Juneteenth may finally get its due from Congress

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) on Tuesday announced he will no longer obstruct efforts to make Juneteenth a federal holiday — and with that, the United States' second, fuller Independence Day may finally receive the official recognition long overdue. A bipartisan bill to thus recognize the day could pass the Senate by unanimous consent as soon as this week, ahead of the day's celebration on Saturday, and it is expected to easily clear the House as well.

Johnson's erstwhile objection was the financial cost to taxpayers of giving federal employees another annual day of paid leave. I'm as critical of federal spending as any, but if we're going to have federal holidays (and obviously we are), Juneteenth should make the cut.

It marks the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas, the day freedom long denied was finally realized, at least in significant part. It is a complement of the independence celebrations of July 4 and a moment — to borrow the phrase of Frederick Douglass in 1852 — for the "conscience of the nation [to] be roused."

Despite this deep import, however, Juneteenth was unknown to many white Americans until relatively recently. (I first learned of it in 2016, well past childhood.) Its neglect on the federal calendar is surely part of that ignorance, because federal holidays are mimicked on business and school schedules. Without federal recognition, Juneteenth may continue to languish in the national subconscious.

"Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country," Douglass said in the speech quoted above. "There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery," he predicted, and he was right. His hope may be right, too, and federal recognition of Juneteenth is a good, if small, way to reify it.

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