President Joe Biden signed a rare piece of legislation on Thursday: a bill creating the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law.
Juneteenth Independence Day commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., institutionalizing a holiday that most states already recognize and that African Americans have celebrated for more than 150 years.
“I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I’ve had as president,” Biden said before adding his signature.
The Senate unanimously approved the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on Tuesday and the House followed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 415 to 14 on Wednesday, with only a handful of right-wing Republicans grumbling that we already have a holiday called Independence Day.
The bill’s swift passage came as a surprise, since Democrats hadn’t announced any plans to vote on the measure. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who has co-sponsored Juneteenth resolutions for years, called the holiday a “legislative miracle,” noting that it happened as Democrats struggle to enact a racial equity agenda that includes major voting rights and police reform policies.
“This allowed people to make that first step in racial equity and social justice in a holiday where everybody can come together and ask the question, ‘What is Juneteenth?’” Jackson Lee told HuffPost on Thursday.
On June 19, 1865, Union Major-General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that “all slaves are free,” two months after the Civil War had ended and two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The first big Juneteenth celebrations started in Texas the very next year.
Federal workers will have Friday off, and a three-day weekend every June 19 going forward as Juneteenth takes its place as the 11th annually occurring legal public holiday. Federal holidays don’t require businesses to give workers time off, but several big private employers said last year they would make Juneteenth permanent company holidays.
Jackson Lee and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), first introduced legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday last year, after having previously proposed purely symbolic resolutions. The push for an actual holiday came as Black Lives Matter protests erupted in response to the police murder of George Floyd.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) blocked a vote on the bill, saying a day off for federal workers would cost the government too much money, and the measure seemingly lacked enough support to overcome his filibuster.
But this year, the Senate version of the bill quickly won 60 co-sponsors, meaning it could pass if Democrats wanted to put it through the multi-day “cloture” process. It wasn’t clear if they did, as doing so would take valuable Senate floor time away from their other priorities. But then Johnson said he wouldn’t object after all.
Jackson Lee thinks Senate Democrats prevailed by showing their determination to pass the bill. “That person lost steam,” she said of Johnson.
Markey pointed to the fact that the bill had 60 co-sponsors rather than any special arm-twisting. “We worked hard behind the scenes just to make sure that it would happen,” he said.
On the House side, Democrats rushed to prepare the legislation for a quick vote after its Senate passage. Jackson Lee said she “made sure that Republicans knew that they were welcome” and that she was grateful to them for overwhelmingly supporting the bill. She emphasized to them that the celebration honors the Union Army’s victory in the war.
Republicans have been harshly critical of Black Lives Matter protests and every Democratic policy proposal addressing the country’s pervasive racial inequities, and they’ve always griped about federal workers. The idea of another day off for the government workforce ― a day off that reminds people about slavery ― pretty much goes against everything they stand for. But they did it anyway.
“We’ve got too many federal holidays but this one is worthy of America’s celebration and long overdue, and we needed to live up to the American ideal and value of freedom and equality,” Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) told HuffPost. “We didn’t say we were a perfect union, we said we were forming a more perfect union. That’s something every generation has to work on.”