Juneteenth should be a federal holiday. Here's how Congress could make it so

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On June 19, 1865, a U.S. general rode into Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved African people. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect two and a half years prior, the order only applied to slaves in the Confederate states, and many slaveholders refused to comply anyway. It wasn't until that June Monday — dubbed "Juneteenth" as a combination of month and date — that all enslaved people were really, truly free.

Yet while the federal government recognizes July 4 as Independence Day in America, in honor of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in rebuke of British colonial rule, 155 years later Juneteenth is still not a recognized national holiday. And amid the current national protests against white supremacy and police killings of Black people, there is a renewed call for action.

Commemorating Juneteenth would mean commemorating the American "commitment" to freedom and equality for everyone, Jamelle Bouie wrote for Slate in 2014. The day wasn't a magical balm — it would be another 100 years until the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, not to mention the systemic racism that currently pervades society — but it was the first day that the nation took a concrete step toward equality, Bouie argued, rather than just proclaiming its intent to do so.

Making Juneteenth a federal holiday would thus "add balance to [American] consciousness [and] complete the cycle of the celebration of freedom," Steve Williams, the president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, tells Mic. Williams adds: "The Fourth of July freed the land; Juneteenth freed the people. ... Every freedom, every liberty that we have is based upon Juneteenth."

How are federal holidays created?

There are few different ways to recognize days of national significance, either through permanent national holidays, like July 4; permanent national days of observance, like Mother's Day; or non-permanent federal days of observance, which the president or a member of Congress has to suggest. Out of all of these, official federal holidays are the only days that give federal employees the day off from work.

Both the president and Congress have the power to enact a one-time holiday or day of observance. As outlined in the Constitution, the president can issue executive orders or proclamations to designate these days. For example, President George W. Bush did this twice during his tenure to declare the Friday after Christmas Day a paid holiday to give workers the day off.

But only Congress has the power to create an annual day of observance or annual federal holiday. The two differ in that a full-fledged holiday is slightly more official and grants federal employees the day off from work, whereas an observation is more like an official acknowledgement without the attendant time off.

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The process for creating a federal holiday is the same as passing any other legislation — but just because it's simple doesn't mean it's easy. Because holidays are largely superficial, in that they constitute federal recognition of a person or event rather than actually direct money or resources, they are thus more subjective than many other issues. You'd think getting a sufficient majority of lawmakers to agree on the importance of nationally recognizing the day enslaved people were freed would be a no-brainer, but consider the fact that just two weeks ago, Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) blocked a bill from moving forward that would've made lynching a federal hate crime.

Though Juneteenth isn't an official federal holiday or permanent day of observance yet, it has been nationally observed before. For decades, members of Congress like Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) have introduced resolutions to recognize and observe Juneteenth each year. These one-time congressional actions are not official holidays, but rather one-off resolutions to indicate a formal federal acknowledgement of Juneteenth's historical significance.

So why should Juneteenth be a federal holiday?

"Black people built this country," Khaleef A. Alexander, an organizer in Philadelphia, tells Mic. Still, Alexander believes it might be difficult to convince lawmakers to cement Juneteenth as a holiday because of how attached white Americans are to the notion of white American greatness. "America highlights its Confederate heroes," he says, even though by American standards, "a Confederate soldier would be a terrorist."

In Philadelphia, Alexander is organizing a Millennial Juneteenth with other young Black folks — an apt celebration given the city is where the holiday has part of its origins. The group of soldiers that traveled to Texas to announce that all slaves were to be freed began their journey from Philadelphia, Alexander claims.

Juneteenth "needs to be a national holiday because that's a part of American history," he continues. "This is the actual independence day of Black people."

Khaleef A. Alexander

The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation has been working for 25 years in 44 different states to shift public understanding of Juneteenth and push for federal observation of the day. To Williams, Juneteenth is both a mentality and a call to action. It's "about community; about the oneness of America," he says.

What are the challenges to making Juneteenth a federal holiday?

The partisan divide makes it difficult to pass even legislation that Democrats and Republicans largely agree on, so enacting a new federal holiday for Juneteenth may be an uphill battle. Moreover, federal holidays constitute a day off from work for federal and state employees, which leads to millions of dollars in lost revenue — something even Bush received backlash for in extending workers' Christmas vacation.

It's rare to designate federal holidays, too; mostly because of national priorities and partisan politics, there are only 10 such days. The most recent federal holiday created by Congress was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which commemorates his birthday but actually falls on the third Monday of January.

Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D), who died in 2019, first introduced a bill calling for the creation of a federal holiday in 1968, just four days after King's assassination. The legislation wasn't popular among the majority white and male Congress at the time. Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, testified in front of lawmakers multiple times to advocate for the holiday, and Stevie Wonder released "Happy Birthday" in 1980 to swing public opinion. It took more than a decade for both houses of Congress to pass the legislation, which President Ronald Reagan signed in 1983. Even then, MLK Day wasn't celebrated nationwide until 1986.

Even then, there was backlash. In 1987, then-Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham (R) rescinded the previous governor's order declaring the holiday a paid day off from work, effectively repealing MLK Day in the state. In 1992, Arizona voters to reinstate and recognize the holiday.

Can states observe Juneteenth individually?

Yes. Just because the federal government doesn't honor Juneteenth officially doesn't mean that individual states can't take action. In fact, most states and the District of Columbia observe the holiday; only Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota do not.

It looks like things may be changing, though: A state senator in North Dakota recently announced his intention to introduce legislation that would recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday permanently. In the meantime, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) declared a one-time holiday for this year. A similar process is playing out in South Dakota, where a state senator said he would introduce a bill during the 2021 session to recognize Juneteenth; Gov. Kristi Noem (R) also issued a one-time proclamation for this year.

Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth an official state holiday, which differs from a day of observance in that state business is closed for an official state holiday. State days of observance do not shutter state businesses, but can signal to congressional leaders an interest in changing Juneteenth's status at a federal level.

Texas celebrated its first "Emancipation Day in Texas" in 1980. Since then, only one other state, Pennsylvania, has made the holiday official. In 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) designated June 19 as "Juneteenth National Freedom Day," saying at the time, "This is a moment to honor African American history and reflect on how each of us can promote equality, liberty and justice for all people." Ahead of this year's Juneteenth, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced that he would introduce legislation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday, as did New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).