Now a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing to make June 19 an actual national holiday.
“This legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is but one step we can take to begin to right the wrongs of the past in order to ensure equal justice in the future,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass) said in a Friday statement.
Markey introduced a bill creating a “Juneteenth National Independence Day” with Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.).
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who traditionally authors the Senate’s ceremonial Juneteenth legislation each year, announced on his website Thursday that he would support making Juneteenth a real holiday as well.
Cornyn will be officially added as a co-sponsor on Monday, a Markey spokesperson said. No other Republicans have signed on yet. A spokesperson for Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who said a holiday would be “a brilliant idea,” did not respond to requests for comment.
On the House side, new Juneteenth holiday legislation introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) this week has 74 co-sponsors, including Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.), who left the Democratic party to become a Republican earlier this year.
A federal holiday would be a tiny gesture in light of the massive disparities in economics, health and justice between white and Black Americans, but all lawmakers involved have also pledged to try to rectify those differences.
Cornyn called slavery America’s “original sin” in a floor speech on Thursday, saying the country has paid a bitter price. “While we have come a long way, we know there is more we need to do,” he said.
To that end, Cornyn voiced support for a police reform bill by Scott. Democrats have been pushing a measure that would do more to ban chokeholds and make it easier for victims of police misconduct to hold officers personally liable.
A holiday would be mostly a symbolic gesture, but it’s a rare one. Congress last made a national holiday in 1983 to honor murdered civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. in a process that took 15 years. Each year there are only 10 federal holidays, which are legal days off for only federal employees.
The descendants of slaves have celebrated Juneteenth for 155 years. But the push for a formal holiday seems to have gained momentum in recent weeks as Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality have won unprecedented public support. Sixty percent of Americans say they support a new holiday, even though most said they hadn’t heard of it as children.
Jackson Lee told HuffPost that the protesters “want a reformational transformational change in how America treats its people, and Juneteenth is a perfect symbol of the freedom of people who’ve been oppressed.”