Shine A Light: Biden’s Juneteenth Concert Targets Black Voters

Having lost his edge with Black voters, President Joe Biden hopes to lure them back by listing first-term accomplishments, including student debt relief and price caps on insulin. Credit: Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

by Joseph Williams

By now, it’s considered conventional wisdom: Black voters aren’t feeling President Joe Biden like they used to. Sagging poll numbers have led him to spend time highlighting his accomplishments important to Black Americans — from choosing Vice President Kamala Harris, an HBCU grad, as his vice president to appointing Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black female Supreme Court justice

The president’s sales pitch to Black voters took on a different dimension Monday, when the White House threw a party to celebrate Juneteenth early, which Biden made al federal holiday in 2021. 

Part backyard cookout, concert, and campaign rally, the event commemorated June 19, 1865, the day enslaved Black people in Texas learned about the Emancipation Proclamation. Emceed by comedian Roy Wood Jr., the event featured a star-studded lineup of Black musicians, from old-school rapper Doug E. Fresh to emerging country music singer-songwriter Brittney Spencer to soul legends Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight. 

But the subtext behind the celebration was a highly visible, not-too-subtle reminder of why Black people should vote for Biden again — starting with the reason for the celebration itself.

“The White House lawn has never seen anything like this before,” said Biden, adding he was “proud to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.” 

‘Let’s Keep the Faith’

“Black history is American history,” Biden told the roughly 1,600 people seated on the lawn, nearly all of whom were Black. He reminded them that “old ghosts in new garments” are working to turn back the clock on hard-won advances.

That Juneteenth has been a holiday for only two years “reminds us that we have a helluva lot more work to do,” he said. “Let’s keep marching. Let’s keep the faith.”

Although the date had been an unofficial regional holiday mostly in the South, the push to make it a federal holiday dates back nearly a decade.

The roots stretch back to Galveston, Texas, during the Civil War. Although Lincoln had signed the order abolishing slavery in 1863, it could not be universally enforced in the South: the war was ongoing, Confederate troops still occupied the region and plantation owners kept the news from reaching their enslaved workers. 

Those workers got word of their freedom when a union commander and his troops arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865 — more than two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia and two years after the Emancipation Proclamation became law. The date was mostly a regional holiday until Opal Lee, a teacher and activist from Texas who remembers celebrating Juneteenth as a child, made her way to Washington, D.C. in 2016 to press Congress for a national holiday. 

Celebrities and lawmakers joined her fight, but legislation stalled until 2020, when the police killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others spurred a so-called national racial reckoning. Seizing the momentum, Lee and her allies pushed Congress to officially recognize Juneteenth; it did, and Biden signed the legislation into law.   

Shout-outs to Biden

While the two-hour concert featured legendary performers like Charlie Wilson as well as newcomers like soul singer Raheem DeVaugh, hip-hop jazz musician Trombone Shorty and singer-actress Patina Miller, the event’s political overtones were obvious. 

Wood, the emcee, used breaks between musical acts to walk the audience through turning points in Black history that led to the holiday in June. But he also ticked off a list of Biden’s first-term wins that have had a direct effect on Black people, including forgiveness of student loan debtprice controls on insulin, and removal of medical debt from credit scores

Several musicians, including gospel singer Kirk Franklin and Doug E. Fresh shouted out Biden during their performances, and Frankin coaxed Harris onstage for an impromptu dance, kissing her hand as they walked offstage. And the audience, filled with Black celebrities, donors, influencers, and politicians who openly back Biden, stood and loudly cheered the president when he took the stage.

For Biden, that kind of support has become a political necessity.

Although Black voters rescued his campaign by turning out big for Biden in the South Carolina Democratic primary in 2020 — and are the Democratic Party’s most reliable constituency — that kind of backing for the president has softened considerably. 

In Georgia, for example, Newsweek reports that although Biden won 88% of the Black vote in the state in 2020, flipping the state from red to blue, a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed just 58.6% of Black respondents would support him this time around.

Harris seemed to acknowledge that reality in brief remarks before the show. 

She warned the audience that politicians and operatives on the right want to take away “hard-won freedoms,” including abortion and the right to learn Black history in schools. And she declared that Black Americans are in an “ongoing fight” for equality and justice that is far from over. 

“In many ways, the story of Juneteenth and of our nation is a story of our ongoing fight to realize that promise, our ongoing fight to build a nation that is more equal, more fair, and more free,” Harris said. “Since taking office, with the support of so many of the leaders here today, President Biden and I have continued that fight.” .