Get ready to celebrate Juneteenth.
Did you know that it’s been almost four decades since Congress created a new federal holiday?
In a surprising act of racial unity, even heavenly grace, a politically divided Congress passed recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday this week. The vote was by unanimous consent in the Senate on Tuesday and it was 415-14 on Wednesday in the House. President Biden signed the bill on Thursday.
The last time Congress approved a new holiday was 1983. That holiday was the much more controversial Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
President Ronald Reagan had to be personally convinced by James A. Baker, his chief of staff and a Texan, that celebrating King’s birthday was a historic gesture that dwarfed the objections from Southern White conservatives who opposed King’s activism and his legacy.
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Fast forward to Tuesday, June 15, 2021.
It is remarkable how quickly momentum was built for a politically polarized Congress to designate "Juneteenth" as a federal holiday.
The biggest surprise is that a conservative Republican senator from Texas, John Cornyn, was one of the lawmakers leading the way. Cornyn is sensitive to the racial divide and often looks for healing.
With some on the far right making a boogeyman out of teaching the nation’s racial history – critical race theory – the Texan stood tall and stuck his neck out to cross political and ideological lines to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
On the other side of the political divide, Cornyn found a helping hand in liberal Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a progressive congresswoman from Houston, another Texan, reached out to build support in the House.
I’ve written about America’s amazing, often difficult racial history for years, including in best-selling books such as "Eyes on the Prize – America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965" and "Thurgood Marshall – American Revolutionary."
"The freedom of all Americans that Texas celebrates every Juneteenth should be celebrated all across the nation," Sen. John Cornyn said in his statement.
Marshall, the Supreme Court justice, had several cases in Texas as the lead lawyer for the NAACP. When I went to Texas in the 1990s to research those cases I was struck by how much Black people in Texas – also Oklahoma and Louisiana – revered and celebrated Juneteenth.
Black people in the rest of the South, Midwest and East generally looked puzzled when I mentioned Juneteenth in speeches.
It is not widely taught in public schools or covered extensively in histories of the Civil War.
The incredible and sad roots of Juneteenth is that when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, many slave owners chose not to tell their slaves. They said nothing about emancipation in order to keep Black people working in bondage.
It was two and half years later, on June 19, 1865 – Juneteenth – that a White Union Army general arrived in Galveston, Texas, to say that Texas slaves had been freed. Hence, the celebrations on Juneteenth.
It was a landmark event for Black Texans and their families. It remained a signal day for them even as many moved west. There have been major Juneteenth celebrations in California for years.
Then last year, after the murder of George Floyd in May and the nationwide protests that followed, the positive feel of Juneteenth celebrations attracted new attention.
The focus on Black family, Black food and Black history was embraced with new energy across the nation by people of all colors, notably by corporate America.
"The freedom of all Americans that Texas celebrates every Juneteenth should be celebrated all across the nation," said Cornyn in his statement.
"The passage of this bill represents a big step in our nation’s journey toward equality. I thank my colleagues in the Senate for their support, and my fellow Texans who have been celebrating this important holiday for more than a century."
Now nearly 35% of Americans say Juneteenth should become a federal holiday while only about 25% are against it, according to a new Gallup poll. Forty percent remain undecided.
Along party lines, 57% of Democratic participants said it should be a federal holiday along with 30% of independents and just 7% of Republicans.
That low level of support among Republicans is a testament to Cornyn’s political risk-taking in supporting the national holiday.
Just last year, current GOP indifference to Juneteenth was evident when former President Trump scheduled a political rally on June 19 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the massacre of Black people early in the 20th century.
Trump was persuaded to change the date to avoid criticism that he didn’t know, care about and even that he was purposely trampling on the significance of the day.
A year later, Cornyn a White conservative, personifies a very different attitude.
As the senator noted in a press release, Juneteenth is already a state holiday in Texas, 46 other states, and the District of Columbia. There is even bipartisan federal legislation pending to study the National Emancipation Trail from Galveston to Houston, tracing the path of former slaves upon learning of their freedom.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the first Black woman to hold that job, famously described slavery as America’s "birth defect."
It took over a century after emancipation, for the civil rights movement to undo legal segregation by race. It took almost a half century after that for America to elect and reelect its first Black president.
Now a new federal holiday has come to America. The spirit of Juneteenth has always been, to my mind, to unite Americans and celebrate this remarkable historic progress.
Happy Juneteenth to all!