Juneteenth Recognized As National Holiday
On Thursday, June 17, Juneteenth became a federally recognized public holiday thanks to bipartisan efforts. Before reaching Congress, the legislation was passed in every state aside from South Dakota. It is the first federal holiday to be signed into law since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
Officially labeled Juneteenth National Independence Day, the date commemorates the emancipation of the slaves and specifically references June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of slavery.
Before the signing, President Biden formally recognized 94-year-old activist, Opal Lee, inciting a standing ovation from attendees. In a display of support for the national recognition of Juneteenth, Lee walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington D.C. in 2016.
“I have to say to you, I have only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president,” Biden said. “Not because I did it—you did it, Democrats and Republicans. It’s an enormous, enormous honor.”
A Celebration of History and Progress
The Juneteenth tradition originated in Texas in 1866, spreading across the country as African Americans migrated. Celebratory events often include the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, prayer services, inspirational presentations from black advocates and historical figures, as well as dancing and plenty of soul food.
The movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday was reinvigorated by racial unrest in 2020 as a response to the murder of George Floyd. Sen. Edward Markey said, “This legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is but one step we can take to begin to right the wrongs of the past and ensure equal justice in the future.”
Most government employees have Friday off, and many corporations are implementing their own efforts to recognize the new federal holiday. For example, Nike, Twitter, and Target provide employees with a paid day off, and other prominent companies are featuring educational panels and presentations.
Tiffany Bowden, program manager of Amazon’s Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team, wrote in a statement, “We honor those who fought, endured, and continue to persevere in the fight for equality. We celebrate with the awareness that advocacy is still necessary for America’s pursuit of equality and, ultimately, equity. It is today and every day that we recognize the resilience in those that continue this fight daily through their existence and lived experiences. Juneteenth is not just about Black History—it is American history.”
Opposition Criticizes Juneteenth
While the bill passed unanimously in the Senate, 14 House representatives voted against it. All who were opposed were Republican, and the vote was notably bipartisan. The vast majority of criticism revolved around using the word “Independence,” which Rep. Ralph Norman called “wholly inappropriate.”
Some claim the title is divisive and ruins what would otherwise be an unopposed effort. Rep. Andy Biggs blamed democrats and said, “They have weaponized this bill like they weaponized everything else.”
Opposing representatives are concerned that calling the holiday Juneteenth National Independence Day takes away from Independence Day or Fourth of July. According to Rep. Matt Rosendale, the bill is an effort to replace the country’s honorable legacy with self-hatred.
Rep. Chip Roy of Texas said, “This name needlessly divides our nation on a matter that should instead bring us together by creating a separate Independence Day based on the color of one’s skin.”
Acknowledging the Road Ahead
During the signing ceremony, Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden both mentioned using the unifying spirit of Juneteenth to propel future progress. “We have come far, and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration. It is not only a day of pride, but it is also a day for us to affirm and rededicate ourselves to action,” said Harris.
Making Juneteenth an official federal holiday prompts national recognition and provides an additional avenue for schools to teach youth about the country’s history with slavery and racial inequality. However, some people argue that celebrations like Juneteenth are merely symbolic rather than a substantive effort.
Though advocates are relieved that Juneteenth is finally a national holiday, many believe it is far from the most important item on Congress’s agenda. In agreement, Biden called out some of the current legal battles regarding voter restriction laws, racial inequality, and more. Biden said, “We can’t rest until the promise of equality is fulfilled for everyone in every corner of this nation. That to me is the meaning of Juneteenth.”