This week, President Joe Biden signed a bill marking June 19 as the official federal holiday of Juneteenth. The long-observed commemorative day originates from Galveston, Texas, where, in 1865, US General Gordon Granger told slaves they were officially free. The liberation followed two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln that declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free."
The bill garnered the unanimous support of the Senate while the House of Representatives approved it with a vote of 415 to 14. It then moved to Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden who, according to a report from the New York Times described the bill’s passing as "a day of, in my view, profound weight and profound power.”
“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day and, today, a national holiday,” said Harris, who described federal holidays as “days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often to acknowledge our history.”
The last federal holiday signed into law was Martin Luther King Jr Day, by President Ronald Regan in 1983, to commemorate and honor Dr King's legacy as a civil rights leader and activist. There are only three people in US history who have federal holidays: King Jr, Christoper Columbus, and George Washington.
While many welcome the step in giving Juneteenth federal status, some have put forward that it must take place in tandem with accountability for the modern day racial discrimination that remains a real and significant threat to people of color living in America today.
"It's important to commemorate emancipation and to encourage everyday Americans to reckon with the history of slavery,” said Matthew Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College who specializes in African-American history and civil rights, to Reuters. “But there is always a danger with these sort of things so they can be performative.
“The promise for equality is not going to be fulfilled until it becomes real in our schools, on our main streets and in our neighborhoods.”