Lawmakers join push to declare Juneteenth a national holiday

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The last time Congress approved a national holiday was in 1983 for MLK

The drumbeat to declare Juneteenth a national holiday is getting louder.

Amid the country’s cultural shift on race in the wake of George Floyd’s death, corporate and social media executives, and the nation’s biggest professional sports league have officially recognized June 19, 1865 — the day when the last American slaves were freed — and given their employees the day off.

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More important, a bipartisan push in both houses of Congress is also taking shape — Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, plans to introduce legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, announced Thursday that he will do the same.

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A quick glance across the private sector shows the push is getting a major boost from some of the biggest names in American business and influence.

NFL league offices were closed Friday after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided earlier this week to honor Juneteenth.

"This year, as we work together as a family and in our communities to combat the racial injustices that remain deeply rooted into the fabric of our society, the NFL will observe Juneteenth on Friday as a recognized holiday and our league offices will be closed," he wrote in an email to employees, according a report by NPR.

The commissioner’s move came days after he encouraged NFL teams to sign Colin Kaepernick, an astonishing about-face from three years ago when the league blackballed the quarterback for kneeling during the national anthem as a silent protest against police brutality.

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JCPenney CEO Jill Soltau also told employees to take the day off “to honor the historic pain caused by — and lives lost to — racial inequity and celebrate racial diversity.”

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has also announced plans to make Juneteenth an annual holiday.

Nike CEO John Donahoe informed employees they would be given a paid holiday on Juneteenth, according to recent reporting by the AJC.

On June 19, 1865, Major Gen. Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas, to inform a reluctant community that President Abraham Lincoln two years earlier had freed the slaves and to press locals to comply with his directive.

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The day has taken on renewed significance after Floyd died while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, and after President Donald Trump recently scheduled a campaign rally on the date in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which he rescheduled for Saturday after a backlash from black leaders who found Trump’s timing troublesome.

On Thursday, Trump took credit for introducing Juneteenth to Americans for the first time, proclaiming “nobody had ever heard of it.”

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But Juneteenth has been deeply important to the black community for 155 years. Every year on June 19, black Americans consistently celebrate as it marks the official day when the last U.S. slaves were freed.

Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day in some parts, and black families typically get together for cookouts, storytelling, and music and dance. Festivals are also widespread.

“Why would Trump know about Juneteenth? Many whites don’t know,” said Gwen Ragsdale, executive director of the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum in Philadelphia, who spoke with NPR. She said many white Americans are unaware of Juneteenth because it wasn’t taught in schools.

“African Americans were on the frontlines of every war, from the Spanish-American War, throughout the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, both world wars, Vietnam,” she told NPR. “We have paid our dues with our blood and our toil, so America owes African Americans much more than they are willing to acknowledge.”

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Congress has passed resolutions in the past to recognize the historical importance of Juneteenth but has never voted to declare the date an official holiday, according to NPR.

The last time Congress approved a national holiday was in 1983, when it created Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is observed on the third Monday of January each year.