It’s official. Juneteenth has become a federal holiday. Until now, the date has been a state and local celebration marking the 1865 freeing of slaves in Texas, two years after Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
June 19 will henceforth be recognized as “National Independence Day.” President Joe Biden signed the proposal into law with Vice President Kamala Harris by his side on Thursday, June 17. Just before scribbling his signature, the commander in chief remarked:
“Juneteenth marks both a long, hard night of slavery and a promise of a brighter morning to come. This is a day of profound weight and profound power. A day which you’ll remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take. What I’ve long called America’s original sin. “
In 1979, Texas became the first state to formally claim Juneteenth as an official holiday. Eventually, almost every U.S. state came to recognize the day. And now, Biden has officially declared it a holiday for the nation.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and only 14 Republicans voted against it in the House of Representatives. Some who objected said it was because they would rather the day be called “Emancipation Day” instead of “National Independence Day” and that they feared the name would cause confusion with America’s July 4 Independence Day. Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) explained:
“I fully support creating a day to celebrate the abolition of slavery. However, naming this day National Independence Day will create confusion and push Americans to pick one of those two days as their Independence Day based on their racial identity.”
Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) seemed opposed to the holiday in principle, saying in a press release:
“Let’s call an ace an ace. This is an effort by the left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make ‘critical race theory’ the reigning ideology of our country. Since I believe in treating everyone equally, regardless of race, and that we should be focused on what unites us rather than our differences, I will vote ‘no.’”
Juneteenth – now formally National Independence Day – has also been called Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Liberation Day. This June 19 will mark the anniversary of the day federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to free the last remaining slaves after the Civil War.
It is the first new national holiday declared in almost 40 years. The last one was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was signed into law in 1983. Last year, after the death of George Floyd, some companies such as General Motors, Google, Nike, and Twitter adopted a policy to make Juneteenth a paid holiday.
Juneteenth – Just the Beginning?
According to many activists, declaring a national holiday is just a start. Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) tweeted:
“It’s Juneteenth AND reparations. It’s Juneteenth AND end police violence + the War on Drugs. It’s Juneteenth AND end housing + education apartheid. It’s Juneteenth AND teach the truth about white supremacy in our country. Black liberation in its totality must be prioritized.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), who introduced the Juneteenth bill, also has legislation lined up calling for the creation of a commission to study the possibility of reparations for black Americans. If passed, HR 40 would establish:
“[T]he Commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto ratio and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”
During the signing of the new law, Biden recognized Opal Lee of Texas, the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” giving the 94-year-old activist the pen he used. In 2016, Lee walked from her home in Fort Worth, TX to D.C. to bring awareness to the occasion in hopes it would be named a national holiday. The president was quite proud of this accomplishment, remarking, “I have to say to you, I’ve only been president for several months, but I think this will go down for me as one of the highest honors I will have had as president.”
Read more from Kelli Ballard.