WASHINGTON: United States President Joe Biden signed legislation on Thursday (Jun 17) establishing a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery, saying he believes it will go down as one of the greatest honours he has as president.
Biden signed into law a Bill to make Juneteenth, or Jun 19, the 12th federal holiday. The House voted 415-14 on Wednesday to send the Bill to Biden, while the Senate passed the Bill unanimously the day before.
“This is a day of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take,” Biden said.
Juneteenth commemorates Jun 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas - two months after the Confederacy had surrendered. That was also about two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states.
It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr Day was created in 1983. One of the federal holidays, Inauguration Day, happens every four years.
The US Office of Personnel Management, which is the human resources office for the federal government, tweeted on Thursday that most federal employees will observe the new holiday - Juneteenth National Independence Day - on Friday since Jun 19 falls on a Saturday this year.
Biden noted the overwhelming support for the Bill from lawmakers in both parties. He had run for president promising to unite the country and work with Republicans, but his first major legislation to provide more COVID-19 relief to American consumers and businesses was passed along party lines and he has struggled to unite lawmakers to support a major public works Bill.
“I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another," Biden said.
Biden signed the legislation surrounded by members of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the lead sponsors of the legislation in the Senate, Senators Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas.
He was introduced by Vice President Kamala Harris, the nation's first African-American vice president.
“We have come far and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration," Harris said.
The White House moved quickly to hold the signing ceremony after the House debated the Bill and then voted for it on Wednesday.
“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognise the most important milestones," said Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York. “I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United States."
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, speaking next to a large poster of a black man whose back bore massive scarring from being whipped, said that she would be in Galveston on Saturday to celebrate along with Cornyn.
“Can you imagine?” said Jackson Lee. “I will be standing maybe taller than Senator Cornyn, forgive me for that, because it will be such an elevation of joy.”
The Senate passed the Bill on Tuesday under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator’s objection to block such agreements.
The vote comes as lawmakers struggle to overcome divisions on police reform legislation following the killing of George Floyd by police and as Republican state legislators push what experts say is an unprecedented number of Bills aimed at restricting access to the ballot box.
While Republicans say the goal is to prevent voter fraud, Democrats contend that the measures are aimed at undermining minority voting rights.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus went to the floor on Wednesday to speak in favour of the Bill.
Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat from New Jersey, said that she viewed Juneteenth as a commemoration rather than a celebration because it represented something that was delayed in happening.
“It also reminds me of what we don't have today," she said. “And that is full access to justice, freedom and equality. All these are often in short supply as it relates to the black community."
Some Republican lawmakers opposed the effort. Representative Matt Rosendale, a Republican from Montana, said that 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 recognise 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.
Representative Clay Higgins, a Republican from Louisiana, said that he would vote for the Bill and that 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 politicise this by co-opting the name of our sacred holiday of Independence Day?" Higgins asked.
Representative Brenda Lawrence, a Democrat from Michigan, replied: “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.”
She added: "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."
The 14 House Republicans who voted against the Bill were: Andy Biggs of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Ronny Jackson of Texas, Doug LaMalfa of California, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Tom McClintock of California, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Mike Rogers of Alabama, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Chip Roy of Texas and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin.