What its path to federal holiday status looks like
From the moment Major General Gordon Granger uttered the words “all slaves are free” in the city of Galveston, Texas, Juneteenth was celebrated in the United States.
On the morning of June 19, 1865, Granger was standing atop Ashton Villa’s balcony reading General Order # 3.
“The people of Texas are told that, according to a proclamation by the executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” said Granger, freeing slaves from the most Western slave state and giving birth to the most ancient known celebration of the end of slavery.
The former slaves rejoiced. Finally, freedom had come. Many ran away from their former owners before Granger finished reading the order. Others stopped to celebrate, dance, eat a barbecue and drink strawberry soda – traditions that are still observed today.
The commemoration was mainly confined to Texas for many years, but became a day that African Americans could hold on to as Independence Day.
Even though it has been celebrated for 156 years and is recognized in one form or another in 47 states and the District of Columbia, Juneteenth is not a federal holiday.
But there is a bill in Congress that tries to change that.
National Independence Day Act of June 17
On February 25, 2021, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced the June 15 National Independence Day law. That would make June 12 the 12th federal holiday, with the observation falling on June 19.
“Juneteenth honors the end of the years of suffering African Americans endured in slavery and celebrates the legacy of perseverance that has become the hallmark of the African American experience in the struggle for equality,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who presented HR 1320..
Senator Edward Markey presented the S.475 with Senator Cory Booker and Tina Smith.
“For too long we have tried to whitewash our nation’s history instead of facing the uncomfortable and painful truth,” Markey said. “This legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is just one step we can take to start righting the wrongs of the past and ensure equal justice in the future.”
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. (Source: Galveston Convention & Visitors Bureau)
The Senate bill enjoys bipartisan support. Thirty-three Democrats co-sponsored the bill while 16 Republicans did, which would indicate 52 yes votes. The addition of Markey, Smith, and Booker brings that total to 55 and brings it down to just below the amount needed to break any potential obstruction.
The 14 Democrats who are not among the co-sponsors of the bill would almost certainly push the bill above the two-thirds approval threshold. Even so, Juneteenth’s path to becoming a federal holiday is far from guaranteed.
Why adopting the Juneteenth law can be difficult
Congress has not added a federal holiday since Martin Luther King Day in 1983. And even this bill has taken many years to pass.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Senator Edward Brooke and Representatives John Conyers and Charles Samuel Joelson introduced several bills that would give King a vacation.
Conyers introduced a bill to establish MLK day in every session between 1968 and 1983. None of them were put to a vote until 1979, which was not approved by two-thirds of the House.
Finally, Representative Katie Hall’s Bill HR3706 passed 338-90 in the House. When he got to the Senate he went 78-22. President Ronald Reagan promulgated it on November 2, 1983.
The Juneteenth bill has already failed recently. That same group of lawmakers introduced an identical bill last year on June 17.
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It stalled in the Senate while Markey and Senator John Cornyn tried to pass it by unanimous consent. An objection from Republican Senator Ron Johnson derailed him, who argued that the new federal holiday would cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
In 2012, Senator Key Bailey Hutchinson introduced a bill to declare Juneteenth a national day of celebration, similar to Flag Day and Patriot Day.
Hutchinson’s bill never made it out of committee. But even if it had passed, it wouldn’t have offered the same benefits as federal holidays.
What does federal public holiday status mean?
Federal holidays grant days off to federal employees across the country.
Title V of the United States Code only authorizes Congress to create public holidays for federal employees. States are not required to observe them, although many do often. And federal holidays do not impose days off for employees of private companies, although companies have included them in their list of recognized holidays.
States are allowed to create their own holidays, which is why states like Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Oregon have ditched the federal Columbus Day holiday instead of Indigenous Peoples Day.
And that’s what has allowed many states and businesses to declare Juneteenth a holiday on their own.
Celebrations of June 17 today
Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth a public holiday in 1979. It was thanks to the work of State Representative Al Edwards, who passed away in April 2020.
A statue of Edwards stands in Galveston where the first and largest celebration of Juneteenth takes place.
Galveston erected a statue of Representative Al Edwards, who fought for Juneteenth to be recognized as a holiday in Texas. (Source: Galveston Convention & Visitors Bureau)
Each year, the city hosts a reenactment of the Granger’s Reading of General Order # 3. Guest speakers from all levels of government are known to visit the ceremony.
According to Doug Matthews, who has coordinated the festivities in the town of Juneteenth for decades, the celebration is not limited to a single day. Attendees can expect 12 to 15 events, such as a gala, banquet, and multiple parades.
Many companies have taken the opportunity to name Juneteenth a corporate holiday following America’s recognition of racial inequalities following the murder of George Floyd.
Big brands like Nike, Lyft, Target, Quicken Loans, and the NFL started watching Juneteenth last year. Spotify is one of the organizations that approve the Juneteenth Act, along with the Leadership Conference on Civil Human Rights, the NAACP, the US Travel Association, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, and the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
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“Juneteenth is a day that my late husband, Reverend Ronald Vincent Myers, Sr., MD, founder of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation and father of the Modern-Day Juneteenth Movement, worked so feverishly to make it a day of observance.” Sylvia Holmes-Myers said.
Reverend Myers has dedicated his life to pushing for Juneteenth to be nationally recognized. His widow said he always viewed the June 17 vacation as a day of celebration and education.
“Dr. Myers believed and knew that June 19 and July 4 had completed the history of America’s freedom,” said Holmes-Myers. “I know the man I called my husband, father of my children and your Doc, is smiling from the sky knowing that at last Juneteenth is receiving the recognition she rightly deserves. It was a long time coming. “
This story was reported from Atlanta.