Congress passes bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday

Race in America

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The House passed a bill that would make Juneteenth, or June 19, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The bill passed in the House 415-14. All dissenting votes were from Republicans.

One of the dissenting votes came from Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale. In a news release, he said the bill was, “an effort by the Left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.”

Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie also criticized the new holiday’s formal name: Juneteenth National Independence Day. He said some Americans may feel pushed to pick June 19 or July 4 as “their” independence day based on race.

But supporters say it’s an important mark of progress in race relations in the U.S.

“It’s often said that those who do not remember their past are doomed to repeat it,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said. If we want to confront the sins of slavery, it’s incumbent upon us to recognize our past evils, but the moments of triumph over those evils.”

The Senate passed the bill Tuesday under a unanimous consent agreement that speeds up the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator’s objection to block such agreements. The bill was co-sponsored by 18 Senate Republicans as well as 40 Senate Democrats and 2 independents that caucus with them.

Several states over the last several years have adopted Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the abolishment of slavery, as a statewide holiday. 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 Illinois, Texas, New York, Virginia and Washington.

Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn’t reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas. That was also about two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the Southern states.

“Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a major step forward to recognize the wrongs of the past,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “But we must continue to work to ensure equal justice and fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and our Constitution.”

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., had objected in the previous Congress to a bill to celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday because of the cost and lack of debate, he said. Johnson noted that he has supported resolutions recognizing the significance of Juneteenth, but he was concerned the new holiday would give federal employees 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. Therefore, I do not intend to object,” Johnson said in a statement before Tuesday’s vote.

The bill in the Senate was sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass. He 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.”

Under the legislation, the federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

Reporting by Kevin Freking. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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