Biden signs bill making Juneteenth a US federal holiday

It is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr Day was created in 1983.

Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act
Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act

US President Joe Biden has signed legislation establishing a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery.

Mr Biden signed into law a bill to make Juneteenth, or June 19, the 12th federal holiday, saying he believes it will go down as one of the greatest honours he has as president.

The House of Representatives voted 415-14 on Wednesday to send the bill to Mr Biden, while the Senate passed the bill unanimously the day before.

“This is a day of profound weight and profound power, a day in which we remember the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take,” Mr Biden said.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas – two months after the Confederacy had surrendered. That was also about two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states.

Mr Biden was surrounded by members of the Congressional Black Caucus
Mr Biden was surrounded by members of the Congressional Black Caucus (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

It is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr Day was created in 1983. One of the federal holidays, Inauguration Day, happens every four years.

The US Office of Personnel Management, which is the human resources office for the federal government, tweeted that most federal employees will observe the new holiday – Juneteenth National Independence Day – on Friday since June 19 falls on a Saturday this year.

Mr Biden noted the overwhelming support for the bill from members of Congress in both parties. He had run for president promising to unite the country and work with Republicans, but his first major legislation to provide more Covid relief to American consumers and businesses was passed along party lines and he has struggled to unite Congress to support a major public works bill.

“I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another,” Mr Biden said.

Mr Biden signed the legislation surrounded by members of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the lead sponsors of the legislation in the Senate, senators Edward Markey and John Cornyn. He was introduced by Kamala Harris, the nation’s first African-American vice president.

“We have come far and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration,” Ms Harris said.

Black Americans rejoiced over the move, but some said while they appreciated the recognition at a time of racial reckoning in America, more was needed to change policies that disadvantage too many of their brethren.

“It’s great, but it’s not enough,” said Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Kansas City.

Ms Grant said she was delighted by the quick vote this week by Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday because “it’s been a long time coming.”

But she added that “we need Congress to protect voting rights, and that needs to happen right now so we don’t regress any further. That is the most important thing Congress can be addressing at this time.”

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