President Joe Biden officially established June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day on Thursday, signing into law the country’s 11th federally-recognized holiday.
"This will go down for me as one of the greatest honors I will have as president," Biden said.
“Today, we consecrate Juneteenth for what it ought to be, what it must be: A national holiday,” President Biden said in an address from the White House, receiving a round of applause from those assembled.
The federal government will recognize the holiday starting this year. Since June 19 falls on a Saturday, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced most federal employees will observe Juneteenth National Independence Day on Friday, June 18.
With the president’s signature, Juneteenth became the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established in 1983.
“Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments,” Biden said, pointing to the new federal holiday as a chance to educate and reflect on the history of the country. “Great nations don't walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”
Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day, commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas — nearly two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Though slavery was not completely abolished until the 13th Amendment, which came six months later, Juneteenth has come to symbolize the end of slavery.
During his address, Biden gave special recognition to Opal Lee, a 94-year-old activist who dedicated her life to pushing the United States to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday.
“A daughter of Texas. Grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday,” Biden said of Lee, later adding: ''She's walked for miles and miles, literally and figuratively, to bring attention to Juneteenth. To make this day possible.”
The president invited Lee to stand alongside himself, Vice President Kamala Harris and lawmakers who spearheaded the legislation as he signed the bill, awarding her the gift of the first pen he used to sign his name.
"As we commemorate the history of Juneteenth, as we did just weeks ago with the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre, we must learn from our history, and we must teach our children our history," Harris said, adding: "It is part of American history."
Biden also praised lawmakers for their widely bipartisan support for the legislation. The U.S. Senate passed the bill through a unanimous consent agreement on Tuesday; the U.S. House of Representatives voted 415-14 in favor of the legislation on Thursday.
“I'm especially pleased that we showed the nation that we come together as Democrats and Republicans to commemorate this day with an overwhelming bipartisan show of support from Congress,” Biden said. “I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another.”
The 14 House Republicans who voted against the bill were Andy Biggs of Arizona, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Ronny Jackson of Texas, Doug LaMalfa of California, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Tom McClintock of California, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Mike Rogers of Alabama, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Chip Roy of Texas and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin.
The lawmakers cited various reasons for their dissent. Rep. Rosendale released a statement on Wednesday opposing the effort, writing in part: “This is an effort by the Left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.”
“Critical race theory” has emerged as a flashpoint for Republicans in the year since George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.
As protests and calls for police reform spread across the country, politicians are caught in a debate about how race should be used as a lens in classrooms to examine the country’s tumultuous history.
At least 16 states are considering or have signed into law bills that would limit the teaching of certain ideas linked to “critical race theory,” which seeks to reframe the narrative of American history. Its proponents argue that federal law has preserved the unequal treatment of people on the basis of race and that the country was founded on the theft of land and labor.
While Biden did not specifically address the issue of critical race theory during his address, he did decry recent legislation passed in many GOP-states that Democrats say Democrats are aimed at undermining minority voting rights
The laws represent “an assault” on American democracy, Biden said, adding: “We can't rest until the promise of equality is fulfilled for every one of us in every corner of this nation. That to me is the meaning of Juneteenth.”
Those who supported the legislation cheered its passage, but many also called on Congress to take further action to address issues that disproportionately affect the Black community — namely police reform and the slew of recent voting rights legislation.
“Juneteenth, yes,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who sponsored the Senate legislation and was present at Thursday’s signing, wrote in part, adding: “And voting rights. And police accountability. And clean air and water. And economic equality. And reparations. We celebrate this federal holiday and recommit to full Black liberation.”
Biden similarly said his administration’s work addressing racial injustice is not done, saying it is “simply not enough just to commemorate Juneteenth.”
“After all, emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn't mark the end of America's work to deliver on the promise of equality,” the president said. “It only marked the beginning. To honor the true meaning of Juneteenth, we have to continue toward that promise. We have not gotten there yet.”
In a proclamation issued Friday, President Biden said that "there is still more work to do" in advancing racial equity.
"As we emerge from the long, dark winter of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, racial equity remains at the heart of our efforts to vaccinate the Nation and beat the virus," Biden said in the proclamation. "We must recognize that Black Americans, among other people of color, have shouldered a disproportionate burden of loss – while also carrying us through disproportionately as essential workers and health care providers on the front lines of the crisis."
Biden went on to quote Psalm 30, an oft-cited verse from the president during the COVID-19 pandemic: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."
"Juneteenth marks both the long, hard night of slavery and discrimination, and the promise of a brighter morning to come," Biden continued. "My Administration is committed to building an economy – and a Nation – that brings everyone along, and finally delivers our Nation's founding promise to Black Americans. Together, we will lay the roots of real and lasting justice, so that we can become the extraordinary country that was promised to all Americans."
"Juneteenth not only commemorates the past," Biden concluded. "It calls us to action today."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.