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Congress passes bill to make Juneteenth federal holiday

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

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The House voted 415-14 to make Juneteenth, or June 19, the 11th federal holiday, according to The Associated Press. The bill now goes to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

The day marking the end of slavery in Texas, which completed national emancipation, is the first new federal holiday created by Congress since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established, The Washington Post reported.

The Juneteenth bill sailed through the House after the Senate unanimously passed the measure on Tuesday, CNN reported.

Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free, the AP reported. Confederate soldiers surrendered in April 1865, but word did not reach the last enslaved Black people until June 19, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to Galveston, Texas.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, which announced that in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation, “all slaves are free.”

Juneteenth has been a Texas state holiday since 1980, the Post reported.

Since then, every state except South Dakota has officially commemorated Juneteenth, but only a few states observed it as a paid holiday, CNN reported.

Texas’ senior Republican senator, John Cornyn, played a leading role in building GOP support for its passage.

“I believe that there’s no better time than the present, particularly given the strife we’ve seen -- this level of distrust for example between law enforcement and the communities they serve -- to acknowledge our nation’s history, and to learn from it,” Cornyn said Wednesday.

“Juneteenth is a recognition that darkness can come to light, that there is a celebration as my forefathers and mothers struggled to endure the horror they experienced,” Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., told the Post. “And so celebrating Juneteenth as a national holiday is simply an idea whose time has come.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, a lead sponsor of the bill, said passage helps end “America’s original sin,” The New York Times reported.

“I introduced this to make Juneteenth a federal holiday to commemorate the end of chattel slavery, America’s original sin, and to bring about celebration, crushing racial divide down to a point of unity,” Lee said on the House floor, standing beside a poster of an enslaved man whose back showed the scars of whiplashes. “These are the brutal backs upon which the whip went over and over and over again.”

Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., said he was supporting the bill to carry on the tradition of American soldiers who fought in the Civil War to end slavery, the Times reported.

Reschenthaler said the holiday would “highlight the important history and contribution of Black Americans and those who fought and died to end slavery.”

Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., who opposed the measure, said the bill was an effort by “the left” to “make Americans feel bad and convince them that our country is evil,” the Times reported.

“This isn’t an effort to commemorate Emancipation,” Rosendale said. “It’s very clearly tied to the larger hard-left agenda to enshrine the racial history of this country as the prime aspect of our national story.”

Some Republicans objected to the formal name of the bill, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, believing it would detract from the significance of July 4, the Post reported.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said the bill would “create confusion and push Americans to pick one of those two days as their independence day based on their racial identity.” Most said they intended to support the bill anyway.

Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., led the push for the federal holiday in the Senate, the Post reported. He said the measure “does not right the wrongs of our nation’s past, but it finally gives recognition and voice to those who suffered.”

“While freedom was delayed for black Americans following the end of the Civil War, we will delay no longer in recognizing, today, it finally arrived by making Juneteeth a federal holiday,” Markey said.

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