President Biden signed a law designating June 19, known as Juneteenth, a federal holiday on Thursday in front of a crowd made up of members of the Congressional Black Caucus and supporters, including 94-year-old Texas activist Opal Lee, who has spent years campaigning to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
From now on, Juneteenth National Independence Day will be nationally celebrated to commemorate the end of slavery, marking an important moment in the United States’ recognition of its history with slavery.
Though President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavery continued in many confederate states for years. The date June 19, 1865, commemorates the announcement of union General Gordon Granger that all enslaved people in Texas must be freed by order of the federal government.
“We must learn from our history and we must teach our children our history because it is part of our history as a nation,” Vice President Kamala Harris said Thursday.
Today, Juneteenth is widely celebrated around the US. Forty-seven states already recognized the date as a holiday, while Texas, New York, Virginia, and Washington have designated it a paid holiday for state employees. Last year, Global Citizen partnered with singer-songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams to launch the Juneteenth Pledge, calling on American companies and legislators to make Juneteenth a paid holiday around the country.
“As Americans, we love and we appreciate Independence Day, but when July 4, 1776, took place, the only ones that were free from the British monarchy were our white brothers,” Williams said, according to CNBC. “The white sisters could not vote. The Native Americans, where we get this land from, they were not free, and certainly, the African Americans, women and men, we didn’t have our freedom.”
“For us, we feel like the day that we were freed, everyone was freed,” Williams added. “So why not make that a paid holiday? We deserve that, you know?”
Several companies announced commitments to recognize Juneteenth as an annual paid holiday for employees, including Allstate, Best Buy, Nike, and Target.
Despite this recognition, there has been a push to have Juneteenth classified as a federal holiday in recent years, spurred by instances of police brutality against Black people and nationwide conversations about race in the United States.
After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last year, Juneteenth celebrations were bittersweet, both commemorating the end of slavery and reckoning with the fact that its legacy is still felt today. Black people around the world experience higher rates of hunger, job insecurity, and poverty. In the US, a Black person is five times more likely to be stopped by police without just cause than a white person, according to the NAACP.
Before signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, President Biden took a moment to speak about the question of equity in the United States, highlighting instances of racial injustice that prevent the country from achieving full equity for everyone under the law. One of these instances, Biden pointed out, concerns voting.
“[Equity] is not going to be fulfilled so long as the sacred right to vote remains under attack,” Biden said. “To see this assault from restrictive laws, threats of intimidation, voter purges, and more. An assault that offends our very democracy. We can’t rest until the promise of equality is fulfilled for every one of us in every corner of this nation. That, to me, is the meaning of Juneteenth.”
In states across the country, a wave of legislation that disproportionately targets Black and brown people has been introduced and signed into law. Activists say the voting restrictions found in these bills are intended to disenfranchise minority communities.
In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a voting rights law that tightens absentee ballot identification requirements, restricts use of ballot drop boxes, and allows a Republican-controlled state agency to take over local voting operations, according to Reuters. A law signed earlier this year in Iowa shortened the state’s early voting period and Election Day polling-place hours and imposed tighter deadlines for absentee ballots to be submitted.
As the United States grapples with its involvement with the slave trade, the act of making Juneteenth a federal holiday is an important step in recognizing the country’s history and celebrating the end of slavery. But legislators must follow up with concrete actions to end racial inequality and promote equity and justice, starting by ensuring that all people are able to participate in the country’s democratic process.
“We have come far and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration,” Harris said. “It is not only a day of pride, it is also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action. And with that I say, Happy Juneteenth everybody.”
Editor's note: This story was originally published on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, and has been updated to reflect the bill passing both chambers of Congress and being signed by President Biden.