MPAC Celebrates the Signing of The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act
By: Leela Cullity, Ezgi Koc, Aaliyah Khwaja, MPAC Policy Interns
Succeeding the signing of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the Civil War, and the ratification of the 13th Amendment, by June 19th, 1865, those in Texas were finally able to celebrate their official independence and freedom. The fight to legalize slavery was a debilitating process, and toward the end of the Civil War, many slaveholders retreated to Texas, due to its geographic isolation from Union troops. This isolation led to enslaved Black people learning of their freedom much later than when it was enshrined in the Constitution. When 2,000 Union troops finally arrived, they announced that over 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state of Texas, were legally free. Juneteenth is meant to commemorate not only the emancipation of 4 million slaves, but the widespread knowledge of independence specifically for those who weren’t aware emancipation had come months earlier.
Juneteenth Celebrations were first documented in 1866 across southern states and eventually reached the entire country. The decision in Congress to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is a first step in grappling with our history and hopefully beginning a broader discussion of how lynching, mass incarceration, redlining, and other Jim Crow laws took root after emancipation, continuing the systemic issues we see today.
Today, celebrations usually include parades, cook outs, music, including traditional songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” sipping on red drinks, which symbolizes and honors the blood that was shed of African-Americans, and educational history lessons. As Representative Brenda Lawrence [D-MI-14] said, the new Federal holiday reminds us that “We have a responsibility to teach every generation of Black and White Americans the pride of a people who have survived, endured and succeeded in these United States of America despite slavery.” It is the hope that future Juneteenth celebrations can serve as an enabler for the necessary change we still need to see.
On Wednesday June 16th, The U.S. House of Representatives voted to make Juneteenth an official federal holiday. Senator Edward Markey [D-MA] and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee [D-TX-18] led efforts to make the holiday being called “Juneteenth Independence Day” in the bill federally recognized. After being stalled in the Senate, the bill passed in the House in just one day with a vote of 415–14, overwhelmingly favoring the solidifying of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. This would grant every federal employee the day off to commemorate the historical significance of Juneteenth. The bill had strong bipartisan backing despite all 14 votes against making Juneteenth a federal holiday coming from Republican representatives. Several Republicans spoke out on their vote against the officialization of the holiday stating that it was unnecessary and did not match up to the importance of other federal holidays adding that it co-opted the United States’ official Independence Day. On the other hand, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] stated that it was “an exciting, historic day” that was long overdue.
Previously on Tuesday night, the Senate passed the bill with unanimous consent. Just a year ago, Sen. Ron Johnson [R-WI] blocked the bill as urgency to make Juneteenth a federal holiday grew with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as a result of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Sen. Johnson cited taxpayer dollars going to federal workers for the day off as his reason for opposition. Earlier Wednesday, the senator stated that he could “recognize reality” as he removed his opposition then leading to the passing of the bill. On Thursday, President Biden signed the historic bill into law, making Juneteenth a Federal Holiday.
Although the Senate and House passed both respective bills with mostly bipartisan support, this comes at a time when multiple states have already signed into law restrictions on teaching critical race theory and racism, including Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. It is difficult to provide one explanation of this theory, as it is greatly misinterpreted, but it can be seen as an academic approach centered around the idea that racism is systemic and not only performed by individuals with prejudices. It holds that racial inequality is intertwined into legal systems against people of color in all parts of their lives.
Many Democratic legislators described Juneteenth as an important holiday, but it does not compensate for the continuous racial injustices in the U.S., especially after the rise of Black Lives Matter and response to the killing of George Floyd last year. It is suggested by elected officials and the African American community that more action must be taken to pass legislation on fair policing, voting protection, reparations and education, civil rights, and systemic racism. It would be recommended to start pursuing and supporting existing legislation in Congress that focus on such issues. In addition to the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, another bill introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee [D-TX-18] is the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, that is referred to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties and has 190 cosponsors. It is imperative that we contact our elected representatives to support such legislation and continue to recognize the sacrifices and continuous struggles of the African American community before and in our time.