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Lightfoot does about-face, declares Juneteenth an official city holiday

Last year, the City Council passed a resolution to recognize June 19, but stopped short of declaring it a city holiday. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said then Chicago could not afford another city holiday. On Monday, Lightfoot reversed field.

A Juneteenth flag was raised Monday morning at Daley Plaza.
A Juneteenth flag was raised Monday morning at Daley Plaza.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Nearly a year to the day after ruling it out as too costly, Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared Monday that Chicago will recognize June 19th, known as Juneteenth, as an official city holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

The mayor’s surprise announcement came during an event at Daley Center Plaza that kicked off a week-long Juneteenth celebration.

“I, like many others, didn’t even know anything about Juneteenth until I was an adult. And that’s because it has never been treated with the reverence that it should be. If you look at the ... history books that are used to teach our children, you may only see a passing reference, if at all. We must change that,” Lightfoot told a crowd at Daley Center Plaza.

“Juneteenth deserves more than a passing mention in a textbook or headline. Here in Chicago, we are taking an important step forward to ensure Juneteenth receives its proper recognition. So ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to announce that, starting next year, the city of Chicago will officially recognize Juneteenth as a city holiday to fully honor its history and legacy.”

The decision to declare Juneteenth as a city holiday marked an about-face from the stance the mayor took last year on the day the Chicago City Council voted to recognize Juneteenth, but stopped short of declaring it a city holiday.

“It’s certainly worthy of consideration given the importance of the holiday — the historic meaning of it,” Lightfoot told City Hall reporters on that day.

“But obviously in these difficult budgetary times, tough choices have to be made. I expect to continue my dialogue with the sponsors of the resolution to see what is appropriate given our incredibly difficult fiscal circumstances.”

On Monday, the mayor explained her change of heart just days before Gov. J.B. Pritzker is set to sign a bill declaring Juneteenth a state holiday.

What she didn’t say is that by declaring June 19 an official city holiday, Lightfoot can appease those still pushing to rename Outer Lake Shore Drive in honor of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable over her strenuous objections.

“We are doing this because Juneteenth must be treated like any other of the special days we observe and celebrate here in the U.S.,” the mayor said.

Nearly two years ago, Aldermen Maria Hadden (49th) and David Moore (17th) introduced an ordinance declaring Juneteenth an official paid city holiday.

The ordinance didn’t stand a chance; Chicago has been roundly criticized over the years for granting city employees far more paid holidays than counterparts in private industry.

But the death on Memorial Day 2020 of George Floyd at the hands of now- former Minneapolis police officers — and the anger, protests, rioting and violence that followed — has turned the political tide.

During Monday’s rally, Hadden thanked the mayor.

“Some would have us ignore our history, gloss over it in service to just moving on. They tell us that our calls to acknowledge the wrongs that we face are dividing us. Don’t heed their call. Do not be silent, for there can be no healing without truth and reconciliation,” Hadden told the Daley Plaza crowd.

“As Ida B. Wells said, the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them. Celebrating Juneteenth is an opportunity for us all to shine that light. Second, celebration can be an act of resistance.”

When the City Council approved the non-binding resolution commemorating Juneteenth, it was only a matter of time before June 19 would become an official city holiday.

Lightfoot acknowledged during Monday’s impassioned speech that the “long journey towards equity and inclusion ... continues today.”

“Slavery might have officially ended in 1865, but we are still grappling with the vestiges of that original sin here today — from historic neighborhood disinvestment to institutionalized racism that holds our people back from realizing their God-given potential just because of the color of their skin,” Lightfoot told the Daley Plaza crowd.

“These inequities continue to keep far too many Black folks away from opportunity and upward mobility. We cannot simply stand idly by and continue to allow that to happen. We must rise up, as the song says. We must call out this institutionalized racism that plagues our neighborhoods and robs our children of their ability to reach their fullest potential.”

Lightfoot conceded “Black folks are not a monolith” and that there will be and have been disagreements.

But she said it is “absolutely critical that we work together and form a united front” against racism and discrimination.

“We may not agree on every issue. But if we work against each other and we destroy the progress that we could be making together, we are hurting another generation of young people. So, united we must stand,” the mayor said.

On the day the City Council approved the non-binding resolution that stopped short of declaring Juneteenth an official city holiday, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) delivered the most impassioned in a parade of speeches, speaking for eight minutes and 46 seconds — which is how long that police officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck.

“I am angry and I don’t apologize for that because I have been discriminated against my whole life,” Hairston said then.

“We have trouble getting businesses into our neighborhood. Well, here’s a message: If you don’t want to come to our neighborhoods, we’re taking our money elsewhere. And we’re gonna fight. And I encourage the protesters to continue. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Black lives matter. Black lives matter.”

Hairston said it was “time for this City Council to wake up and stop being dismissive.” She called out Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), without mentioning him by name, for defending police officers accused of relaxing in the campaign office of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush as stores were looted. Napolitano conducted a TV interview surrounded by boxes of popcorn; Rush had accused officers of popping corn in the office microwave.

“Fight is in my blood. I am a proud direct descendant of Frederick Douglass,” Hairston said.

“Stop sweeping under the rug people who are advancing progressive legislation,” she added. “We will never get there unless we look at things differently. ... I need everybody to open up their eyes and to see what role they play in continuing to be biased against Black people and the color of our skin.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, added: “To get some things we have never had, we need to do some things we have never done. ... Let’s look at this as a starting point.”