Joe Biden signs law making Juneteenth a national holiday

US president says date ‘marks the long night of slavery and a promise of a morning to come’

A new national holiday commemorating the end of slavery was signed into law by US president Joe Biden on Thursday, as he returned to work in the White House following a week-long trip to Europe.

Mr Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, establishing June 19th as a federal holiday, at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

The date marks the abolition of slavery in Texas, three years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, and has become known as Juneteenth.

It marks the first new national holiday in the US since the establishment of Martin Luther King Day almost four decades ago.


“Today we consecrate Juneteenth for what it ought to be, what it must be – a national holiday,” said Mr Biden as he signed the Bill in front of members of Congress and activists, noting that the date “marks both the long, hard night of slavery and subjugation and a promise of a morning to come”.

He said that Juneteenth was a reminder of “the moral stain, the terrible toll that slavery took on the country and continues to take – what I’ve long called America’s original sin”. But he also said it symbolised the US’s capacity to “heal and hope and emerge from those painful moments . . . to make a better version of ourselves”.

The swift passage of the Bill to the president's desk for signing followed a quick succession of votes in Congress on Wednesday. The measure passed the Senate by unanimous consent after one dissenting Republican, Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, withdrew his opposition. The House then quickly voted on the measure, with 14 Republicans voting against.

‘Important statement’

Speaking ahead of the signing, vice-president Kamala Harris said that establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday "makes an important statement". "These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop and take stock, and often to acknowledge our history."

Noting that she was standing “footsteps away” from where Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, she said that this was a day of celebration and of pride. But she added: “We must learn from our history and we must teach our children our history because it is part of our history as a nation.”

The establishment of June 19th as a federal holiday takes place against a broader debate in the US about how issues in relation to racism are taught in schools, as several Republican-controlled states push back against the academic discipline of critical race theory.

Meanwhile, national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday rejected criticism from Republicans that Mr Biden's meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday had yielded few deliverables.

Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy said that the president should have used the summit in Geneva "to stand up for our national interests and send a message to the world that the United States will hold Russia accountable for its long list of transgressions", adding: "President Biden gave Vladimir Putin a pass."

But Mr Sullivan said it was former president Donald Trump who had given Mr Putin a pass when he met him in Helsinki in 2018. "President Biden was clear, direct, straightforward in explaining to president Putin what American expectations are, what American capabilities are," he told reporters in Washington.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent