By Benjamin Rubin
New York City, New York
On Thursday, June 17, President Joe Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
“By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history—and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we've come [and] the distance we have to travel,” President Biden said. He also stated that Juneteenth was the first national holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1983.
Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. Its name comes from June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, announced that all enslaved individuals would be free in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation. The Thirteenth Amendment followed shortly, abolishing slavery in the remaining border states that were not subjected to President Lincoln’s order.
The movement to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday gained traction last summer after the murders of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police officers led to protests throughout the country. Democratic control of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate furthered the momentum of the bill’s passage.
The Senate passed the measure unanimously, and the House approved it the next day with a vote of 415–14.
After the bill was signed in the House, Representative G.K. Butterfield (D–NC) led lawmakers in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song touted as the Black national anthem. Representative James E. Clyburn (D–SC) said that he would lead an effort to designate the song as America’s “national hymn.”
“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day. Freedom Day. Liberation Day. Emancipation Day. And today, a national holiday,” said Vice President Kamala Harris while introducing President Biden at the signing ceremony. She signed the legislation as President of the Senate.
President Biden acknowledged Juneteenth’s significance, calling its recognition as a federal holiday “one of the greatest honors [he] will have as President.”
In his speech, he mentioned Opal Lee, an activist who marched from her home in Fort Worth to Washington D.C. in an attempt to promote Juneteenth. He referred to her as “a grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.”
President Biden framed the law as part of a broader aim to achieve racial equality. “The promise of equality is not going to be fulfilled until we become real, it becomes real in our schools and on our Main Streets and in our neighborhoods,” he said. Moreover, he highlighted the inequity that exists “so long as the sacred right to vote remains under attack,” alluding to new voting restrictions in various states. He called the recent push for voting restrictions “an assault that offends our very democracy.”
Although this move may be considered a win for civil rights activists, President Biden clearly stated his belief that there is still much to be done on the topic of racial inequality in America. “We have more to do to close the racial gap in vaccination rates,” he said when referring to the inequities that the pandemic has exposed.
Juneteenth’s recognition spurred optimism about future bipartisan efforts. “I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another,” said President Biden.