“If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho’ we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The U.S. Senate passed a bill on Tuesday. New legislation would make Juneteenth, or June 19th, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The Juneteenth bill should easily pass the House and head to President Joe Biden for his signature.
Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865. But word didn’t reach everyone—including some enslaved black people—until June 19 of that year. On that day, Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas—about two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states.
“Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a major step forward to recognize the wrongs of the past,” says Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “But we must continue to work to ensure equal justice and fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and our Constitution.”
The Senate passed the bill under an agreement called “unanimous consent.” Unanimous consent streamlines the process for considering legislation. But if even one senator objects, an agreement is blocked.
Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin had objected in the previous Congress to a bill to celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday. He cited the cost of such a bill and the lack of debate over it. Johnson says he has previously supported resolutions recognizing the significance of Juneteenth. But he questioned why the new holiday must give federal employees yet another day off—at a cost of about $600 million per year.
“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 before Tuesday’s vote. “Therefore, I do not intend to object.”
Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts is sponsoring the Juneteenth bill. It had 60 co-sponsors. Markey tweeted Monday: “We have a long road towards racial justice in the United States, and we cannot get there without acknowledging our nation’s original sin of slavery. It is long past time to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.”
Markey’s wording—calling something an “original sin” on the Senate floor—is thought-provoking. Surely, there have been many sins before and after slavery in the United States, and original sin goes back to individuals in the Garden of Eden. Still, it is interesting that in the United States at least, people recognize that certain national actions violate God’s laws.
Under the proposed legislation, the new federal holiday would be known as “Juneteenth National Independence Day.”
The vast majority of states already recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or have an official observance of the day. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia, and Washington. Most states will celebrate on Saturday—with renewed vigor since next year could mark the first official commemoration.
(A signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation will be displayed at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, to commemorate Juneteenth. The original is kept in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum photo via AP)