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Calls to Make Juneteenth US Federal Holiday Gain Momentum

Juneteenth, the nickname for 19 June 1865, the day that marked the end of slavery in the US when the last group of slaves were told they were emancipated, has long been celebrated by African Americans across the country with festivals, cookouts and pageants. But recent weeks have shown there is a growing belief that all Americans should commemorate the day.

Calls to make Juneteenth a US federal holiday have increased after the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests have forced the country to grapple with its legacy of slavery and racism.

“RT if you think Congress should make Juneteenth a national holiday,” said Jamaal Bowman, a candidate for a New York congressional seat, in a tweet that has been retweeted more than 200,000 times.

Over the past two decades, campaigns to get states to honor and recognize Juneteenth have led a majority of states to recognize the day as a ceremonial holiday. Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota are the only four states that have not officially recognized Juneteenth.

Texas, where the original emancipation day celebrations took place, has designated Juneteenth a state holiday, allowing most state employees to take a paid day off. It was the only state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday until New York and Virginia announced this week they were making it a paid holiday for their employees.

Private companies such as Nike, Twitter and Lyft have made similar moves to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, informing staff it will be a permanent paid holiday. The mayors of Portland and Philadelphia, which has been home to one of the country’s largest Juneteenth celebrations, also said they are giving their city employees a paid holiday.

US presidents including Barack Obama and Donald Trump have made statements honoring Juneteenth, and the Senate passed a resolution in 2018 honoring the day. But moves to make Juneteenth a federal holiday have not been able to gain traction in Congress.

Currently, there are 10 federal holidays each year, where federal employees are given a paid day off. States and private companies can choose whether to observe the holidays and offer their employees a day off, though many do so for federal holidays.

About 30 other days are “patriotic and national observances” like Mother’s Day that are recognized by the government but typically do not constitute a paid day off.

There have been pushes to make various days federal holidays, including a day to honor women’s rights activist Susan B Anthony, and election day, federal holidays are politically difficult to get through Congress.

It took 15 years of fighting from the Congressional Black Caucus to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday. Four days after King’s assassination in 1968, John Conyers, the late US congressman, introduced a bill that would make King’s birthday, January 15, a federal holiday.

It was finally the momentum of the 15th anniversary of King’s death that got a bill declaring a federal holiday to pass in 1983. Until then, Conyers and his colleagues were met with skepticism from some other members of Congress, including one from North Carolina who vehemently opposed the holiday and publicly called King an “action-oriented Marxist”.

Historians say national recognition of Juneteenth is long overdue, but would require a national reckoning on the country’s legacy of slavery – one it often ignores.

“Our country hasn’t really reckoned with its history of slavery,” said Karlos Hill, department chair and professor of African and African-American Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“If we made Juneteenth a holiday, we would have to do some of that work.”

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