President Biden signs bill to make Juneteenth an official federal holiday

Washington DC - It took 30 months for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, which it finally did on June 19, 1865. It took less than half that time for legislation commemorating that day, known as Juneteenth, to make it to the president’s desk.

Vice President Kamala Harris (fourth From l.) posed with bill co-sponsors and President Joe Biden (c.) as he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.
Vice President Kamala Harris (fourth From l.) posed with bill co-sponsors and President Joe Biden (c.) as he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.  © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on Thursday after the bill passed rapidly through both chambers of Congress this week.

The bill became effective immediately upon being signed, so this June 19 is now a federal holiday.

Because it falls on a Saturday this year, "most federal employees will observe the holiday tomorrow, June 18th," the Office of Personnel Management confirmed Thursday.

Donald Trump returns to Facebook and Instagram as Meta makes big decision
Donald Trump Donald Trump returns to Facebook and Instagram as Meta makes big decision

Biden’s quick signing will give the federal government’s two million employees an unexpected day off this Friday or paid time-and-a-half if they must work.

In the East Room signing ceremony, Biden connected consecrating Juneteenth to his legislative agenda, including efforts to counter restrictive voting laws being adopted in Republican-controlled state legislatures.

"The emancipation of enslaved black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality. It only marked the beginning," said Biden.

"We can’t rest before the promise of equality is fulfilled for every one of us in every corner of this nation. That, to me, is the meaning of Juneteenth," he added.

The nation's first Black vice president oversaw the signing of Juneteenth into law

Vice President Kamala Harris (l.) joined President Joe Biden before the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room.
Vice President Kamala Harris (l.) joined President Joe Biden before the signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room.  © IMAGO / UPI Photo

Kamala Harris, the nation’s first Black vice president, spoke of the day’s importance as she introduced Biden.

"We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday," said Harris.

"We have come far and we have far to go. But today is a day of celebration. It is not only a day of pride, it is also a day to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action," she added.

Donald Trump drops lawsuit against NY Attorney General Letitia James
Donald Trump Donald Trump drops lawsuit against NY Attorney General Letitia James

In addition to the bill’s co-sponsors and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Biden invited Opal Lee to join him for the signing, giving her the first of the many ceremonial pens. Biden called Lee "a daughter of Texas, grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a holiday," and credited the 94-year-old’s organizing efforts.

June 19 marks the day when Union troops under the command of Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to find Black men, women, and children still in bondage months after the Confederacy’s surrender and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the years since, Juneteenth grew from a folk jubilee celebrating the de facto end of slavery into a holiday recognized in 47 states and the District of Columbia.

But without federal recognition, few Americans got off from work to observe it.

Juneteenth is the first federal holiday to be added in nearly four decades

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (c.) was joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus as she held up the bill for the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act at the US Capitol on Thursday.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (c.) was joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus as she held up the bill for the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act at the US Capitol on Thursday.  © IMAGO / MediaPunch

Juneteenth is the 12th federal holiday and the first added to the calendar since Congress established Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1986.

That push took much longer than Juneteenth, spanning 15-years: Michigan Democrat John Conyers Jr. introduced a bill just days after King’s assassination in 1968, but the proposal didn’t get its first vote until 1979, and didn’t pass until 1983.

Along the way, a petition in favor gathered six million signatures and Stevie Wonder recorded Happy Birthday in support.

While activists have pushed for federal recognition of Juneteenth for years, the legislative effort only began last summer. An attempt to pass the bill in the Senate through unanimous consent was blocked by Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, and also initially joined by others, who balked at giving federal workers another paid day off.

Last month, the bill’s co-sponsors said they’d make another push ahead of June 19, and on Tuesday, Johnson finally announced he would drop his objections.

Later that same day, the Senate passed the bill through unanimous consent, and on Wednesday the House voted 415-14 to send it to the president’s deck.

The president said he was particularly proud of the political unity shown from both parties.

"I'm especially pleased that we showed the nation that we can come together as Democrats and Republicans to commemorate this day, with an overwhelming bipartisan support in the Congress," he said. "I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another."

Cover photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

More on Joe Biden: