It’s been 1983 since the U.S. Congress, followed by the essential signature of then-President Ronald Reagan, approved the addition of a holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to the federal calendar.
Now, nearly four decades later, it appears a new entry will be added to the history books after the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution on Tuesday establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day.
Political pundits predict that the bill will pass quickly in the House and then be signed by President Joe Biden. After that, the new law would provide employees of the federal government a day off from work every year on June 19, or a Friday or Monday closest to the prescribed date.
Conversations about and analyses of the events leading up to Juneteenth, a day of celebration which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S., have dominated public discourse over the past year.
As for the legislation, for which sponsors of the bill advocated making Juneteenth a federal holiday, efforts leading to its congressional approval have been fueled by nationwide protests inspired by the police-involved killing of George Floyd in 2020. The successful takeover of Congress and the White House by Democrats have also factored heavily into the legislation’s momentum.
Still, it remains to be seen whether local governments and the private sector will choose to observe Juneteenth as several federal holidays, including Veterans Day, Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, routinely go unobserved by many of their employees.
A Brief Summary of the Holiday’s Early Roots
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas, the end of slavery in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. In Galveston, African Americans did not learn of their until nearly three years later. Also known as “Freedom Day,” Juneteenth marks the emancipation of former slaves who remained enslaved in Texas despite Lincoln’s proclaiming an end to slavery on Sept. 22, 1862.
In comments referring to the “first Juneteenth,” Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said the following in an article originally posted on The Root.
“Maj. Gen. Granger had no idea that in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday – today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States,” Gates writes.
“But Granger wasn’t just a few months late … When Texas fell, and Granger dispatched his now-famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news – or wait for a government agent to arrive – and it was not uncommon for them to wait until after the harvest.”
“Those [former slaves] who acted on the news did so at their peril,” Gates concludes.
Bipartisan Support Paves the Way
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn and Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee count as members of Congress who led the effort to make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday.
However, in 2020, Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson blocked the bill, positing that a day off for federal employees would cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. He dropped his objection this week despite his concerns, paving the way for the bill’s passage in the Senate.
“Although I strongly support celebrating Emancipation, I objected to the cost and lack of debate,” Johnson said in a statement. “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.”
Johnson was not the only member of Congress opposed to the legislation. Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, similarly frowned on giving federal workers an extra day off. In fact, Lankford and Johnson earlier attempted to amend the Juneteenth bill to remove another federal holiday.
However, their efforts faced stiff opposition from groups with ties to those days, like Italian-Americans with Columbus Day.
The Senate bill, with 60 bipartisan co-sponsors, could have successfully thwarted a filibuster if one or more senators had objected. But doing so would have taken up considerable floor time that Democrats said would be better spent focusing on more significant issues including an infrastructure bill and the confirmation of judges. That said, passing the bill with a unanimous consent motion, emerged as the most preferred route.
Texas Democratic Congressman Al Green began recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday in his office last year, so when the U.S. Senate passed the legislation, he served as one of the first to express his excitement.
“What began as a grassroots movement to commemorate Texas history is now set to become our nation’s 12th federal holiday,” Congressman Green stated.
“In honor of the late Al Edwards – the father of the Juneteenth holiday in Texas – and every person illegally enslaved in Texas during the period between Lincoln’s proclamation and Granger’s announcement of emancipation, I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to vote for this legislation on the House floor.”