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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

June 19: Making Juneteenth a National Holiday: the MLK Precedent

There is significant momentum for creating an important new national holiday, and I reviewed the situation at New York:

Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee has repeatedly offered legislation in Congress to make June 19, or Juneteenth – the celebration of slavery’s end that originated in her state – a federal holiday. As Fabiola Cineas explains at Vox, it’s an event with a long history:

“A portmanteau of ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth,’ Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free from the institution of slavery….

“Newly freed black people celebrated the first Juneteenth in 1866 to commemorate liberation — with food, singing, and the reading of spirituals — and take pride in their progress. But a century and a half later, Juneteenth is still not taught in most schools, nor is the event a federal holiday despite decades of pushing from activists.”

This year, amid a national wave of outrage and awakening over racial injustice, Juneteenth has seen wider national observance than ever before. Lee’s resolution to recognize the historical significance of Juneteenth has gathered 200-plus cosponsors, and on Thursday Senator John Cornyn said he will introduce bipartisan legislation to make it a federal holiday. In the last week the governors of Virginia and New York announced that they will observe Juneteenth as an official holiday with paid time off for state workers (joining Texas, which took the step in 1980). A growing list of corporations have made Juneteenth a paid day off for employees, including the NFL, Twitter, Nike, Uber, and Target, along with media companies such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Vox Media (New York Magazine’s parent company).

The easiest “dodge” for those resisting an official holiday is to offer less significant forms of recognition that do not command general attention, much less the widespread discussion of racial justice issues that both the MLK and Juneteenth commemorations are intended to promote. Currently 42 states “recognize” Juneteenth, but do not offer time off for public employees or close state offices. That was a problem in the early days of the drive for an MLK holiday, too.

Michigan’s John Conyers made the first congressional call for a federal holiday to honor Dr. King just four days after his assassination in 1968. But the original Senate bill, sponsored by Massachusetts Republican Senator Ed Brooke (at that point the only African-American in the chamber) simply called for a “national day of commemoration,” and Republicans in both chambers frequently sought to substitute less significant forms of recognition.

Conyers and other key sponsors never accepted half a loaf. Support for the holiday by President Jimmy Carter and congressional Democrats gave it near-success in 1979, but it took a sustained public campaign in the early 1980s to make it a reality despite Republican control of the White House and the Senate, as the Constitution Center explains:

“Musician Stevie Wonder helped in 1981 by releasing the song ‘Happy Birthday’ to promote the holiday. (He would later sing it at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial dedication in 2011).

“The King Center kept up its efforts. It organized a march on Washington that included an estimated 500,000 people. Coretta Scott King, along with Wonder, presented a petition signed by 6 million people to House leader Tip O’Neill.”

Finally Republicans began to come around to support for the holiday, with Representatives Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich, and even Senator Strom Thurmond speaking out for it during the next push in 1983. After proponents finally overcame a filibuster by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina (a bitter opponent of the holiday who was forever trying to draw attention to scurrilous smears of Dr. King cooked up by the FBI at J. Edgar Hoover’s direction), it passed both houses and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law.

One key moment in the House debate involved one of the most common objections to a MLK holiday: its cost in lost federal worker hours. As Don Wolfensburger observed years later:

“Republican manager [William] Dannemeyer complained in his opening statement about the cost of a paid federal holiday. Congressional Black Caucus Member Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) retorted, ‘What do you mean ‘”cost?”’ What was the cost of keeping us blacks where we were? All these extraneous things do not mean a thing to me. I am talking about what is the right and decent thing to do, and to urge a vote for this bill in the form that it is.’”

It took even longer to secure full recognition of the holiday at the state level. As of 1986, when the federal MLK holiday took effect, only 17 states had done likewise. In addition to the usual efforts to dilute the holiday, it became popular in southern states to incongruously draft it onto commemorations of Confederate generals. Notably, Virginia combined the MLK holiday with recognition of both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson until 2000. To this day Alabama and Mississippi honor Lee and King together.

All told, it took 15 years from the time of Dr. King’s assassination for the federal holiday to be enacted, and then another 17 before all 50 states acknowledged it. That fight yielded three major lessons: (1) don’t accept some watered-down observance; (2) seek enough bipartisan support to overcome conservative opposition; and (3) mobilize the public and link the holiday to the eternal causes of equal rights and racial justice.

Advocates for a federal Juneteenth holiday have already made progress on each of these fronts, so hopefully its path to recognition can be shortened.

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