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The significance of Juneteenth, America’s first new federal holiday in decades

As of this Friday, Juneteenth — the day marking the end of slavery — is a federal holiday. Typically observed on the 19th of June, most federal employees will be able to observe it a day early because it lands on a Saturday this year. After a decades-long effort by activists, President Joe Biden signed it into law Thursday, making it the first new federal holiday since 1983. Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As of tomorrow, Juneteenth, the day marking the end of slavery, is a federal holiday.

    Juneteenth is observed on the 19th of the month, but, because it lands on a Saturday this year, most federal employees will be able to celebrate this Friday.

    For millions, the commemoration is long overdue, and far more significant than another day off.

    Amna Nawaz explains.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, Juneteenth is either observed or an official state holiday in 49 states and the District of Columbia. The effort to make it a national holiday goes back decades.

    But, today, President Biden signed a law making it the first new federal holiday since 1983. Now, Juneteenth commemorates what took place on June 19, 1865, when union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced to enslaved Black people that they were free. That came 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Confederacy surrendered.

    We explore the significance of this moment with Khalil Gibran Muhammad. He's a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He's also the former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black culture.

    Professor Muhammad, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being with us.

    So, Juneteenth is now added to the list of federal holidays that includes things like New Year's Day and Martin Luther King Day and Memorial Day, Independence Day.

    What's the significance of this day joining this list?

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Harvard Kennedy School:

    Well, the significance is that, for the first time in American history, America's original sin — that is, slavery — will be center and a commemorative moment annually that will bring parents and children, teachers and students and everyday Americans and newcomers alike together, with the hope and possibility that they will reflect on the meaning of that history, so that we might reconcile with our present.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Why do you think that's important, especially at this point in American history?

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Well, in our political climate, where conversations about the fragility of our democracy, protests around systemic racism, an ongoing climate crisis that will require all of us to come together across partisan lines, we are facing some serious existential in this country, of which race and racism in many ways animate so much of the problem.

    And so to have a holiday that could become a way of reminding ourselves of the obligations that we owe each other, this is a big deal.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about education?

    I mean, I know you say the holiday can remind all of us of a history a lot of people don't learn about in their formal education. Juneteenth is often not taught in our formal school systems. You learn about sort of exceptional stories from slavery. We all know about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

    Do you think this becoming a federal holiday could change that?

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Well, I think there's a lot of momentum and possibility and movement in that direction. Indeed, some of the people who've been organizing for Juneteenth as a national holiday have centered the holiday around education, wanting to see the recognition of the day itself as part of the curriculum in American schools.

    And so perhaps this is the tip of an iceberg of a more capacious understanding of the American past. But I think it's also an important reminder that, in this political moment, states are passing bills to keep histories like Juneteenth and what they mean out of schools.

    And so it's not clear how much this will move forward in curriculum anytime soon.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned this political moment. We should point out this had overwhelming bipartisan support, which is not something we get to say often in Washington.

    Did that surprise you?

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Yes. Yes, it did, admittedly.

    But, upon further reflection, I think in a Congress that is debating protecting voting rights for all Americans, making it easier to vote and not harder at the federal level, questions about how to solve for police violence against unarmed people and other aggressions directed towards people, this is easier than those — than that legislation.

    And so I do think we have to keep in mind that politics are still at play.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You also mentioned, of course, this moment in American national conversations, when we are talking much more about racism in American history and the systemic racism that persists today.

    Do you think we would be at this moment today had we not had the last year of not just national protests, but global protests, in response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis?

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    In my opinion, no.

    In my opinion, when millions of Americans numbering anywhere from 15 to 26 million, according to The New York Times, participated in racial justice protests a year ago, the conversation about the significance of Juneteenth, the anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, its centennial just passed, have all thrown in sharp relief the urgency of reconciling with our past in order to make for a different and more just and racial, fully egalitarian future.

    And so I don't believe that this holiday would be where we are at this moment were it not for all that activity a year ago.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Finally, we noted, of course, several states have already commemorated, have been commemorating Juneteenth in some way. And, of course, millions of Black Americans have been marking the day for generations.

    I wonder what you would say to everyone else in the country, to white Americans, Latinx Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, about how they should mark this day?

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    Yes.

    Well, this is a country, the United States of America, that gained its footing in the world and its wealth and its land on the backs of the indigenous and the enslaved. And for anyone who claims America as their home, whether it's an old home or an adopted home, owes a debt to those people.

    And, therefore, this is everyone's holiday. The very notion of freedom itself, of freedom delayed, of freedom aborted, and of freedom that is fragile is one that we ought to all remind ourselves as much as possible is one that has to be fought for and to be vigilant guardians of.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad of Harvard Kennedy School, thank you so much for being with us tonight.

  • Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

    You're very welcome.

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