Juneteenth Independence Day will soon become America’s first new federal holiday in nearly 40 years now that the House and Senate have both passed legislation giving federal workers a day off on June 19.
By a vote of 415 to 14, the House approved the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on Wednesday after the Senate unanimously passed the bill on Tuesday. All that’s left is for President Joe Biden to add his signature.
“What I see here today is racial divide being crushed this day under a momentous vote that brings together people who understand the value of freedom,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said at a press conference Wednesday. “That is what Juneteenth is all about.”
Jackson Lee and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) first pushed to make Juneteenth a federal holiday last year. The Senate version of the bill didn’t get a vote, but when Cornyn and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) reintroduced it this year, the measure quickly garnered 60 cosponsors, including 18 Republicans ― meaning it had enough support to beat a filibuster.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) had said he would object to the bill, which would’ve forced Democrats to push the legislation through a lengthy “cloture” process ― something Democrats seemed like they didn’t want to do ― but in a stunning reversal, Johnson dropped his objection.
“It sounds like Congress wants to do it, so I’m not going to stand in the way,” Johnson told HuffPost. He said he supported celebrating Juneteenth and was only concerned that a day off for workers would cost the federal government money.
Markey refused to tell reporters Wednesday what happened behind the scenes that led to the bill’s surprising unanimous Senate passage. Democrats had not previously announced any plans to hold a vote on the bill.
The bill faced virtually no opposition after Johnson dropped his objection, though a handful of House Republicans complained that calling the new holiday Juneteenth Independence Day would detract from Independence Day on July 4. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said the bill “will create confusion and push Americans to pick one of those two days as their independence day based on their racial identity.” Only 14 Republicans voted against the bill.
Most Americans support the idea of making Juneteenth a national holiday, according to a 2020 survey by HuffPost/YouGov. The idea gained momentum last year amid widespread Black Lives Matter protests after the police killing of George Floyd, and many employers announced they would give their workers the day off. (Private employers aren’t required to give workers time off for federal holidays, though they often do.)
African Americans have long celebrated June 19 as the end of slavery in the United States. It was on that day in 1865 that the Union Army belatedly announced in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War was over and slavery had been outlawed ― more than two years after then-President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth will be the 11th annual federal holiday and the first new one since Congress established Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
“Like Martin Luther King Day, it will be a day for Americans to reflect on the great unfinished business of our society,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, adding that he worked on the MLK Day bill as a House member. “This is a fitting other end of the book, in a certain sense, now that Juneteenth is finally being recognized.”
The holiday is mostly symbolic, but Democrats are working on racial justice policy bills focused on policing and voting rights that they hope to pass this summer.
“I would hope that we would not cash in on substantive change for an opportunity to commemorate,” Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) said. “I think commemoration ought to drive change and not be a substitute.”