Black lawmakers warn against complacency after Juneteenth victory
The observance of Juneteenth for the first time as a federal holiday is being hailed by lawmakers and activists who for years have sought national recognition for the oldest celebration of the abolition of slavery in the U.S.
But racial justice advocates and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) say much more needs to be done on issues such as police reform and voting rights — legislative priorities that have failed to attract anywhere near the kind of bipartisan support garnered by the Juneteenth bill that sailed through Congress earlier this week.
“Let us not forget how much further we must go,” CBC Chairwoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) said in a statement Thursday.
“Voting rights, the racial wealth gap, justice in policing and so many more issues remain to be overcome,” she added.
The bills atop the CBC’s agenda include the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act. CBC members also have been clamoring for a floor vote on a House bill that would create a federal commission to study reparations for Black Americans.
While there has been some progress toward a bipartisan deal on police reform, GOP lawmakers have been almost uniformly opposed to the rest of the policy proposals championed by the Congressional Black Caucus.
Just hours before Juneteenth became the country’s 12th federal holiday on Friday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said all 50 Republicans in the chamber oppose the For the People Act, which is coming up for a vote next week.
McConnell also recently said he believes reauthorization of the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s federal preclearance rule is “unnecessary.”
GOP opposition is sparking a backlash among proponents of those bills.
“I'm past being frustrated. I just don't understand the rationale. It makes no sense,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), the CBC’s second co-chairwoman, told The Hill.
The frustration comes after watching the Juneteenth bill fly through Congress unexpectedly in a matter of days.
The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which was introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in the previous Congress, had largely sat untouched after being reintroduced in February.
But on Tuesday, with little prior notice, the Senate passed the legislation by unanimous consent. The House quickly followed suit with a vote on Wednesday. President Biden signed the measure into law the next day, and the federal holiday was observed on Friday.
The bipartisanship was apparent in more than just the final vote; Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was outspoken in his support for making Juneteenth a national holiday.
“There's nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” Cornyn said Wednesday afternoon at a press conference with Jackson Lee and Democratic lawmakers.
“It seems to me that this is the most propitious time for us to recognize our history and to learn from it, and that's the way I regard Juneteenth,” he added.
Juneteenth recognizes June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, emancipating the remaining enslaved people in the state.
For enslaved people in Texas, which at the time was the most remote and western state, freedom came two and a half years after former President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment, officially prohibiting slavery in the U.S., wasn’t ratified until December 1865.
But Cornyn and other congressional Republicans are seen as major obstacles to the CBC’s legislative agenda. GOP lawmakers are also staunch opponents of critical race theory, raising concerns among activists who view that opposition as an attempt to whitewash America’s history of slavery and racism.
Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), one of the 14 House Republicans who voted against the Juneteenth bill, called the legislation “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 asserts the U.S. was established around racist structures such as slavery and that remnants of those systems are present today, driving inequality and inequity.
For Lawrence, a top CBC member, making Juneteenth a national holiday ensures that part of U.S. history will not be forgotten.
“It solidifies that there was a time in history in the United States where Black people were enslaved,” Lawrence said.
But she said much more needs to be done to address racial injustice.
“This by no way, by any means ... replaces our need to address systemic racism in our country,” Lawrence said.
“This does not write off, like, ‘OK, we gave you Juneteenth. Now we're done.’ No, there's so much work to be done. And so the Black Caucus is extremely committed to making sure that this does not go away,” she added.