On Thursday, President Joe Biden
signed a rare piece of legislation: the first new federal holiday since Ronald Reagan
signed Martin Luther King Jr.
Day into law
Independence Day commemorates the abolition of slavery
in the United States
, formalizing a holiday that is already recognized by most states and has been celebrated by African Americans
for more than 150 years.
The Senate unanimously approved the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on Tuesday, and the House
followed suit on Wednesday with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 415 to 14, with only a handful of right-wing Republicans
complaining that we already have a holiday called Independence Day.
The bill's quick passage surprised Democrats, who had not announced any plans to vote on it. Rep. Sheila Jackson
Lee (D-Texas), who has long co-sponsored Juneteenth resolutions, called the holiday a "legislative miracle," noting that it occurred as Democrats struggle to enact a racial equity agenda that includes major voting rights
and police reform
“This allowed people
to take that first step toward racial equity and social justice in a holiday where everyone can come together and ask, ‘What is Juneteenth?’” Jackson Lee told Stardia on Thursday.
On June 19, 1865, Union
Major-General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and declared that "all slaves are free," two months after the Civil War ended and two years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; the first large Juneteenth celebrations began the following year in Texas.
Federal employees will have Friday off and a three-day weekend every June 19 from now on, as Juneteenth becomes the 11th annual occurring legal public holiday. While federal holidays
do not require businesses to give employees time off, several large private employers announced last year that Juneteenth would become permanent company holidays.
Jackson Lee and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass. ), along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), first proposed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday last year, after previously proposing purely symbolic resolutions, as Black Lives Matter
protests erupted in response to the police killing of George Floyd
Sen. Ron Johnson
(R-Wis.) blocked a vote on the bill, claiming that giving federal employees a day off would cost the government too much money
, and the measure appeared to lack enough support to overcome his filibuster
This year, however, the Senate version of the bill quickly garnered 60 co-sponsors, implying that it could pass if Democrats chose to go through the multi-day “cloture” process, which would divert valuable Senate floor time away from other priorities. However, Johnson later stated that he would not object after all.
Jackson Lee believes Senate Democrats
won by demonstrating their commitment to passing the bill. “That person lost steam,” she says of Johnson.
Rather than any special arm-twisting, Markey pointed to the bill's 60 co-sponsors. "We worked hard behind the scenes just to make sure it would happen," he said.
On the House side, Democrats rushed to prepare the legislation for a quick vote after the Senate passed it. Jackson Lee said she “made sure that Republicans knew that they were welcome” and expressed gratitude to them for overwhelmingly supporting the bill, emphasizing that the celebration honors the Union Army’s victory in the war.
Republicans have been harshly critical of Black Lives Matter protests and every Democratic
policy proposal addressing the country's pervasive racial inequities, and they've always complained about federal workers. The idea of a day off for government workers, one that reminds people of slavery, goes against everything they stand for, but they did it anyway.
“We have too many federal holidays, but this one is worthy of America’s celebration and long overdue, and we needed to live up to the American ideal and value of freedom and equality,” Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) told Stardia. “We didn’t say we were forming a perfect union, we said we were forming a more perfect union, and that’s something every generation has to work on.”