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The United States will soon have a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the nation.
Congress has approved a bill that would make Juneteenth, or 19 June, a holiday – a bill Joe Biden is expected to sign into law.
Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the people of Galveston, Texas, freeing slaves in the last rebel state. Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing enslaved people in the southern states, and Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865. But the proclamation wasn’t enforced in Galveston until federal soldiers read out the proclamation on 19 June 1865.
“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones,” said the Democratic congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. “I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United States.”
Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, speaking next to a large poster of a Black man whose back bore massive scarring from being whipped, said she would be in Galveston this Saturday to celebrate along with the Republican senator John Cornyn of Texas.
“Can you imagine?” said Jackson Lee, who made a joke about her height. “I will be standing maybe taller than Senator Cornyn, forgive me for that, because it will be such an elevation of joy.”
The Senate unanimously passed the measure on Tuesday, and the House voted to pass the bill on Wednesday afternoon.
About 60% of Americans knew “nothing at all” or just “a little bit” about Juneteenth, according to a Gallup poll released on Tuesday. And federal recognition of Juneteenth comes as Republican officials across the country move to ban schools from teaching students “critical race theory”, the history of slavery and the ongoing impacts of systemic racism.
“Congress overwhelmingly voted to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday. But let us not forget that in Florida and Texas, educators are banned from teaching critical race theory,” wrote the human rights advocate Martin Luther King III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr. “Let Juneteenth be both a day of celebration and a day of education of our nation’s true history.”
For some critics, the move felt like a hollow gesture. “No more performative gestures for Juneteenth,” said Janeese Lewis George, a District of Columbia council member. “Stop giving us things we didn’t ask for and ignoring the things that matter.”
Cori Bush, a Democratic representative of Missouri, called for broader reforms to address systemic racism.
Fourteen House Republicans opposed the effort. Congressman Matt Rosendale said creating the federal holiday was an effort to celebrate “identity politics”.
“Since I believe in treating everyone equally, regardless of race, and that we should be focused on what unites us rather than our differences, I will vote no,” he said in a press release.
The vast majority of states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or have an official observance of the day, and most states hold celebrations. Juneteenth is a paid holiday for state employees in Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington.
Under the legislation, the federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.
The Republican congressman Clay Higgins said he would vote for the bill and he supported the establishment of a federal holiday, but he was upset that the name of the holiday included the word independence rather than emancipation.
“Why would the Democrats want to politicize this by co-opting the name of our sacred holiday of Independence Day?” Higgins said.
“I want to say to my white colleagues on the other side, getting your independence from being enslaved in a country is different from a country getting independence to rule themselves,” the Democratic congresswoman Brenda Lawrence replied, adding: “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.”