Congress on Wednesday passed a bill recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, even as a cultural war rages over conservative states’ efforts to ban school lessons around how the country’s history of slavery is integral to understanding systemic racism in the US today.
The bill, which designates June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, was signed into law on Thursday by President Joe Biden at a White House ceremony.
"Juneteenth represents not only the commemoration of the end of slavery in America more than 150 years ago, but the ongoing work that has to [be done to] bring true equity and racial justice into American society — which we can do," said Biden. "In short, this day doesn't just celebrate the past. It calls for action today."
While Texas has recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday since 1980, and nearly all states commemorate it in some form, a decadeslong effort to make it a federal holiday gained momentum in 2020 after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked a national reckoning over racism and police brutality.
The bill had failed to move through Congress last year when Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin objected, citing concerns over the cost to taxpayers of an added federal holiday. But Johnson withdrew his objection this week, saying, “While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter.”
The Senate unanimously passed the bill on Tuesday. On Wednesday, House lawmakers followed suit, although that vote was not unanimous, with 14 Republicans voting against the bill.
The long-awaited move to nationally commemorate the day of June 19, 1865 — when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, were told they had been freed nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — comes at a time when conversations about slavery, race, and racism in schools have become a political and cultural flashpoint fueled by right-wing media and conservative activists.
At least one Republican lawmaker in the House, Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana (which already recognizes Juneteenth National Freedom Day), said he was voting against the Juneteenth bill because he believed it was part of a broader battle of so-called identity politics. “This is an effort by the Left to create a say out of a whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country,” he said.
Critical race theory is an academic term that has been misappropriated by mostly white conservatives in the wake of the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize–winning1619 Project as a stand-in for almost any educational discussion that might frame US history through a critical racial lens.
The 1619 Project — so named for the first year enslaved Africans arrived in the US — and its accompanying educational syllabus seeks to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
In an effort to whitewash the country’s history as wholly virtuous, Republican lawmakers pushing to ban critical race theory in schools have mischaracterized it, claiming it teaches children to hate each other, their country, and police officers. One GOP lawmaker falsely claimed it “teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin, period.” Just hours before the House passed the Juneteenth bill, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts tweeted, “Critical race theory is an attack on our country’s core values.”
As of Wednesday, at least 21 states had introduced bills that would limit teaching critical race theory or restrict discussions of racism, while five states have signed such bills into law, according to an Education Week analysis.
Cliff Albright, the cofounder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, told BuzzFeed News it was ironic for the government to mark Juneteenth as a holiday at the same time conservatives push for laws that might make it challenging to explain to schoolchildren why they have the day off.
“By telling them what the holiday is, you run the risk of teaching critical race theory — which is just history,” he said.
The purpose of acknowledging history, Albright said, was to learn from it and to better inform our present.
“And yet you have some senators who voted to acknowledge this history who have completely buried their heads in the sand about the current manifestations of structural racism and Jim Crow,” he said.
Like Albright, many Black Americans cautiously welcomed the symbolism of marking Juneteenth a national holiday but pointed out that it comes at a time when Congress was still struggling to pass legislation that would protect the voting rights, civil rights, and human rights of Black people.
For Albright, even though the symbolic gesture of marking Juneteenth a federal holiday was a step in the right direction, it wasn’t enough.
“Symbolism isn’t bad, but if it’s not backed up by protecting our rights, whether that be voting rights, or the right to learn history, or the right for our lives not to be taken by police violence… then if you give me the choice of the holiday versus actual legislation... I’m going to choose the legislation,” he said.
But, he added, Black people should not have to make that choice.
“We want the symbolism and the policy. We want the holiday and voting rights,” Albright said. “That would be closer to progress.”
Robert Greene II, the lead associate editor of Black Perspectives, an online publication of the African American Intellectual History Society, compared it to the fight to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday in the 1970s and 1980s.
“By the time it was made a national holiday, over the objection of President Ronald Reagan, many in the civil rights movement community saw it as a symbolic victory in the face of conservative backlash against the tenuous gains of the movement,” Greene told BuzzFeed News.
However, Greene said despite current battles over critical race theory and The 1619 Project, people should embrace Juneteenth.
“This holiday should remind of how much the ancestors of Black Americans endured — and how much more we still need to do to make this country a just and fair one for all,” he said.