On Thursday, Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) announced plans to introduce a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. His fellow Texan, Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D., Texas) introduced a resolution in the House with over 200 cosponsors that calls for the recognition of Juneteenth.
It’s about time. Juneteenth, which falls on June 19, marks the day, in 1865, that Union soldiers under Major General Gordon Granger announced emancipation to enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas. This happened over two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. While discrimination and racism did not end that day in 1865, the event was a huge stepping stone in the American story of civil rights. Juneteenth, in essence, is a celebration of freedom, of justice for all Americans and all people. Surely this day merits official recognition at the national level.
Yet until these past few weeks, Juneteenth has been more or less obscure among most Americans, existing mostly as a regional holiday celebrated among African Americans, and especially in Texas. For my part, I had never heard of the holiday until last year. But as millions of Americans witness the unrest and protest in response to the death of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, it makes sense that the celebration of emancipation would grow in the national consciousness. Emancipation is a fundamental piece of our country and always has been. Making Juneteenth a federal holiday seems like an obvious and necessary choice.
Federal holidays commemorate the religious and civic identity of this country. They honor sacrifice and commitment to our Founding principles. The ending of slavery was a defining moment in the moral and civic development of our nation. Freedom, justice, and equality, essential aspects of the Founding, finally began to be legally extended to all Americans. In this way, Juneteenth is another celebration of independence.
What’s more, recognition of Juneteenth is just one of many essential steps towards healing the divides in this country. If I’ve taken anything away from the protests and unrest of the past few weeks, it’s that many Americans do not feel heard or seen. We should welcome the bipartisan effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday: It’s a day that reminds all of us that freedom and equality are precious — and that there is still work to do to make this country safe for and welcoming to all of its citizens.