President Joe Biden signs a new law on June 17, 2021, declaring Juneteenth as a federal holiday to be celebrated each year on June 19. (Screen shot from White House livestream)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday signed into law legislation declaring a legal public holiday annually on June 19, the date of the end of slavery in the U.S. known as Juneteenth.
“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names —Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at the White House signing ceremony. “And today, a national holiday.”
She noted that the White House was built by enslaved people, and the ceremony was taking place footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Today is a day of celebration. It is not only a day of pride. It’s also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action,” Harris said.
Formally called the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,” the bipartisan legislation sped through the U.S. Senate earlier this week without objection and passed the House on a 415-14 vote on Wednesday night. It means Juneteenth will be recognized as a federal holiday, like Memorial Day or July Fourth. Many states already designate it as a holiday as well.
All 14 House votes in opposition were from Republicans and included Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona; Andrew Clyde of Georgia; Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee; Matt Rosendale of Montana; and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin.
The Office of Personnel Management said the holiday would be observed beginning this year, and so federal offices will be closed on Friday since June 19 falls on a Saturday.
Also called Emancipation Day, the holiday commemorates the day in 1865 that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and ensured that enslaved people there would be freed. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but the news took years to reach Texas and many other places.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, pushed the legislation for years in the House and gained more than 170 cosponsors.
“It has been a long journey,” she said on the House floor. “It has not been an easy journey. When we stand here today, we should be reminded of the fact that there were people who continued to experience the whips of a whip for two more years, even as Abraham Lincoln stood in the shining sun in the aftermath of Gettysburg to unite the Union and proclaim the slaves free in 1863.”
A cosponsor, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Maryland Democrat, said that the recognition of Juneteenth “is a reminder that we must continue to move forward in honor and in recognition of ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and the nameless and faceless generations of African Americans that we will never know.”
Some House Republicans raised questions about the holiday’s cost and the name of the bill.
Republican Rep. James Comer of Kentucky said while he would back the measure, the House panel that oversees federal holidays did not have a chance to review it and there was no Congressional Budget Office estimate of the cost.
He said a 2014 analysis by the Office of Management and Budget found it cost federal taxpayers $660 million in payroll and holiday premium costs when federal employees were given an extra holiday on the day after Christmas that year by executive order.
Rep. Danny K. Davis, an Illinois Democrat, responded that “whatever the cost, it will not come close to the cost of slavery.”
Other Republicans objected to using the term “Independence Day” in connection with Juneteenth, saying it would cause confusion with July Fourth. They suggested instead calling it Emancipation Day or Freedom Day.
“We support the holiday. But why would the Democrats want to politicize this by co-opting the name of our sacred holiday of Independence Day?” said Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana.
“Why would it not be named the Juneteenth National Emancipation Day? Why would we want to inject conflict about this? I don’t understand this body and the way it moves forward contrary to the best interests of the American people.”
At the signing ceremony, Biden noted Juneteenth would be the first new national holiday since Martin Luther King Day was enacted nearly 40 years ago, and that signing the bill was “one of the greatest honors I’ve had as president.”
Lawmakers gathered around Biden as he signed the bill included Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Tina Smith of Minnesota, and Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Also present was Opal Lee, a 94-year-old activist from Texas who has campaigned for the holiday’s recognition for years. Harris put her arm around Lee as Biden signed the bill.
Biden pointed out that Thursday was the sixth anniversary of the slaying of nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., all African Americans, by a 21-year-old man who called himself a white supremacist.
Biden said the anniversary is “a reminder that our work to root out hate never ends.”
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