(LR) 94-year-old activist and retired educator Opal Lee, known as Juneteenth’s grandmother, speaks with US President Joe Biden after signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
The scene in the White House on Thursday may have been hard to fathom a year ago.
A diverse crowd of lawmakers, activists and community leaders — including pop icon Usher, with whom many photos were taken — gathered in the East Room to watch President Joe Biden sign a new federal holiday: Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of June 19. slavery in the United States.
With coronavirus infections hitting near record lows in the US amid a full-blown vaccination campaign at all levels of government, few members of the internal, personal crowd were seen wearing masks.
“We are gathered here, in a house built by enslaved people,” said Vice President Kamala Harris, the first black woman to hold the title. “We are just steps from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and we are here to witness President Joe Biden declare Juneteenth a national holiday.”
“We’ve come a long way and we still have a long way to go, but today is a holiday,” Harris said.
As she spoke, the president stepped off the podium and approached the front row, then knelt to hug Opal Lee, the 94-year-old Texan activist who is seen as a driving force behind the push for the new holiday.
“I’ve only been president for a few months, but I think for me this will be one of the greatest honors I’ve had as president,” Biden told the crowd before signing the bill.
The 11th National Day was instituted just two days before Juneteenth itself, and less than three weeks after the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. It also came on the heels of the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, the unarmed black man whose taped murder in police custody sparked a nationwide outbreak of civil unrest.
At a time when Republicans and Democrats were in agreement on virtually nothing, they came together this week to vote overwhelmingly to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
But just a year ago, in mid-June 2020, all of these factors — Tulsa, Juneteenth, the waves of protest and the Covid pandemic — posed problems for then-President Donald Trump, who came under fire for announcing plans to rally in Tulsa on the vacation.
“I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal after moving the date of the rally. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”
The contrast between Trump’s last Juneteenth as president and Biden’s first could hardly be greater. It illustrates not only the seismic changes at play in the country and how they have shaped the present, but also the difference in how the two presidents have approached racial issues.
The Path to a Federal Holiday
Juneteenth celebrates the date in 1865 when enslaved black people in Texas finally learned that they had been set free under the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years earlier.
The Confederate Army under General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, a capitulation that led to the end of the Civil War. But it wasn’t until June 19 that Union troops under General Gordon Granger arrived in the coastal town of Galveston, Texas, to defend General Order No. 3, officially ending slavery in the state.
“The people of Texas have been informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” the order reads.
Lincoln had been shot in Ford’s Theater five days after Lee’s surrender by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
The name “Juneteenth” evolved from numerous different names and spellings over decades, historians note.
While the vast majority of states already recognize Juneteenth as a public holiday, activists like Opal Lee have fought for the day for decades to get a federal designation.
In 1939, when Lee was 12 years old, a white mob set her family’s house on fire. No one was arrested. In 2016, Lee, then 89, began walking from her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C. — some 1,400 miles — to advocate for Juneteenth to be a national holiday.
“The fact is, none of us are free until we are all free,” Lee told The New York Times in a June 2020 interview.
A year later, Lee attended the White House ceremony to designate Juneteenth as the first new holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. day in 1983.
Previous attempts to pass a Juneteenth bill in Congress have been unsuccessful. In 2020, such a bill was blocked in the Senate by Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who objected to the cost of giving federal employees another day off.
This time, he withdrew, saying in a statement, “Clearly Congress has no desire to discuss the matter further.”
The reason why?
“In two words, it’s George Floyd,” Karlos Hill, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said in an interview with The Washington City Times.
In May 2020, a video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes had sparked a storm of protests across the country. The officer’s behavior sparked condemnation across the political spectrum and prompted lawmakers to draft a police reform bill on behalf of Floyd.
Chauvin was found guilty in April of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
“It took something drastic to change the conversation,” Hill said.
“These things are closely linked,” said Hill, explaining that the shock of Floyd’s death “created a space and opportunity for Juneteenth.”
Few lawmakers — even those with complaints about the bill — stood in the way this week, as legislation introduced by Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., flew through Congress.
The bill was unanimously approved in the Senate on Tuesday evening. A day later, it passed the House by an overwhelming 415-14 votes. The 14 votes against were all Republicans, while 195 GOP lawmakers voted yes.
One of the Republican criticisms was that the decision to name the holiday “Juneteenth National Independence Day” clashed with the existing Independence Day on July 4. They pointed out that the holiday is also called Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day and other names in its history.
Others, like Johnson, complained about the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue lost by giving federal workers another day off. And some lawmakers railed against Democrats for pushing the bill to the House, bypassing congressional committees and the ability to vote on amendments in the process.
A Republican, Matt Rosendale of Montana, issued a statement before the final vote announcing his opposition to the measure because, he claimed, it was an attempt to advance “identity politics” and “critical race theory” in America.
sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, dismissed Rosendale’s stance as “crazy.”
The 14 members of the House who voted against the bill are: Rosendale; Mo Brooks, R-Ala.; Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.; Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.; Tom Tiffany, R-Wis.; Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.; Mike Rogers, R-Ala.; Ralph Norman, RSC; Chip Roy, R-Texas; Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.; Tom McClintock, R-Calif.; Ronny Jackson, R-Texas; Thomas Massie, R-Ky.; and Andrew Clyde, R-Ga.
In a statement Friday afternoon to mark Juneteenth, Republican National Committee chairman Ronna McDaniel said of her party, “We welcome its adoption as our latest national holiday after President Trump requested it last year.”
In September, as part of a series of overtures to black voters, Trump promised to make Juneteenth a national holiday. But there’s a lot more to the Trump-Juneteenth relationship than McDaniel’s statement suggests.
In June 2020, as the pandemic raged, no vaccines were in sight and candidate Biden had a clear lead in the polls, Trump announced he would return to the campaign trail to host in-person events.
The big event to kick off his campaign: a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19.
The Trump campaign initially defended the planning decision as an opportunity for him to tout his “record of success for black Americans.” But critics called it a slap in the face for Trump to single out Juneteenth to come to Tulsa, the site of one of the worst white-on-black massacres in US history, to relaunch his reelection campaign in the United States. amid a national turmoil over racism.
Michael Bender of the Wall Street Journal reported in an adapted excerpt from his forthcoming book on Trump’s election loss to Biden that top campaign official Brad Parscale had picked the time and place for the rally and that he had dug in after others urged him to make changes. to apply.
Bender reported that Trump, stunned by the response to the rally date, had asked a Black Secret Service agent if he knew about Juneteenth. The officer said he was aware of it and added: “It is very insulting to me that you are holding this rally at Juneteenth,” Bender said.
Less than a week before the rally, Trump tweeted that he would move the event to June 20, after hearing from “many of my African-American friends and supporters” who “contacted us to suggest we consider rescheduling the date.” change out of respect for this holiday.”
On Juneteenth itself, the Trump White House issued a proclamation celebrating the holiday as a reminder of “both the unimaginable injustice of slavery and the incomparable joy that must come with emancipation.”
Less than a month earlier, the Floyd video had prompted millions of people to take part in marches and demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality. Numerous protests led to outbreaks of violence and looting in major cities.
Prior to the event at Tulsa’s BOK Center, Trump, who was still active on Twitter at the time, took to the social media app to voice an ominous threat to potential counterprotesters.
“Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes going to Oklahoma, please understand that you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle or Minneapolis,” Trump tweeted. “It’s going to be a very different scene.”
Reverend Al Sharpton, who delivered a June 10 speech in Tulsa that Friday, accused Trump of “provoking an incident” with the tweet.
Trump’s crowd in Tulsa fell short of expectations, failing to fill thousands of seats in the nearly 20,000-seat arena. But in attendance was Herman Cain, a prominent black businessman, conservative commentator and former Republican presidential candidate.
Cain, 74, a stage 4 cancer survivor, was photographed at the event sitting next to other people, none of whom appeared to be wearing masks.
In early July, Cain was hospitalized with the coronavirus and put on a ventilator as his condition worsened. He died on July 30, making him one of the most high-profile people in the US to have succumbed to the virus. Cain’s staff have said there is “no way to know for sure” how or where he contracted Covid.
The Journal’s Bender reported that Trump was outraged at his lack of support from black voters the day after the Tulsa rally.
“I’ve done all these things for the blacks – it’s always Jared [Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law,] told me to do this,” Trump told a confidant, Bender reported. “And they all hate me, and none of them are going to vote for me.”
Hill said the US is now “in a different reality” from last June, “in that we have witnessed the full fallout from George Floyd.”
“We’ve carried on as if things just got better on their own, and they just haven’t,” Hill said. As a federal holiday, “Maybe, maybe, June could take a break.”