President Joe Biden signed June 19 into law as a US federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. The president said signing the legislation into law will be one of the greatest honors of his presidency.
President Biden, who has only been president for about six months, has expressed how important and powerful the day is in history and how proud he hopes Americans will feel about the new law. “I think this will be one of my greatest honors as president. I regret that my grandchildren aren’t with me because everyone should witness this moment in history. I hope all Americans learn from our history and can feel the power of this day as proof of progress, how far we have come and how long we have to go,” Biden said at the White House.
The ceremony was held in the East Room and had about 80 members of Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus members, local elected officials, community leaders, and activists. Opal Lee, the activist who campaigned to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, was present, and the President specifically acknowledged her presence.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln introduced the Emancipation Proclamation, and on June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, to comply with the proclamation. President Biden further reiterated that “great nations do not ignore their most painful moments in history.”
“Great nations own up to those pains the same way we have come to terms with ours and are trying to remember those moments so we can heal and grow stronger,” he said. Even though only a few States currently observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday, the new law has made it an official federal holiday that takes effect immediately nationwide.
At the ceremony, the President implored Americans to use the day as a day of reflection and action. “The goal is to fulfill the promise of equality for everyone in this country. That is the true meaning of Juneteenth and should be what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
The holiday falls on Saturday this year, and the US Office of Personnel Management announced on Thursday that most federal employees will observe it on Friday. The bill was passed into law on Wednesday with a 415–14 vote in Congress after the Senate unanimously passed the legislation on Tuesday. The legislation gained momentum after George Floyd was killed by the police last year, and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests ensued. The Democrats taking over the White House and the control of the US Senate and House of Representatives also ensured easy passage of the bill.
The bill was sponsored by bi-partisan members of Congress that included Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, and Democratic Sen. Es Markley of Massachusetts. President Biden commended members of Congress for not letting party interests get in the way of historical amendments like this. “I hope we begin to deal with one another better from now on,” he said.
The bill had been blocked by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in 2020, saying that a holiday like that would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. However, he dropped his objection this week and allowed the bill to get passed in the Senate.
Fourteen other Republicans, however, voted against the bill, including California’s Tom McClintock and Doug LaMalfa, Tennessee’s Scott DesJarlais, Kentucky’s Thomas Massie, Alabama’s Mo Brooks and Mike Rogers, Wisconsin’s Tom Tiffany, Arizona’s Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar, Montana’s Matt Rosendale, South Carolina’s Ralph Norman, Texas’s Chip Roy and Ronny Jackson, and Georgia’s Andrew Clyde.