The Hawaii Legislature is set Tuesday to make civil rights history by officially recognizing Juneteenth – June 19, the date that marks the end of slavery in the United States – with a final floor vote on Senate Bill 939.
Introduced by Sen. Glenn Wakai, the bill does not make Juneteenth a state holiday, but does grant the historical benefit of including in Chapter 8 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes a citation that reads, “June 19 of each year shall be known and designated as Juneteenth to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States and in honor of the significant roles and contributions of African Americans in the history of the United States.”
Hawaii, which at present is one of only three states that does not yet recognize Juneteenth, has, in previous sessions, unsuccessfully tried to pass measures that would honor the day. Last year, Sen. Stanley Chang introduced SB 3056, which would have made June 19 a state holiday, but the measure never got a hearing.
Chang, who is also a co-introducer of this session’s SB 939, reintroduced the language of SB 3056 as Senate Bil 16 this year, which likewise did not get heard by any of its committee referrals.
The secret sauce to getting Juneteenth to progress through the Legislature and out of the crab bucket of ideas appears to be pitching the day not as a holiday but merely as an honorary mention in the statute, likely due to the fiscal and administrative implications of creating another day off. Still, creating another named day in Hawaii has been no easy task.
In the House, Vice Speaker John Mizuno led the push for Juneteenth with House Bill 1308, the identical companion to SB 939, and the measure made it through the Culture, Arts, and International Affairs Committee before stalling without a hearing in the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.
But last week, the Legislature granted Hawaii a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dismal session when the conference committee for SB 939 passed out a “clean” conference draft.
By pure coincidence, the SB 939 committee made its announcement of a conference draft on Juneteenth within minutes of the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict in the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a lucky alignment that gave local supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement hope that change was taking root all across America.
As a former committee clerk and long-time observer of politics at the Capitol, I must admit I have watched the Juneteenth legislation advance with crossed fingers and clenched teeth. Far too many other well-intentioned ideas are strangled or neglected by the circuitous and sometimes unjust sausage-making process at the big square building.
In years past, I’ve seen Democrats and Republicans work together as “friends” on admirable, feel-good measures, only to kill bills on final reading by recommitting them on the floor. In other sessions, I’ve seen bills that shouldn’t have been passed leapfrog over bills that should have, but never got a hearing.
If you watch this legislative dynamic for too long, it can harden your heart with cynicism and cause thorns of regret to embitter you over the way legislators prioritize things, but seeing Juneteenth make it this far this session is a very good thing for Hawaii.
I have heard criticisms that other minority populations need days to honor them in Hawaii and that Hawaii has better things to do than to focus on the history of slavery on the mainland. But one thing I wish to say to Hawaii is that Juneteenth is good for all of us because it demonstrates that we can change the future when we remember the past.
I sincerely hope this week, when Juneteenth comes up for a floor vote, that SB 939 is enthusiastically passed, and that every legislator makes it a point to speak, for the historical record, in favor of this bill and what it means for the future of not only Hawaii, but our nation as a whole.
I’m reminded of something Robert F. Kennedy said: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”
Juneteenth is a small victory for Hawaii, but passing this bill into law will be a big step, because it shows that when we work together, we can change history, and we can change Hawaii. It shows that even among our faults, our disagreements, our sometimes aggressive ambitions and even our political divides, good causes can bring people together.
We need more “wins” in this state, where so many of us are sadly reduced to losers by an unfair and unbalanced political and economic system. Juneteenth can be the ripple of hope that starts that current.