We Have a New Federal Holiday — Juneteenth!

By Inaara S. RSS Fri, August 27, 2021

Two months ago was the first official celebration of Juneteenth as a national holiday.

On Thursday, June 17, 2021, Congress passed and presented the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act to President Joe Biden, who signed the bill into law.

The U.S. government updated Title 5, Section 6103 (a) of the United States Code to include Juneteenth as an official public holiday, making it the 12th federal holiday and the first national holiday to be passed in 38 years, since the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. Before Juneteenth was signed into law as a federal holiday, there had only been four federal holidays passed in the last century.

While many have worked to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday for decades, the Black Lives Matter movement—especially the national organizing last summer in the fight for justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, along with all Black lives—renewed and strengthened the efforts to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Ms. Opal Lee (left) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (right) advocated for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday.

Ms. Opal Lee, an activist and lifelong Texan, has spent years advocating for Juneteenth to become a national holiday. In 2016, Ms. Lee walked from her hometown of Fort Worth, TX to Washington, D.C., as part of her efforts for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday.

U.S. House of Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas was one of the earliest champions of passing Juneteenth as a federal holiday in Congress. She first voted for a House Resolution to recognize Juneteenth in 1997 and had co-sponsored or herself introduced House Resolutions recognizing Juneteenth 13 times since 2005.

Ms. Opal Lee witnessed Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee formally announce that the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was passed in the House of Representatives. Both Ms. Lee and Rep. Lee were present at the White House when President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law this year.

So, why is it important that Juneteenth is a national holiday?

Juneteenth honors June 19, 1865, the day Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 which stated that the more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were free by executive decree.

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration, and now the only federal holiday, that acknowledges the end of the institution of slavery in the United States. While Juneteenth specifically commemorates the day when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom, it has come to symbolize the independence that Black Americans won across the U.S. following the Civil War, and the numerous campaigns by Black Americans to guarantee rights, protections, and freedoms since then. By recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, we are committing as a country to better understand the history of enslavement, and how Black Americans' efforts for freedom are a critical part of U.S. history.

historic photo of band from Juneteenth
Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1860s Texas, shortly after the Civil War.

Students in schools across the country will learn about the importance of Juneteenth. Many employees will be able to take this day off to learn about the history of Juneteenth, the institution of slavery, and Black freedom movements in the U.S. More of us will be able to take the time to attend Juneteenth festivities in our towns and cities joined by our friends, family, and neighbors. We will be able to commemorate Juneteenth as a major holiday together.

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