The Democratic congresswoman from Houston and the senior Republican senator from Texas do not often find themselves on the same side politically, but on June 17, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) stood behind President Joe Biden as he signed their Juneteenth Independence Day Act into law.
The legislation, introduced with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in February 2021, was the latest in a long line of bills and resolutions that sought federal recognition for the Juneteenth holiday. The story of how Juneteenth went from a Texas state holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in 1865 to national recognition is one of political resilience and seizing the moment when fast-moving events uproot entrenched opposition.
The number of local Juneteenth celebrations grew considerably following the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, but it wasn’t until 1980 that Texas became the first to make Juneteenth a state holiday. Beginning in the 1990’s, organizations like the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation launched efforts not to declare the celebration a federal holiday, but a day of national observance. This strategy sought to sidestep one of the chief arguments against adding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to the list of federal holidays – the cost associated with giving federal workers the day off.
Beginning in 1997, members of Congress like Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) dutifully introduced resolutions “recognizing the historical significance of Juneteenth Independence Day” or “commemorating” the holiday each Congress. They shared their constituents’ belief that celebrating freedom for all Americans was bigger than any one state.
In 2012, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) introduced bipartisan legislation to codify Juneteenth as “an annual day of patriotic and national observance,” but the joint resolution languished in committee. Following Hutchison’s retirement, Cornyn and Jackson Lee both pushed for Juneteenth recognition.
While Congress continued to pass commemorative legislation, Juneteenth proponents began shifting their stance. Local activists like 90-year-old Opal Lee, who became known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” launched campaigns calling not for recognition or a day of observance, but a federal holiday. In 2016, Ms. Lee embarked on a 1,400 mile walk from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C., with the goal of delivering 100,000 petition signatures calling for a Juneteenth federal holiday.
Progress for the Juneteenth political movement stalled as a new presidential administration took office. But the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, subsequent protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement launched an intense national conversation about race in America and created a political moment Juneteenth proponents seized. In Congress, Jackson Lee and Markey introduced their usual commemorative legislation, but also the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which would create the first federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
As many across the country sought a demonstration of national unity, Congress coalesced around Juneteenth. Eighteen Republicans joined 42 Democratic and Independent Senate colleagues to co-sponsor the companion to Jackson Lee’s bill, and the once strong opposition to another federal holiday quickly collapsed.
The legislation creating the Juneteenth National Independence Day was unanimously adopted in the Senate, passed the House by a vote of 415 – 14, and was signed into law by President Biden – with Opal Lee and other long-time activists there to witness the political triumph.
Their victory illustrated how persistent education and lobbying, even after repeated setbacks, could prepare proponents to act decisively when the political environment changed. As one supporter later remarked, “There’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”