On June 17, President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, the first federal holiday to be created since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983. For decades, African-American communities across the nation have celebrated Juneteenth to mark the day that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved Blacks that they’d been freed. Despite not being a federal holiday, several states across the nation have for years marked Juneteenth in some form.
“We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House signing ceremony. "We have come far, and we have far to go. But today is a day of celebration. It is not only a day of pride. It’s also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action.”
Earlier in the week, the Senate unanimously passed the landmark bipartisan legislation, followed by near-unanimous consent in the House with just 14 nays, who claimed that Juneteenth was a slight against Independence Day.
During the debate on the House floor before the bill passed, several Congressional Black Caucus members delivered remarks to refute that claim and other Republican objections.
“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,” said Michigan Democrat Brenda Lawrence. “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 overwhelming bipartisanship support is at least in part a response to the millions of Americans who for months took to the streets to peacefully protest police violence in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and other racial inequities.
“Black history is American history, and I am proud that Congress is following the lead of the Congressional Black Caucus in reaffirming that sacred principle — because we can’t change the future if we can’t acknowledge the past,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Joyce Beatty in a statement after the vote.
In remarks delivered before signing the bill, President Biden expressed hope that this rare show of bipartisanship marks the beginning of a change in how Democrats and Republicans work together. He also noted how there’s much more work to be done to ensure true equality for all Americans.
“The truth is, it’s simply not enough just to commemorate Juneteenth. After all, the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning,” Biden said. “To honor the true meaning of Juneteenth, we have to continue toward that promise because we’ve not gotten there yet.”
The ceremony coincidentally took place on the sixth anniversary of the tragic shooting deaths of nine worshippers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., which Biden added is “why we must understand that Juneteenth represents not only the commemoration of the end of slavery in America more than 150 years ago, but the ongoing work to have to bring true equity and racial justice into American society, which we can do.”
In recent months, there has been an alarming wave of regressive voting laws passed in Republican-led states across the nation that would curtail the right to vote, particularly for people of color. Meanwhile, two major voting rights bills are stalled in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats hold a razor-thin 50-seat majority: the For the People Act, passed by the House in March, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, of which the House passed an earlier version in 2019 that failed in the Senate committee process.
Provisions in the For the People Act include expanding automatic voter registration and same-day registration, strengthening vote by mail, early voting, and ballot access; and combating voter intimidation and voter suppression. It also includes measures to protect elections from foreign interference, fix partisan gerrymandering, and promote digital ad transparency.
Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, initially opposed the legislation, proclaiming it too partisan, but recently offered some compromises that may increase the bill’s chances of moving forward. They include making Election Day a public holiday and mandating at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections that includes two weekends. Voting activist Stacey Abrams has thrown her support behind the legislation.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is a much narrower bill that aims to address a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that makes it harder for the federal government to block racially discriminatory voting laws and redistricting proposals. It likely will not be reintroduced in the House until the fall. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently deemed the bill “unnecessary” because “it’s against the law to discriminate in voting on the basis of race already.”
Also on hold is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act the House passed in March 2020, which would standardize police practices across the nation and ban inhumane restraints like chokeholds and headlocks and end no-knock warrants. It also holds law enforcement officers accountable for their on-duty conduct and ends qualified immunity, which has shielded law enforcement officers with racial animus from prosecution for using lethal force. California Representative Karen Bass, who authored the bill, has been in negotiations for weeks with Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). At the heart of their debate is qualified immunity, which Republican lawmakers robustly oppose, but which Democrats say is key to holding police officers accountable for unnecessary deadly force.
Democrats also are pushing Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan, which includes comprehensive provisions to increase Black homeownership and address inequities in transportation, affordable housing, school infrastructures, and expand access to universal preschool and higher education.
Said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her Juneteenth statement. “While these bills alone will not erase the stains of centuries of systemic racism, they represent important steps in our nation’s journey toward justice.”