Juneteenth is now a federal holiday, becoming the first created since Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1983, and marking the culmination of a political push to make the day officially observed.
President Biden signed the bill to make it federally recognized, which was passed in both the House and Senate with strong bipartisan support. He said it is “a day that reflects what the Psalm tells us: ‘weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.’”
“Juneteenth marks both a long, hard night of slavery and subjugation and the promise of a brighter morning to come,” he continued. “This is a day, in my view, of profound weight and profound power. A day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take.”
Saturday, June 19 marks 156 years since Black people in Galveston, Tex., were informed that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, which mandated the end of enslavement of Black people two years earlier. An enslaved population in the town did not realize this until U.S. Army Major Gen. Gordon Granger arrived there and read General Order No. 3, which declared federal enforcement of the policy signed by Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated two months earlier.
The day became a cultural celebration observed mainly by Black people in the southern and southwestern United States, and it became a state holiday in Texas in 1980. By this year, every state in the nation, with the exception of South Dakota at least recognized the day.
But the push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was led by Opal Lee, a 94-year-old resident of Fort Worth, Tex., whose family was celebrating Juneteenth in 1939 when she was 12, but was terrorized by a white mob that attacked her home and burned it down.
But she refused to give up on the spirit of the holiday, becoming an activist to create awareness of the cultural celebration. In 2016, she even walked from Fort Worth to Washington D.C. to advocate for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday.
“I’ve got so many different feelings all gurgling up in here,” Lee, who is called “grandmother of Juneteenth” told CBS Dallas-Fort Worth. “I don’t know what to call them all. I am so delighted to know that suddenly we’ve got a Juneteenth. It’s not a Texas thing or a black thing. It’s an American thing.”
Biden’s signing of the bill also marks a grim anniversary. On June 17, 2015, nine members of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, all Black, were gunned down by a young white man in a racist rampage. The president recognized the tragic shooting and said today is “a reminder that our work to root out hate never ends, because hate never hides....and when you breathe oxygen onto that rock it comes out.
“That’s why we must understand that Juneteenth represents not only the commemoration of the end of slavery...but the ongoing work we have to bring true equity and racial justice into American society, which we can do.”
With Biden was Vice President Kamala Harris, who made brief remarks before the signing of the bill, explaining the importance of including Juneteenth among the nation’s roster of national holidays.
When we establish a national holiday, it makes an important statement,” Harris said. “These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock and often to acknowledge our history.”
(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)