June 19, 2021

For the first time in nearly 40 years, Congress has moved to establish a new national holiday, and it happened with bipartisan support.  The House voted Wednesday to pass the legislation to establish Juneteenth as the 11th Federal holiday.  The final vote in the House was 415-14.  The House vote came after a surprising unanimous consent by the Senate on Tuesday, after a single Republican senator dropped his opposition.  It is interesting to note we cannot get bipartisan agreement on infrastructure or health care, but we can on a day off.  Obviously, Juneteenth represents far more than just a day off for federal workers.  This June 19th marks the 156th anniversary of the day where the last African American slaves were freed as Federal troops marched into Galveston in the wake of the Civil War. 

The legislation headed to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature on Thursday, making it a federal holiday.  This is the first official holiday declared since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law in 1983.  MLK Day came after the restructuring of the holiday system with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was enacted June 28, 1968, permanently moving Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Labor Day celebrations to a Monday.  It has been suggested Juneteenth will be celebrated on either the Friday or Monday closest to the actual date.  Biden was accompanied for the signing by Vice President Kamala Harris, one of the Democrats who introduced the legislation in the Senate last year.  The bill had strong bipartisan sponsorship from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.  Texas already celebrates Juneteenth.

The lone Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who opposed the legislation last year, said in a statement that he would no longer raise his objections on the floor, even though the bill already had the support of 60 cosponsors to overcome a filibuster.  “Although I strongly support celebrating Emancipation, I objected to the cost and lack of debate,” Johnson said. “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.”  Steve Williams, the president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, thanked lawmakers in a press conference on Capitol Hill earlier for, “put(ting) that exclamation mark on the fabulous work.”  Even when bipartisan, there is still division.

Thoughts:  President Biden delivered a special greeting on Thursday to a central figure in the campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday.  Biden got down on one knee to greet Opal Lee, the 94-year-old Juneteenth advocate and former educator from Texas, at the presidential signing ceremony.  Growing up in Texas, Lee celebrated Juneteenth every year.  In 2016, Lee walked 1,400 miles from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, DC, to raise awareness and support for making Juneteenth a federal holiday.  Unlike past holidays which have been staggered into the calendar, Juneteenth will happen immediately.  Amid the divisiveness of politics over the last six years, it is positive to find any bipartisan gesture.  The fact it occurred around recognition of a past injustice is more so.  Do the work.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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