Congress Could Easily Make Juneteenth A National Holiday, But Isn't Doing It

Plenty of Senate Republicans support a Juneteenth holiday, but the bill would take time from other Democratic priorities.

Congress could make a new holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, but it’s unclear if Democrats are willing to put it to a vote.

Legislation establishing June 19 as a federal holiday already has 60 co-sponsors in the Senate, including a remarkable 18 Republicans, meaning the bill could easily overcome a filibuster and become law.

But with June 19 coming this Saturday, Democrats have not announced any plans for a vote, presumably because it would consume precious Senate floor time and Democrats have a lot of other priorities.

For years, House and Senate lawmakers have offered bills commemorating June 19, or “Juneteenth,” as the end of slavery in the U.S. On that day in 1865, over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Union Army finally reached Galveston, Texas, and belatedly announced that enslaved people were free. African Americans have celebrated Juneteenth ever since.

Within Congress, the push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday gained momentum last year amid mass protests against the police killing of George Floyd. Instead of introducing another bill merely commemorating Juneteenth, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a bill that would establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

“These past years of constant evidence of disparities in the African American community shows that the stain of slavery has not ended,” Jackson Lee told HuffPost last year.

But the Texas lawmakers’ bill was blocked single-handedly by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), even though many other Republicans supported the measure.

While on the campaign trail in 2020, Joe Biden did not take a stance on whether Juneteenth should become a federal holiday. But he wrote an op-ed for Essence magazine declaring the holiday a “day of profound weight and power—a holiday whose very existence tells us so much about the soul of America” with the ability to remind Americans of “our incredible capacity to heal, to hope, and to emerge from our darkest moments of cruelty into a better version of ourselves.”

The White House did not respond when asked if Biden supports making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Spokespeople for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also did not respond.

If the bill establishing the new holiday does get a vote in the Senate, it’s unlikely to happen soon. Next week, senators are expected to vote on Democrats’ sweeping voting and ethics reform bill before they leave town for a two-week recess. In July, the chamber will turn its attention to passing legislation overhauling the nation’s infrastructure.

Johnson has said he would object again on the grounds that another day off for federal workers would cost the government too much money. An objection would force Democrats to go through the Senate’s formal process for breaking filibusters, which takes several days.

Most states recognize Juneteenth in some way, and it’s gaining ground in the private sector as well. With the Black Lives Matter protests dominating headlines last year, several large employers said they would give their workers the day off. Nike, Best Buy, Target and JCPenney told HuffPost their workers would still get the day off this year and in the future.

Nike said, “we will close our corporate, retail, manufacturing and distribution operations in observance of Juneteenth to provide educational opportunities that honor Black history and culture.”

Legal public holidays in the U.S. only directly benefit federal workers, who get the day off. Private employers aren’t required to go along, though they often do, particularly for big holidays like Christmas.

If lawmakers pass the Juneteenth bill, it would be only the 11th annual federal holiday and the first since Congress created a holiday in 1983 for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

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