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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris talk about “the promise of equality” amid Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday. Delaney Tarr reports on the event.

On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed into law the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act,” which designates Juneteenth National Independence Day as a legal public holiday. The holiday is the first created by Congress since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983, created to honor the murdered civil rights leader. 

Juneteenth has long been celebrated nationwide. It commemorates June 19, 1865. On June 19, 156 years ago, enslaved people in Texas learned they were free. The information came to them about two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in the United States. 

Vice President Kamala Harris took care to acknowledge the reality in her remarks. “That day was not the end of slavery in America,” said Harris. Enslaved people had been freed, but slave owners in Galveston, Texas, intentionally withheld that information. Even after Juneteenth, it still took another six months to ratify the 13th Amendment.

The painful reality of the holiday hung over the crowd. Harris noted the very building they were standing in had been built by enslaved people. She mentioned that just weeks prior, Biden gave remarks addressing the Tulsa Race Massacre that decimated Black Americans. 

Yet, it was also a time for celebration. Opal Lee was an honored guest, a 94-year-old Fort Worth, Texas resident considered the “grandmother of Juneteenth.” Lee had long fought to create the federal holiday and was present today to honor the landmark moment. 

“It is not only a day of pride, it’s also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action,” said Harris.  

The idea of action carried through into President Joe Biden’s remarks, where he quickly addressed the current climate around race in America. 

The creation of the federal holiday comes after nationwide protests in 2020, sparked by the murder of George Floyd. The protests for Black Lives Matter and the ensuing movement have helmed a national dialogue on racism in America. 

The Juneteenth bill marked a step in that dialogue, but Biden stressed the day couldn’t be solely symbolic. 

“It’s not enough to commemorate,” Biden said, “emancipation of Black Americans didn’t mark the end of Americans’ work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning.” 

Biden then dove into some of his current policy promises– namely, the American Jobs Plan, Biden’s $1.7 trillion infrastructure bill. 

The bill targets several American infrastructure areas, but Biden spotlighted the components targeted towards Black Americans, like combatting racial discrimination in housing and guaranteeing schooling for 3-4-year-old children. 

Biden mentioned other areas for progress like clean water, a reference to the Flint, Michigan water crisis. He touched on the “sacred right to vote” in light of voter rights efforts across America. 

“The promise of equality isn’t going to be fulfilled until it becomes real in our schools and streets and neighborhoods,” said Biden. The comment comes amidst national toil around the state of race in American schools. 

As it stands, legislators in 21 states have introduced legislation to limit or ban critical race theory education in classrooms. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently banned critical race theory, with an amendment that prohibits “the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”

The amendment is one of many nationwide, and some have found it controversial– especially amidst the creation of Juneteenth as a national holiday. One Twitter user, @thejournalista, released a thread on the topic. 

“Imagine making Juneteenth a federal holiday when laws are being enacted all over the country that will prevent people from being taught why it’s a holiday,” said the account, operated by Monique Judge. 

The details of what a critical race theory ban will look like in practice are still unclear. In the meantime, the White House continues to celebrate a historic moment. 

A group of legislators gathered around Biden’s desk as he prepared to make the holiday official. Vice President Harris held Opal’s hand as the President signed the act and handed her a pen.

“I think this will be for me, one of the greatest honors I will have had as President, not because I did it. Because you did it,” said Biden.