Officially, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox did nothing wrong when he called a special session of the Legislature to begin at 4 p.m. June 19. After all, the state’s observance of Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, was Monday.

Unofficially, however, the decision to call the Legislature back on June 19 feels a bit off and out of character for a governor who just a few weeks ago declared June a month for bridge-building. It wasn’t quite the same as calling lawmakers back to work on July 4, or Christmas Day, but perhaps a bit tone deaf when much of the nation will be observing this important date.

The Salt Lake City branch of the NAACP responded sharply, issuing a statement that said “Shame on Gov. Cox” and accused him of orchestrating a “political campaign stunt.”

That seems overly harsh. More likely, it was simply an unfortunate mistake, born of calendars that showed Monday as the Juneteenth holiday, and mindsets still unaccustomed to this commemoration, which was only signed into law in 2021.

That in itself is troubling. Three years ago, Gallup found that 62% of Americans knew little or nothing about Juneteenth and why the day is significant. Presumably, that number is lower now, but with a patchwork of disparate observances across the U.S., we are nowhere close to seeing Juneteenth as a second Independence Day, as it has long been seen in the African American community.

Juneteenth originated in Texas, where it has been an official state holiday since 1980, celebrating the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free, some two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. While Americans have bickered over other commemorations in recent years — Columbus Day and Presidents Day in particular — Juneteenth seems like one we should all be able to get behind.

Slavery, as practiced in the United States and throughout history in other cultures, is one of humanity’s great shames, and it is right to celebrate its end on this continent without regard to where our ancestors stood on the subject — unlike, for example, disparate observances of Memorial Day in the South and Northeast. (Having grown up in one of the southern states that still observe Confederate Memorial Day, I was shocked to find, upon moving to New England nearly 20 years ago, that Memorial Day was a very big deal since, for a long time, it wasn’t in the deep South.)

Somewhat ironically, it was Cox who, in March 2022, signed the law making Juneteenth National Freedom Day a state holiday in Utah. The problem is, it’s only celebrated on June 19 if June 19 happens to fall on a Monday, because of contortions of scheduling aimed at giving workers a three-day weekend.

While everyone appreciates a long weekend, this leads to unintended consequences like what happened this week.

Perspective: The meaning of Juneteenth
Juneteenth: What it is and how to celebrate it

Unlike, say, Thanksgiving, which can fall on a different date each year and no one cares, Juneteenth is tied to a specific date. And for many people, it matters greatly that Juneteenth observations take place on June 19. There is a danger that, when workers come to see it as a day associated with a long weekend, the meaning will get lost in beach trips and cookouts, which is how Memorial Day has become, for many, not a day for honoring veterans and those who died in battle, but the “unofficial start of summer.”


It’s also the case that, when scheduling, for example, a day to call back a recalcitrant Legislature, June 19 is probably not the best day, no matter when the state holiday was, since family observances are more likely to correspond with the federal holiday and not whatever day state offices happen to be closed.

I tried to reach the governor for comment, but the office was closed today for Juneteenth.

Should Utah reconsider its policy and make June 19 the day that state workers have off for Juneteenth? There’s an argument to be made for that, no matter how well intentioned the original decision was.

At minimum, we all should be cognizant of the importance of June 19 — to all Americans, but especially to Black Americans, who waited too long for the news at Galveston and also waited too long for official recognition of Juneteenth. And we should schedule things — or better still, not — accordingly.

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