Calls intensify in Congress to make Juneteenth a federal holiday

Both Democrats and Republicans are calling for federal recognition.

June 19, 2020, 11:10 AM

In the wake of the nationwide outcry over the killing of George Floyd, bipartisan calls have amplified to name Juneteenth -- June 19, which commemorates the end of slavery -- a federal holiday.

A group of Senate Democrats announced Friday that they would introduce the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, legislation to designate the day, and if passed, would make Juneteenth the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Day was recognized in 1983.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, teased the bill Thursday night, telling MSNBC, “Together with my colleagues Cory Booker, Tina Smith, and Ed Markey, we are proposing that Juneteenth be a national holiday. And we are dropping that bill saying that Juneteenth should be a national holiday."

“Juneteenth is about reclaiming our history, rejoicing in the progress we’ve made, and recommitting to the work yet undone. Our nation still has a long way to go to reckon with and overcome the dark legacy of slavery and the violence and injustice that has persisted after its end. Making Juneteenth a federal holiday represents a step forward in the journey of healing America is still taking," Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said in a statement.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, introduced similar legislation to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday in the House Thursday.

Sen. Kamala Harris attends the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled 'Police Use of Force and Community Relations', in Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, June 16, 2020.
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The Senate Democrats' bill comes after Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas also announced plans to introduce a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

"Texans have celebrated this end to slavery for 155 years. It's an opportunity to reflect on how far we've come and a reminder of how far we still have to go," he tweeted Thursday.

Congress has the authority to create federal holidays -- any legislation would need to clear both the House and Senate before being signed into law by the president.

Trump said Wednesday that he would “take a look” at the possibility of designating Juneteenth a federal holiday, but a statement he put out Friday on the day made no mention of it.

Despite President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation -- which ordered the abolition of slavery in the Confederacy -- it took 30 months and 19 days for the order to be carried out in Galveston, Texas -- the last part of the Confederate States of America where African Americans were still enslaved.

For 155 years, communities around the country have celebrated June 19 -- the day Gen. Gordon Granger arrived with Union soldiers in Galveston -- as Juneteenth.

While all but three U.S. states recognize the day, the holiday was thrust into the national political spotlight recently after President Donald Trump scheduled a campaign event for June 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma -- a city notorious for one of the nation's worst instances of racial violence.

The president later moved the date of the rally to June 20, tweeting his decision was made "out of respect" for the holiday.

Congressional calls for a federal Juneteenth holiday come amid similar support from corporate executives and sports officials.

PHOTO: Elected officials, community leaders, youth and drum and marching bands take part in the second annual Juneteenth Parade, in Philadelphia, on June 22, 2019.
Elected officials, community leaders, youth and drum and marching bands take part in the second annual Juneteenth Parade, in Philadelphia, on June 22, 2019, in the week that Juneteenth was declared an official state holiday by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Juneteenth National Freedom Day commemorates the announcement of abolition of slavery on June 19, 1865.
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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced this week that he would close league offices on Juneteenth. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said he planned to make June 19 an annual holiday.

State officials have also recently moved to give greater recognition to the date. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order declaring June 19 a paid holiday for state employees.

Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam also said he plans to make Juneteenth a permanent paid state holiday.

“It’s time we elevate Juneteenth not just as a celebration by and for some Virginians, but one acknowledged and commemorated by all of us. It mattered then because it marked the end of slavery in this country, and it matters now because it says to Black communities, this is not just your history—this is everyone’s shared history, and we will celebrate it together,” Northam said in a statement Tuesday.

ABC News' Christina Carrega contributed to this report.

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