Biden, Harris sign the bill, making Juneteenth a federal holiday

Photo: AP

US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris signed a bill into law on Thursday to make 19 June a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans, news wires reported.

The bill, which was passed overwhelmingly by the US House of Representatives on Wednesday after clearing the Senate unanimously, marks the day in 1865 when a Union general informed a group of enslaved people in Texas that they had been made free two years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War.

"Juneteenth marks both a long hard night of slavery subjugation and a promise of a brighter morning to come," Biden said, cited by AP. “The day is a reminder of the "terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take."

European colonists first forcibly brought enslaved Africans by ship to the British colonies that became the United States in the 1600s; millions of people were legally owned there until the 13th Amendment passed in 1865.

"Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments...they embrace them," Biden told a room filled with about 80 members of Congress, community leaders and activists including 94-year-old Opal Lee, who campaigned for decades to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Vice President Harris reminded the White House guests that they were gathered in a "house built by enslaved people," and said the holiday would be an occasion to "reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action."

Juneteenth will be the eleventh federally recognized holiday, and the first in nearly four decades, following one honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Federal employees will start taking the holiday off this year, observing it on Friday since Juneteenth falls on Saturday, the US Office of Personnel Management said on Twitter.

Biden and his fellow Democrats are under pressure to respond to a slew of Republican-backed state bills that civil rights activists say aim to suppress voting by minorities, and to meaningfully address the disproportionate killing of Black men by police.

Some Republicans are also pushing state bills that discourage history teachers from focusing on the US's history of slavery and racism.

Many Republicans backed the Juneteenth bill in Congress; several of the over a dozen who opposed it said declaring a "Juneteenth National Independence Day" would needlessly divide or confuse Americans.

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