Thursday, August 5, 2021

US gets a new federal public holiday – Juneteenth

The date commemorates the true end of slavery in 1865.

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The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which establishes a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the US, has been signed by President Joe Biden.

On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives backed the legislation by 415-14, a day after it was unanimously approved by the Senate. With the signature of Biden, it has become law.

Most US states already recognise Juneteenth and commemorate the day, but the bill made June 19 the 12th federal holiday, the first new one in 38 years since Martin Luther King Jr Day was established in 1983.

“I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honours I will have as president,” Biden said at the signing event. He urged Americans to learn from history.

“This is a day to remember the moral stain and the terrible toll that slavery took on our country and continues to take – what I’ve long called America’s original sin,” Biden said before signing the bill into law.

Vice-President Kamala Harris, the first person of mixed race and the first woman to hold the office, recalled that the White House was built by slaves.

On 19 June 1865 – months after the northern US states defeated the South in a civil war fought over slavery – enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were told they were free. This is seen as the true end of slavery in America.

The day became known as Juneteenth, a word created by joining the words “June” and “nineteenth” together.

This year, companies such as Nike, Uber, Twitter and many others have announced they are giving their employees a paid day off for Juneteenth.

Already 49 states and Washington DC formally recognise Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday. South Dakota is the last remaining state.

The effort to have Juneteenth declared a federal holiday was decades in the making.

When he was senator of Illinois, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, but the law was never passed – even after he became president.

Juneteenth celebrations vary across the US. In some states there are parades, and people gather for food and to play games.

The date has taken on renewed resonance in recent years with millions of Americans confronting the country’s living legacy of racial injustice.

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