Until the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd and the mass uprising it sparked, most Americans knew little to nothing about Juneteenth. The name Juneteenth is short for June 19, the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Texas were finally informed of the Emancipation Proclamation that ensured their freedom—almost two and a half years after it was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

In June 2021, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday and calling it “A day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country—what I’ve long called America’s original sin.”

This year, as Juneteenth falls on Father’s Day, cities around the country are marking the day with festivals, block parties, concerts, and more. But, as Biden said in his proclamation, slavery has left behind a “long legacy of systemic racism, inequality, and inhumanity,” which the federal holiday and yearly celebrations do little to address.

To understand the history and significance of Juneteenth and what it will take to move beyond symbolism, YES! Racial Justice Editor Sonali Kolhatkar spoke with Dr. Yohuru Williams, distinguished university chair and professor of history and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas. Williams is the author of Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Black Panthers in New Haven and Rethinking the Black Freedom Movement: American Social and Political Movements of the 20th Century.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Sonali Kolhatkar: African Americans have been celebrating Juneteenth for a very long time. How do you explain it to someone who may still be unfamiliar with it?

Yohuru Williams: Juneteenth really came into national consciousness in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. Floyd is murdered in May 2020, and Juneteenth is typically celebrated on June 19. So, the murder of George Floyd and the racial unrest that happened in the country coming in such close proximity to Juneteenth—with so much emphasis at that time on longstanding issues with regard to police brutality and housing and the social determinants of health—put a renewed focus on Juneteenth as a holiday, as part of this kind of racial reckoning.

Read the full article about going beyond symbolic actions by Sonali Kolhatkar at YES! Magazine.