WASHINGTON (CN) — Though it was not unanimous due to Republican objections, the House of Representatives on Wednesday voted 415-14 to pass a resolution that creates a federal holiday for Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.
A resolution designating June 19 as a federally recognized holiday — only the 11th of its kind — passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon and quickly vaulted through the House after lengthy debate. Its next stop will be the White House, where President Joe Biden is expected to sign it into law.
Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Montana, voted against the measure.
It has been a long road to win federal recognition for Juneteenth, catalyzed 156 years ago this Saturday when some 2,000 Union Army soldiers led by General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas to deliver the news that all enslaved persons there should be free.
President Abraham Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, but it went unenforced in many parts of the country with remnants of slavery and the Civil War still very much woven into the fabric of American life. That meant millions of people effectively remained enslaved until Granger and his troops rode into Galveston.
Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Black woman and Texas Democrat, stood on the House floor Wednesday next to a large black and white photo known as “Whipped Peter,” depicting a man named Gordon who escaped slavery and became a Union solider. The photo of him, with raised welts and scars indelibly pocking his back, was taken during a medical examination by Union forces camped in Louisiana.
The image served as an undeniable reminder that slavery was not merely some economic byproduct of a burgeoning nation, but a deeply racist practice that violently exploited and separated an untold number of husbands from wives, parents from children and children from their tender innocence.
“It would be remiss if I did not at least point out that slavery was real. These are the brutal backs upon which the whip went over and over and over again,” Jackson Lee said as she stood next to the photograph.
She added, “The history is limited because it is slave narrative, that I might humbly and respectfully say, those stories are in broken English. But I remember one, where a woman slave said to a husband that had been taken away as a freed slave to another a planation. She said, ‘Husband come back, come back, they are about to sell me and your children to different places.’ That is what this moment in time represented to us.”
“But look where we are today,” the lawmaker continued, emphasizing that Juneteenth is as meaningful a “celebration of freedom” for Black Americans, as it would be for all Americans.
“It has not been yesterday, the day before or the last month or the year before,” Jackson Lee said later, noting the more than 20 years the resolution has been in the works from inception to passage.
While already observed as a holiday in 48 states before the federal legislation was passed, Juneteenth has received more attention in recent years as civil rights protests, sparked by police brutality against Black Americans in particular, have increased around the nation. According to an analysis by Mapping Police Violence, just 13% of the national population is Black, but Black Americans are three times more likely than other demographics to be killed by the police.
While most Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the resolution, opposition from members like Representative Clay Higgins, were rooted in the name of the resolution.
That the term “Independence Day” was kept in the title, was objectionable, Higgins argued because it was too close to the nation’s Independence Day celebrated on the Fourth of July.
“We support the holiday but why would Democrats want to politicize this by co-opting the scared name of our Independence Day? Why would it not be named ‘Juneteenth Emancipation Day.’ Why would we want to inject conflict into this?” Higgins said.
Representative Brenda Lawrence, a Michigan Democrat, speaking directly to her “white colleague on the other side of the aisle” offered an explanation.
“Getting your independence from being enslaved in a country is different from a country getting independence to rule itself. It is not a day you can loop together. That is inappropriate. It is a day of reflection, commemorating the end of slavery. And it is also the recognition that we have so much work to do to rid this country of systemic racism, discrimination and hate,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence, like many other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who spoke on the floor Wednesday, also called for the passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — which is still in talks nearly a month after the first anniversary of Floyd’s death at the hands of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin.
“What we are doing today should empower us to fight even harder every single day for criminal justice reform for racial equality ad economic empowerment of Black people in America… We have a responsibility to teach every generation of Black and white Americans about the pride of a people who have survived, endured and succeeded in these United States of America despite slavery,” she said.
The Republicans who voted against the bill were Representative Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona, Mo Brooks and Mike Rogers of Alabama, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Chip Roy and Ronny Jackson of Texas, Doug LaMalfa and Tom McClintock of California, Bob Massie of Kentucky, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Matthew Rosendale Sr. of Montana and Thomas Tiffany of Wisconsin.
Representative David Scott, a Georgia Democrat who has also worked for years to see Juneteenth passed, made an impassioned speech before the resolution was approved that lawmakers vote unanimously.
He beseeched them to imagine what enslaved people would say to them on the floor today, in the very building which itself was hewn by enslaved Black bodies.
His voice carrying across the cavernous chamber, he spoke in the voice of his ancestors, saying they would tell lawmakers in opposition: “Them that’s got should get. And them that’s not, should lose. ‘Cus the Bible says, and it still is news, your mama may have and your papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.”
Scott’s voice boomed across the chamber: “God bless the child who can say I’m free. Two-hundred years in the deep slavery south but God put hope in our hearts and a song in our mouth. All we’re asking is for you to express the feeling and the depths of the African American people today who need you, all of us, white and Black members of Congress, to stand together and vote yes.”
Though it was not unanimous, the bill will now go to President Biden for signature who has already endorsed it.