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Biden signs Juneteenth bill: 'Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments'
President Biden on Thursday signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, turning the oldest celebration of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. into the country's newest national holiday.
"Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments ... they embrace them. Great nations don't walk away, they come to terms with the mistakes they've made. In remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger," Biden said at a signing ceremony at the White House attended by Vice President Harris, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other lawmakers.
"The truth is, it's simply not enough to commemorate Juneteenth. After all, the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn't mark the end of America's work to deliver on the promise of equality, it only marked the beginning. To honor the true meaning of Juneteenth, we have to continue towards that promise because we have not gotten there yet," the president added.
The signing was a star-studded event that included, among others, 94-year-old Opal Lee and R&B star Usher.
Lee, affectionately referred to as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, has pushed for it to become a national holiday for years. In 2016, Lee, then age 89, walked roughly 1,400 miles from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., in an effort to build support.
The signing came after the Senate and House passed the legislation in lopsided votes on consecutive days to get it to Biden's desk before this year's Juneteenth, which is Saturday.
A portmanteau of June 19, the holiday marks the day in 1865 when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, emancipating the remaining enslaved people in the state. For enslaved Americans in Texas, freedom came two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Also known as Jubilee, Emancipation, or Freedom Day, June 19 has long been celebrated by Black communities across the country. Cities and states have also increasingly recognized the day; all but one state officially marks Juneteenth.
"The promise of equality is not going to become fulfilled until it becomes real, it becomes real, in our schools and on our main-street neighborhoods," Biden said Thursday, mentioning reforms to health care, infrastructure and the criminal justice system.
"It's not going to be fulfilled so long as the sacred right to vote remains under attack," he added. "We can't rest until the promise of equality is fulfilled for everyone of us, in every corner of this nation. That, for me, is the meaning of Juneteenth."
The president noted that Thursday also marks the anniversary of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., when a self-described white supremacist killed nine Black parishioners.
The last time a federal holiday was established was in 1983, when then-President Reagan signed a bill to create Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was first observed in 1986.
Harris, in her comments, noted the history of Juneteenth and stressed that it should be taught and learned from.
"National holidays are something important, these are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock and often to acknowledge our history. As we established Juneteenth as our newest national holiday, let us be clear what happened on June 19, 1865," she said.
"We are gathered here, in a house built by enslaved people, we are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday. We have come far, and we have far to go," the vice president added.
The past two years, both the Senate and the House passed resolutions recognizing Juneteenth's significance, but fell short of passing any formal legislation.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced such a bill in their respective chambers last June, but it failed to gain traction.
The bill was reintroduced to both chambers in February and largely sat dormant until this week. Somewhat unceremoniously, the Senate on Tuesday passed the proposal by unanimous consent, sending it to the House.
The House didn't dally, with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) announcing on Wednesday that the lower chamber would take up the legislation later that day.
It passed overwhelmingly, by a vote of 415-14. All 14 "no" votes came from Republicans.
Biden acknowledged that the bill passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote.
"I hope this is the beginning of a change of the way we deal with one another," he said.
Juneteenth is the country's 12th federal holiday. As it falls on Saturday this year, it will be observed on Friday for federal employees, the Office of Personnel Management announced Thursday morning.