It took two years, five months and 18 days for the slaves in Galveston, Texas, to learn they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. It may take longer than that to get the date — June 19, 1865, known and celebrated as Juneteenth — recognized as a federal holiday.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, started the effort to make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday (including Inauguration Day) last summer, along with Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and John Cornyn, R-Texas. They reintroduced those bills earlier this year. With Juneteenth a month away, the group is planning to push the legislation again.
“I think Juneteenth tells a wonderful story,” said Jackson Lee. “It’s a story of freedom. It happened two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, but it still set a pathway of freedom. Who are we as a nation, if you’re frightened about freedom and liberation and joy?”
“It’s been a state holiday in Texas for 40 years,” said Cornyn. “So, it’s a big deal in Texas and we are going to keep trying to get it done.”
The last time Congress added to the official holiday list was with Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983, and the going was slow. Michigan Democrat John Conyers introduced a bill just days after King’s assassination in 1968, but the proposal didn’t get its first vote until 1979.
The push to recognize Juneteenth has a lot in its favor: The Senate legislation has 57 cosponsors, including 18 Republicans. Assuming a few more Democrats signed on, the bill could overcome a filibuster easily, but finding floor time for the measure while Democrats have bigger priorities, like a jobs bill, voting overhaul, and a tax increase proposal, will prove a challenge.
Cornyn and Markey tried to pass their bill out of the Senate through unanimous consent last July but were blocked by Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson. On the Senate floor, Johnson complained that the bill would cost taxpayers millions and groused that federal employees already enjoy higher pay and more time off than the private sector.
Jackson Lee told CQ Roll Call that her staff and Cornyn’s would meet soon to hash out a strategy for passing their legislation, but that they hadn’t yet spoken to Johnson. “I don’t want to ignore him,” she said. “I’m very happy to find out what his concern is.”
Jackson Lee sounded ready, though, to move ahead despite Johnson’s objections. “Frankly, I believe that Sen. Johnson is isolated,” she said.
Cornyn also appeared ready to move without Johnson’s consent. “I don’t think his views have changed,” he said. “So, we just need to get it on the floor and have a vote on it.”
As for Johnson, his position hasn’t changed, a spokesperson confirmed in a statement this week. “We are currently $28 trillion in debt with trillions more guaranteed to be added over the next few years with Biden and the Democrats’ reckless spending proposals,” said Alexa Henning. “As the Senator said at the time he didn’t think this should be done without discussion, debate, or even a vote on how we are to spend the $600 million to give two million people a day off with pay.”
Johnson’s figure reflects the estimated cost of how much federal employees would earn for a day not working, plus overtime for essential employees. Most of that amount, however, would not show up in the federal deficit, because it’s not an additional incurred expense.
Johnson offered an amendment to the bill last year that would have made Juneteenth a federal holiday but would have taken away a paid vacation day from government employees.
Making Juneteenth a federal holiday would give federal government employees the day off, or a designated Monday or Friday near it, but the private sector is another story. It would put some pressure on other employers to match the federal government’s schedule, but while most federal holidays are widely observed, others — like Columbus Day, Veterans Day and MLK Day — are just regular days for a lot of American working stiffs.
Americans toil away more than most of their counterparts in other wealthy nations. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, U.S. workers averaged 1,779 hours worked in 2019, ranking them tenth for most worked among its 37 member countries. That’s above the OECD average of 1,726 annual hours worked, and above nations with reputations for hard work like Japan (1,644), Switzerland (1,557) and Germany (1,386).
Americans work more than their peers in large part because they get fewer days off. According to a 2019 Center for Economic and Policy Research report, America is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t mandate paid vacation or holiday leave for all employees, federal and private. For comparison, European Union laws guarantee workers at least 20 paid vacation days per year.
Juneteenth has long been celebrated as the de facto end of slavery in the United States.
When the Civil War ended, Union soldiers under the command of Major General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to spread the news. There, the troops found Black men, women and children still enslaved, either because news of the Emancipation Proclamation hadn’t reached them or the local white officials simply ignored it. On June 19, 1865, Granger resolved the matter unequivocally by reading aloud Texas General Order No. 3, which began, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Chris Cioffi, Lindsey McPherson and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.