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Juneteenth on path to be newest federal holiday after yearslong campaign for recognition

Both Juneteenth and MLK Day endured questions from lawmakers of whether the costs to taxpayers were worth it.

By Josh Axelrod - June 16, 2021
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Juneteenth celebration

More than 150 years since its first celebration, Juneteenth will become America’s 11th federal holiday after legislators fast-tracked a bill this week.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill Tuesday; on Wednesday, the House voted 415-14 in favor of it.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to sign the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act Thursday afternoon.

Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers tried to use a vote by unanimous consent to make Juneteenth a federal holiday following the murder of George Floyd and a national reckoning over race, but Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) quashed the bill, citing the cost to taxpayers.

Johnson, however, dropped his objection abruptly on Tuesday, clearing the way for the passage of the resolution.

“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 said in a statement Tuesday explaining his Juneteenth reversal. “Therefore, I do not intend to object.”

Juneteenth celebrates the day that enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom, over two whole years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. While its adoption as America’s newest federal holiday may seem swift to some — almost a third of Americans know nothing about the holiday, according to a recent Gallup poll — it represents a yearslong push by Black activists to commemorate emancipation.

The holiday’s path to federal recognition stretches back to 1866, the year of the first Juneteenth celebration in Texas, which featured parades, cookouts, and musical performances. A century later, the holiday experienced a national resurgence when, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign held its Solidarity Day rally on Juneteenth in 1968.

Rep. Al Edwards (D-TX) made Texas the first state to adopt Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980. Since then, state legislatures have progressively followed suit, as activists have pushed for state and federal recognition.

Opal Lee, 93, is one such activist who helped garner more than a million signatures in support of a federal holiday and is known as “the grandmother of Juneteenth.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the last federal holiday to be added to the calendar, faced a similarly steep battle to adoption.

It took 15 years of activism for MLK Day to gain its federal holiday status — though President Ronald Reagan fiercely opposed the holiday, he finally established the holiday in 1983.

Following King’s murder in 1968, the late Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation for a federal holiday to commemorate the civil rights icon. Conyers, co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, continued to reintroduce the bill every year, until it finally came to a vote in the House 11 years later, on the 50th anniversary of King’s birth, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s website.

But it failed when five House Republicans voted no, saying it would cost too much for taxpayers, the same position eventually taken by Johnson before his reversal.

In 1982, Coretta Scott King and the Congressional Black Caucus put pressure on lawmakers, producing a petition with six million signatures in support of the holiday. And Stevie Wonder helped the cause gain popular support with his hit song, “Happy Birthday,” which he played repeatedly throughout a national campaign for the holiday.

Finally, in 1983, the bill passed the House. Republicans lobbed slanderous attacks against King in the Senate, falsely linking him to the Communist Party, but the bill eventually passed the Senate as well, and Reagan grudgingly agreed to sign it.

Reagan said at a press conference in 1983:

I would have preferred a day of recognition for his accomplishments and what he meant in a stormy period in our history here, I would have preferred a day similar to, say, Lincoln’s birthday, which is not technically a national holiday, but is certainly a day reverenced by a great many people in our country and has been. I would have preferred that, but since they seem bent on making it a national holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day is important enough that I’ll sign that legislation when it reaches my desk.

It took another decade and a half for all 50 states to recognize MLK Day as a holiday, a milestone Juneteenth has not yet reached. Though South Dakota legislators tried twice this year to introduce legislation commemorating Juneteenth, Republicans blocked both. Hawaii, the only other holdout, only awaits its governor’s signature, after a Juneteenth recognition bill passed through its Legislature in April.

Updated to include the vote in the House of Representatives on June 16.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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