He was about 15 years old.

The master had the slaves brought up to the big house to stand out in the back. After they had been standing there for a while -- this was in Mississippi -- the master came out, looked at them, looked down at the ground and said, "The government says y'all's free. Y'all can stay here and work for me like y'all been doing or y'all can go."

And he turned around and walked in the house. My grandfather and the others were stunned. And they just stood there. And finally, an old slave took up the old sorrow song: "Didn't my lord deliver Daniel? Didn't my lord deliver Daniel?" And then other voices arose. And they got down on their knees and they sang it for a while. And then they got up and they were free.

MESERVE: And did he stay or did he leave?

WILKINS: He stayed. He stayed. He was only 15. That's all he knew how to do. He left after a while, but he stayed for a time.

MESERVE: There is some talk about making Juneteenth a national holiday. There is also discussion of reparations to the descendants of slaves and talk of a slavery museum on the National Mall. And some people look at those issues and say: Isn't it time to get past this? Isn't it time to stop the talk about slavery? What is your response to people who say that?

WILKINS: Slavery is a part of who we are as a nation. The founding fathers -- Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Mason -- could not possibly have been who they were without the slaves. Twenty percent of Washington's army was black. Many of those people were seeking their freedom. So we can't -- we have to -- just as we look at the Gettysburg Address, just as we look as the War of 1812, slavery is a part of us. We have got to keep it.

MESERVE: Is there a risk that, by continuing to talk about, that you create a victim mentality? And is that a bad thing, potentially?

WILKINS: Well, I don't think that, in talking about it, you necessarily create a victim mentality. I think you can come to the view that you are really bigger and stronger because your ancestors persevered and passed on values to you that are useful and have been useful in enlarging freedom in the country. And so I don't feel diminished at all because my ancestors are slaves, nor do I look feel victimized.

MESERVE: As you look at present-day race relations in this country, what is your biggest concern?

WILKINS: That all of us will forget the black poor and demonize them, stick them in forgotten, awful corners of our national life and leave them alone. Black middle class and working class move away, whites turn their backs, and these people are stuck and blamed for the situations they're in.

They are the leftover victims of slavery and discrimination. And this country owes it to them to do everything it can to educate their children, to put them to work, to give them decent housing and to close the gaps between them and the rest of us.

MESERVE: Roger Wilkins, thank you so much for joining us today.

WILKINS: You are welcome. It's been a pleasure.

MESERVE: Lou and Donna, back to you in Atlanta.

WATERS: OK, Jeanne, thanks.

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