Should the U.S. create its first new federal holiday since the 1980s?
The Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate states, was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in January 1863. However, the news did not reach some states — notably parts of Texas — until two and a half years later. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and informed Black people there that they had been freed. (The National Archives this month located the original handwritten announcement.)
This event was celebrated in that area of Texas on the one-year anniversary in 1866. From there, it spread across the nation to become an annual festive commemoration celebrating the end of slavery, and more broadly celebrating Black history in the U.S. The combination of “June” and “nineteenth” gave the commemoration its popular name: Juneteenth.
Through a historical quirk, this ended up becoming the primary day celebrating the end of slavery, rather than January 1 when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, or December 6 when the 13th Amendment ending slavery nationwide was ratified.
Currently, Juneteenth is an unofficial celebration rather than an official federal holiday. Being a federal holiday makes it official and means federal workers will have the day off. The last new federal holiday created was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, enacted in 1983 and first officially celebrated in 1986. Currently, all but four states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or commemoration: Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Trump and Juneteenth
Juneteenth received a huge boost in name recognition among people with limited knowledge of Black U.S. history recently when President Trump announced plans for his first rally since the COVID-19 pandemic would be held on Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Although Trump subsequently changed the rally’s date to June 20 after a backlash, he told the Wall Street Journal, “I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous. It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.” (Even anti-Trump comedian John Oliver seemed to cede the point: “On Friday it was Juneteenth, which a large segment of white America both celebrated and learned about for the very first time.)
What the legislation does
The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act would make June 19 an official annual federal holiday, the first new one created since the 1980s.
While officially this would only guarantee a day off for federal employees and public schools, in practice many private employers follow suit. According to an annual Bloomberg Law survey in 2018, about 42 percent of American employers gave the day off for MLK Day.
Congressional resolutions “recognizing” or “observing the historical significance of” Juneteenth, without naming it an official federal holiday, have passed several times through the years, including a 2006 resolution from then-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL).
A proposed amendment to the bill, introduced by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and James Lankford (R-OK), would have Juneteenth replace Columbus Day as a federal holiday, keeping the total number at 10.
The House version was introduced on June 18 as bill number H.R. 7232, by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX18). The Senate version was introduced a few days later on June 22 as bill number S. 4019, by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the holiday would be a much-needed honoring of Black peoples’ contributions to America, as opposed to MLK Day which on its face honors a single individual.
“The Juneteenth National Independence Day honors and celebrates African American freedom while encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures,” Rep. Jackson Lee said. “400 plus years after slavery, this will be only the second national holiday honoring the plight of African slaves and the contributions of African Americans in the creation of this great nation.”
“It must always remain a reminder to us all that liberty and freedom are precious birthrights of all Americans which must be jealously guarded and preserved for future generations,” Rep. Jackson Lee continued. “As we create this national holiday, the events of 1865 in Texas and east of the Mississippi River are not forgotten, for all of the roots tie back to this fertile soil we call America.”
Supporters of the proposed amendment to the bill, removing Columbus Day as a federal holiday while adding Juneteenth, say it accomplishes the main bill’s goal while maintaining consistency in terms of days off.
“We should celebrate these strides [towards a more perfect union] on the federal level while remaining cognizant of the impact the existing 10 federal holidays have on federal services and local businesses,” Sen. Lankford said in a press release. “We can reduce these impacts by replacing Columbus Day as a federal holiday with Juneteenth, America’s second independence day.”
What opponents say
Opponents of MLK Day in the 1980s noted that it would come at a cost, since millions of people wouldn’t be working on what would otherwise be a normal Monday. Presumably the same argument would be made about Juneteenth now.
Others say that there shouldn’t be a holiday focusing on only a specific subset of people, instead only holidays like New Year’s Day. “I don’t think we should concentrate on anything that potentially divides us even more,” South Dakota state Rep. Tom Pischke (Republican) said.
However few other opponents are willing to oppose it publicly. Even a recent FoxNews.com article on the subject contained no on-the-record quotes from opponents. It also does not appear that President Trump, who has recently supported keeping military bases named after Confederate generals, has weighed in on the federal holiday proposal.
Odds of passage
The Senate version has attracted 50 bipartisan cosponsors, or half the chamber: 32 Democrats, 16 Republicans, and two independents. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The House version has attracted 136 bipartisan cosponsors: 131 Democrats and five Republicans. Those five Republicans are Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL13), Pete Olson (R-TX22), Van Taylor (R-TX3), Jefferson Van Drew (R-NJ2), and Mark Walker (R-NC6). It awaits a potential vote in the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Although the cosponsorship leans Democratic, particularly in the House, this may still potentially be enacted. The list of states which officially recognize Juneteenth includes some of the most Republican states in the country, including Alabama, Idaho, Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wyoming.