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Biden signs into law bill establishing Juneteenth as federal holiday

Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, when a Union Army general arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free.
/ Source: NBC News

President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law Thursday, officially making June 19 a federal holiday and giving national recognition to a day commemorating emancipation.

"Juneteenth marks both a long, hard night of slavery and subjugation and the promise of a brighter morning to come," Biden said during a signing ceremony at the White House. "This is a day, in my view, of profound weight and profound power. A day in which we remember the moral stain, terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take."

Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and Black vice president, said that designating a federal holiday "makes an important statement."

"These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock. And often to acknowledge our history," Harris said, urging people to be clear-eyed about the realities of slavery and the long fight for freedom.

Since June 19 falls on a Saturday this year, most federal employees will observe the holiday on Friday, June 18, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management tweeted.

The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday, 415-14, to make Juneteenth a national federal holiday, a day after the Senate cleared the bill without debate. The only votes against the bill came from Republicans.

Juneteenth — also known as Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day and Jubilee Day — is the 11th federal holiday and the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983.

Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery and commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and informed enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free. Granger's message came more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

"Think about that: for more than two years, the enslaved people of Texas were kept in servitude. For more than two years, they were intentionally kept from their freedom," Harris said.

The 13th Amendment was ratified a few months later in December of 1865, formally abolishing slavery in the United States.

The date is already celebrated as a state or ceremonial holiday in 47 states and the District of Columbia. Texas became the first to make it a state holiday in 1980.

Around 80 members of Congress, local elected officials, and community leaders and activists attended the signing ceremony Thursday, marking one of the largest events Biden has hosted at the White House since the pandemic hit. Among the guests were Usher, the musician, and Opal Lee, the 94-year-old activist from Fort Worth, Texas, who is credited for leading the fight to make Juneteenth a nationwide federal holiday.

The push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was catalyzed last summer after a white police officer in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd, a Black man, sparking nationwide protests and conversations about how the country should address its history of racism.

The move comes as Congress remains at odds over how to address recent legislation in Republican-controlled state legislatures to restrict voting access as well as police reform. School boards nationwide have also erupted into recent fights about how to teach kids about racism and equity.

Biden said that it was not enough to simply commemorate Juneteenth, calling on Americans to continue working towards honoring its full promise particularly on voting rights.

"Its not going to be fulfilled so long as the sacred right to vote remains under attack," Biden said.

Although the holiday will be observed for the roughly two million employees of the federal government, it is unclear how many states or private employers will recognize the holiday.

"I think this will go down for me one of the greatest honors I have had as president," Biden said before signing the bill into law.

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