Juneteenth holiday marking the end of slavery becomes law after decades of inaction

President Joe Biden appears alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and members of Congress while signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

President Joe Biden on Thursday, June 17, 2019, signed into law a measure that establishes Juneteenth as a federal holiday, taking advantage of sudden and broad bipartisan agreement to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States after years of debate and inaction.

In signing the measure – which resulted in an unexpected day off Friday for federal workers – Biden also used the occasion to advocate for more aggressive action on voting access and other racial equity measures that have been at the heart of his administration’s agenda.

“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. They embrace them,” Biden said in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. “Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman of color to serve in that position, stressed during the ceremony that a national commemoration of Juneteenth – a day marking the emancipation of enslaved people after the Civil War – should also compel the nation to work to achieve equality in education, in economics and in other areas.

“Folks, the promise of equality is not going to be fulfilled until we become real, it becomes real in our schools and in our main streets and in our neighborhoods,” Biden said. “It’s not going to be fulfilled as long as our sacred right to vote remains under attack . . . we can’t rest until the promise of equality is fulfilled for every one of us.”

Biden was flanked Thursday by several members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other lawmakers who had championed the Juneteenth legislation. Also by Biden’s side was Opal Lee, a 94-year-old activist from Fort Worth who had lobbied for decades to establish the day as a national holiday.

Underscoring the historical significance, Biden said establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday “will go down for me as one of the greatest honors I will have as president.”

Vice President Kamala Harris hugs House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., during the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

In her own remarks, Harris noted that it took more than two years after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which declared an end to slavery in the United States, for enslaved Black people to actually become free. She, too, used the historic moment to implore for action.

“We have come far, and we have far to go. But today is a day of celebration,” Harris said. “It is not only a day of pride, it is also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action.”

Because June 19 falls on a Saturday this year, the Juneteenth federal holiday will be observed Friday, according to the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the roughly 2.1 million federal civilian workforce. It is the first new federal holiday that has been established by Congress since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created for the third Monday of every January.

The near-unanimity around creating Juneteenth papers over much deeper disagreements in Washington – not only over legislation that is critical to the Biden administration’s equity agenda but a growing political debate across the country over the teaching of systemic racism in schools that Republicans oppose and are seeking to use as a political weapon.

Congress is embroiled in two major legislative fights critical to the White House, Democratic lawmakers and activists. The first – a massive voting access and campaign finance measure – is all but certain to fall victim to a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate next week. The other is a significant overhaul of policing practices that has been a point of debate since the death of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer, who was convicted of murder in April.

The chief negotiators on the policing measure have toiled for months to craft a compromise measure that would bar controversial law enforcement practices such as chokeholds while making either officers or police departments more susceptible to lawsuits for use of excessive force. No deal has emerged.

Absent major advancements on Capitol Hill, Biden has signed several executive orders addressing inequality embedded in American life, such as steps to bolster homeownership among racial minorities and initiatives to aid minority small businesses and entrepreneurs.

The president also has tapped Harris as his administration’s point person on voting rights, adding another politically complicated issue to her legislative portfolio.

“As we work towards substantive pieces of legislation to protect voting rights and create transparency and accountability in policing, we are encouraged by today’s signing of the Juneteenth bill,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said Thursday. “It is a reminder that freedom is an ongoing fight.”

Meanwhile, some of the handful of conservative opponents to the Juneteenth legislation have drawn links between the overwhelmingly popular bill and the debate over “critical race theory” – a method of teaching and examining systemic racism that has become a lightning rod for conservatives.

One of them, Rep. Matthew Rosendale, R-Mont., said the establishment of Juneteenth was part of a broader effort by liberals to make critical race theory “the reigning ideology of our country.

Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hold a bill enrollment ceremony for the Juneteenth national holiday on June 17 2021, in Washington, D.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary

Sen. John Cornyn of Tex.as the chief Republican backer of the Juneteenth legislation, in an interview Thursday called that notion “just beyond kooky.”

“I think it’s a huge mistake to view everything through a lens of race, which is what I understand critical race theory is,” Cornyn said. “Obviously we still haven’t fully resolved the issue of race in our society. One reason why I co-sponsored the Juneteenth federal holiday is because I think more people need to have an appreciation for history and the original sin of slavery.”

The 14 House Republicans who voted against the bill were Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Mo Brooks (Ala.), Andrew Clyde (Ga.), Scott DesJarlais (Tenn.), Paul Gosar (Ariz.), Ronny Jackson (Texas), Doug LaMalfa (Calif.), Thomas Massie (Ky.), Tom McClintock (Calif.), Ralph Norman (S.C.), Mike D. Rogers (Ala.), Matthew M. Rosendale (Mont.), Chip Roy (Texas) and Tom Tiffany (Wis.).

“I don’t think it is a healthy thing to reach into the dead past, revive its most malignant conflicts and reintroduce them into our age,” McClintock said. “Emancipation should be celebrated by honoring the person responsible for it, Abraham Lincoln, as we once did.”

The establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday moved at a surprisingly rapid clip this week, particularly for Congress’s otherwise lethargic standards.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., had blocked passage of the Juneteenth legislation for nearly a year, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the broader national reckoning on race that followed renewed momentum for the efforts to formally commemorate the day marking the end of slavery in Texas. Such popular bills and routine measures are passed without formal floor votes in the Senate as long as they have the consent of all 100 members of the Senate, which means a single senator could unilaterally hold up the process.

But in a surprise, Johnson – who said he had opposed Juneteenth as a federal holiday for economic reasons – went to the Senate floor Tuesday to announce that he was dropping his objections. Leaders in both chambers then moved swiftly to pass the measure through the House and Senate, with much fanfare and few complaints aside from the dozen or so House Republicans who voted against doing so.

In an interview Thursday, Johnson said he initially objected to the push last year because it was sprung on senators with little notice and that he opposed granting federal workers another holiday at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. His office pointed to a 2014 NPR report that said a single federal holiday costs $660 million in payroll and holiday premium pay costs, citing the Office of Budget and Management.

“Nobody else was willing to object, so I quickly ran down to the floor,” Johnson said. He added that he was “happy to pass a . . . long-term national day of recognition of Juneteenth. I was hoping we can celebrate it without giving 2 million Americans a day off.”

Johnson, one of the most politically vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection next year, said he “heard plenty” from constituents in Wisconsin about the significance of the Juneteenth holiday. He said he realized the point he was trying to make – that it was too costly to give federal workers another day off, when so many in the private sector do not – was likely to get lost if his blockade continued.

“He, I think, just realized that he was on an island alone,” said Cornyn, who attended the White House ceremony on Thursday. “I think he just realized that when you know you’re likely to lose, sometimes it’s good just to pull your flag down.”

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