House approves bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday

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FILE – In this June 19, 2020, file photo, people demonstrate in Chicago, to mark Juneteenth. A national coalition of labor unions, along with racial and social justice organizations, will stage a mass walkout from work July 20, as part of an ongoing reckoning on systemic racism and police brutality in the U.S. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States will soon have a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the nation.

The House voted 415-14 Wednesday to make Juneteenth, or June 19th, the 12th federal holiday. The bill now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word didn’t reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas. That was also about two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the Southern states.

It’s the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.

“Our federal holidays are purposely few in number and recognize the most important milestones,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY. “I cannot think of a more important milestone to commemorate than the end of slavery in the United. States.”

Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaking next to a large poster of a Black man whose back bore massive scarring from being whipped, said she would be in Galveston this Saturday to celebrate along with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

“Can you imagine?” said the rather short 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 a day earlier under a unanimous consent agreement that expedites the process for considering legislation. It takes just one senator’s objection to block such agreements.

“Please, let us do as the Senate. Vote unanimously for passage,” Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., pleaded at one point with his colleagues.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and had 60 co-sponsors. Democratic leaders moved quickly to bring the bill to the House floor.

Some Republican lawmakers opposed the effort. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., said 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 recognize 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.

Under the legislation, the federal holiday would be known as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., said he would vote for the bill and 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 politicize this by coopting the name of our sacred holiday of Independence Day?” Higgins said.

“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,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., replied, adding, “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.”

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