Acting with unexpected speed, Congress passed legislation this week to make Juneteenth (June 19), the date associated with the end of slavery, a federal holiday. The Senate approved the bill on Tuesday and it overwhelmingly passed the House the next night. On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed it into law, making Juneteenth an official federal holiday.
“Great nations don’t ignore the most painful moments. They don’t ignore those moments in the past. They embrace them,” Biden said, adding that he hoped the designation would encourage “all Americans” to “learn from our history and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come.”
“This day doesn’t just celebrate the past,” Biden added. “It calls for action today.”
The breakthrough in passing the legislation occurred earlier this week when everyone seemed to expect that Republican Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson would object to a unanimous consent motion to enact a bill making the change, as he did last year (complaining of the cost of a new federal holiday). But he didn’t, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported:
“While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter. Therefore, I do not intend to object,” Johnson said in a statement Tuesday.
So the Senate cleared the resolution without objection, and the House hastily took it up. After an abbreviated debate, and with long-time Juneteenth champion Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas in the chair, the House passed the legislation by a 415-14 margin, and sent it to Biden, who will decide exactly when it should be implemented.
The 14 Republicans voting “nay” were Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona; Mo Brooks and Mike Rogers of Alabama; Andrew Clyde of Georgia; Scott Desjarlais of Tennessee; Doug LaMalfa and Tom McClintock of California; Thomas Massie of Kentucky; Ronnie Jackson and Chip Roy of Texas; Ralph Norman of South Carolina; Matt Rosendale of Montana; and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin.
Rosendale went out of his way to offensively explain his vote against the commemoration of slavery’s end:
Last-minute insults aside, the effort to make Juneteenth a holiday achieved success more quickly than the earlier drive for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which succeeded in 1983. Juneteenth definitely benefited from the racial justice protests of 2020, and the renewed interest in the history of U.S. racism, conservative protests notwithstanding. Forty-seven states have some sort of Juneteenth commemoration, but only Texas has made it a paid holiday for public employees. You can expect that number to rise now that Washington has acted.
Still, the recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday comes amid a push by conservative state lawmakers to ban the teaching of critical race theory — a framework for educating children about the roots of systemic racism and how it undergirds American society — in schools. And then, there is the Republican-led movement to restrict voting rights, which Biden said prevents the nation from “deliver[ing] on the promise of equality.” As Vice-President Kamala Harris noted, “We have come far, and we have far to go. But today is a day of celebration.”
This article has been updated.