Juneteenth Nears Federal Holiday Status After Republican Drops Opposition

If the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act passes the House, the commemorative day will be the 11th annually recognized federal holiday.

A sign hangs from a tree in Evansville, Indiana at a Juneteenth celebration on June 20, 2020. | Reuters
A sign hangs from a tree in Evansville, Indiana at a Juneteenth celebration on June 20, 2020. | Reuters

After a Republican dropped his objection to the bill, the Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act Tuesday recognizing Juneteenth a day that commemorates the freeing of enslaved people in the U.S. as a federal holiday. The bill will now go for a vote in the House, where it’s expected to pass, and then to President Joe Biden’s desk. With the president’s signature, Juneteenth would become the 11th annually recognized federal holiday in the U.S.

Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), along with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), re-introduced the bill in February 2021. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) blocked its passage last year over concerns related to the cost of the additional day off for federal workers. At the time, Sen. Johnson suggested eliminating Columbus Day as a federal holiday in exchange for Juneteenth. He withdrew the suggestion in response to conservative backlash.

On Tuesday, Sen. Johnson released a statement announcing that he would no longer object to the bill because he recognizes that there’s “no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter.”

Juneteenth, which is celebrated on June 19, recognizes the day in 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger informed enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas that they would be free under the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed by Abraham Lincoln more than two years prior. The day is also referred to as Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, and Freedom Day.

“Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom while encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures,” Rep. Jackson Lee said in a statement celebrating the bill’s passage in the Senate. “But it must always remain a reminder to us all that liberty and freedom are the precious birthright of all Americans which must be jealously guarded and preserved for future generations.”

After the bill’s passage, Sen. Markey said “we have failed to acknowledge, address, and come to grips with our nation’s original sin of slavery” but that the passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act “will address this long-ignored gap in our history, recognize the wrong that was done, acknowledge the pain and suffering of generations of slaves and their descendants, and finally celebrate their freedom.”

Sen. Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) heralded the bill’s bipartisan support as “a reminder of what our country is capable of when we don't allow divisions to censor our past or stymie our march towards progress.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said the “bill represents a big step in our nation’s journey toward equality.”

Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. While most U.S. states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, only in Texas, New York, Virginia, and Washington is the day a paid holiday for state employees.

Sen. Smith recognized longtime Juneteenth activist Opal Lee in a statement.

“I want to thank Miss Opal Lee, who walked across this country to raise support for Juneteenth as a national holiday,” Sen. Smith said.

In 2016, when she was 89, Lee walked from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. She walked 2.5 miles every day — signifying the more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation that enslaved Black people in Texas had to wait to be freed.

“I’ve been honored to support your moral cause here in the Senate with Senators Markey and Booker, and all our colleagues,” Sen. Smith added. “Our country has a lot of work ahead to eradicate the trauma and impact of systemic racism, and Juneteenth is an important step on this journey.”