Recognition of Juneteenth, a day that marks the effective end of slavery in the United States, gained traction after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. But after an initial burst of action, the movement to have it recognized as an official holiday in the states has largely stalled.
Although almost every state recognizes Juneteenth in some fashion, many have been slow to do more than issue a proclamation or resolution, even as some continue to commemorate the confederacy.
Lawmakers in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and other states failed to advance proposals this year that would have closed state offices and given most of their public employees paid time off for the June 19 holiday.
That trend infuriates Black leaders and community organizers who view making Juneteenth a paid holiday the bare minimum state officials can do to help honour an often overlooked and ignored piece of American history.
“Juneteenth marks the date of major significance in American history. It represents the ways in which freedom for Black people have been delayed,” said Democratic Rep. Anthony Nolan, who is Black, while arguing in favour of making Juneteenth a paid holiday in Connecticut on the House floor. “And if we delay this, it’s a smack in the face to Black folks.”
Juneteenth commemorates when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, two months after the confederacy had surrendered in the Civil War and about two and a half years after the emancipation proclamation freed slaves in Southern states.
First new national holiday since 1983
Last year, Congress and President Joe Biden moved swiftly to make Juneteenth a national holiday. It was the first time the federal government had designated a new national holiday since approving Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. Yet the move didn’t result in an automatic adoption from most states.
In Alabama, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey issued another proclamation marking Juneteenth a state holiday earlier this week after state lawmakers refused to take action on a bill during their legislative session even after she voiced strong support for making it a permanent holiday back in 2021. The state closes down for Confederate Memorial Days in April.
Similarly, Wyoming’s Republican Gov. Mark Gordon issued a statement last June saying he would work with lawmakers to make it a state holiday, but no legislation was filed during the 2022 session.
In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Lee quietly tucked enough funding — roughly $700,000 — to make Juneteenth a state paid holiday in his initial spending plan for the upcoming year.
Despite the bill gaining traction in the state Senate, GOP legislative leaders maintained there wasn’t enough support for the idea even as Tennessee law currently designates special observances for Robert E. Lee Day, Confederate Decoration Day and Nathan Bedford Forrest Day.
“I asked many people in my district over the last few days, well over 100 people, if they knew what Juneteenth was and only two of them knew,” said Republican Sen. Joey Hensley, who is white and voted against the proposal. “I just think we’re putting the cart before the horse making a holiday that people don’t know about.”
At the same time, many of these Republican-led states have advanced bills limiting what can be taught about systematic racism in classrooms, while also spiking proposals aimed at expanding voting rights and police reform.