WASHINGTON — President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris signed into law a bill establishing Juneteenth National Independence Day, a celebration designating the end of slavery in the United States, as a federal holiday.
“By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history, and celebrate progress, and grapple with the distance we’ve come but the distance we have to travel to,” Biden said during remarks Thursday in the East Room of the White House. The last federal holiday was created in 1983, when former President Ronald Reagan established Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Great nations don’t walk away,” Biden added. “We come to terms with the mistakes we’ve made.”
The law takes effect immediately, and will be celebrated on Friday, June 18, since it is the closest weekday.
The bill faced only slight opposition in the House of Representatives earlier this week from some Republicans who cast the measure as racially divisive. Despite protests, only 14 members of the House GOP caucus voted against the legislation. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate.
“We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people,” said Harris, who signed the bill in her capacity as president of the Senate. “We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday.”
During the debate on the House floor, before the bill passed, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus defended the legislation against Republicans who took issue with the bill. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., a vice chair of the CBC, refuted Republican Rep. Clay Higgins’s claim that Juneteenth “co-opted” Independence Day. Higgins, R-La., ultimately voted for the bill.
“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,” Lawrence said. “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.”
Juneteenth, a portmanteau of the date June 19, honors the day that enslaved Black Americans were granted freedom, two years after then-President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. On that date in 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery.
Despite not being a formal federal holiday, a majority of U.S. states have celebrated Juneteenth, otherwise known as Emancipation Day, in some form. Texans began celebrating the occasion in an unofficial capacity in 1866, and the state certified the holiday in 1980. In the years since, 48 other states as well as the District of Columbia have recognized the day.
“I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I’ve had as president,” Biden concluded.