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Biden links Juneteenth to voting rights as he signs new federal holiday into law

·4-min read

President Joe Biden has signed a bill into law creating Juneteenth – the nation’s oldest annual commemoration of slavery’s end – as a national holiday.

Following the proposal’s swift passage in Congress, from a unanimous vote in the Senate on Tuesday and debate and passage with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, the president signed the measure into law on Thursday, two days before 2021’s Juneteenth celebrations.

Effective this week, federal workers will receive a paid holiday on 19 June, or, if it falls on a weekend, the closest Friday or Monday.

In remarks from the White House before a bill signing, the president said Juneteenth “will join the others of our national celebrations” for “our independence, our labourers who built this nation, our service members” but he underscored the nation’s urgent and ongoing duty to live up to its promise of equality.

He pointed to his administration’s efforts to combat and prosecute discrimination, promote equity in healthcare and education, and protect voting rights against “an assault that offends our very democracy” from partisan legislation undermining ballot access across the US.

“We see this assault from restrictive laws, threats of intimidation, voter purges and more,” he said. “We can’t rest until 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.”

Juneteenth was first celebrated by formerly enslaved African Americans in Texas on 19 June, 1866, spreading across the US in annual celebrations, memorials, concerts and other events among Black communities.

On 19 June 1865, roughly 2,000 Union Army soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that enslaved people were now free.

But the announcement arrived more than two years after Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation, which signalled the end of slavery in the US but did not end the enslavement of all people in the nation at the time.

The 13th Amendment to the US constitution, which formally abolished slavery in the US, wasn’t passed by Congress until 31 January 1865. It was ratified later that year. Meanwhile, slavers in Texas suppressed the news of freedom to the people they enslaved, withholding them in bondage.

Slavery’s formal end ushered in a decade of Reconstruction, which sought the continued emancipation of Black Americans and inclusion of the secessionist states into the US amid white supremacist paramilitary terror and a devastated post-war economy in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Though the 13th Amendment prohibited the enslavement of Americans, it exempted slavery for those convicted of a crime. So-called “Black codes” in economically devastated southern states subjected harsh penalties against newly freed Black people for crimes like loitering or breaking curfew, ensuring they would remain in chains for decades to follow.

The practice of “convict leasing” prisoners for labour to build railways and mines, among other private construction projects, became ”slavery by another name” that is echoed in today’s mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts Black Americans, while segregation, voter suppression and the systemic tide of racism that followed Jim Crow-era violence has endured.

“So as we commemorate the history of Juneteenth ... we must learn from our history and we must teach our children our history, because it is part of our history as a nation,” said vice president Kamala Harris, alluding to contemporary right-wing attempts to suppress the teaching of systemic racism in schools.

“We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people,” she added. “Footsteps away from where Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Opal Lee, a 94-year-old activist from Fort Worth, Texas, who has campaigned for the holiday’s federal recognition with an annual walk to Washington DC, was present at the White House for the bill signing. Her home was torched by a white mob on 19 June, 1939.

Mr Biden said Juneteenth marks both “the long, hard night” of bondage and a promise of freedom.

“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” he said, echoing his remarks from the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. “They embrace them. Great nations don’t walk away. They come to terms with mistakes we’ve made, and remembering those moments, we begin to heal.”

He called the creation of the holiday, now the nation’s 11th, “one of the greatest honours I will have as president” and hoped 2021 celebrations will be among the first “our nation will celebrate together”.

Joyce Beatty, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, called passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act “an important and long overdue step in commemorating the end of one of the most painful periods in our nation’s history”.

“While we will celebrate this milestone, let us not forget how much further we must go,” she added. “Voting rights, the racial wealth gap, justice in policing and so many more issues remain to be overcome.”

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