(LR) 94-year-old activist and retired educator Opal Lee, known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, speaks to United States President Joe Biden after he signed the National Independence Day Act in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, DC
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
The scene in the White House on Thursday may have been difficult to read a year ago.
A diverse crowd of lawmakers, activists, and community leaders – including pop icon Usher, who was shot with many photos – gathered in the East Room to watch President Joe Biden sign a new federal holiday: Juneteenth, the 19th of slavery in the United States.
With coronavirus infections in the US near record lows amid a widespread vaccination campaign across all levels of government, few members of the indoor crowd were seen wearing masks.
"We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people," said Vice President Kamala Harris, the first black woman to hold the title. "We're just steps from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and we're here to watch President Joe Biden declare June thenth a national holiday."
"We have come a long way and we still have a lot to do, but today is a day of celebration," said Harris.
As she spoke, the President stepped off the podium and approached the front row, then knelt to hug Opal Lee, the 94-year-old Texan activist believed to be the driving force behind the push for the new holiday.
"I've only been president for several months, but I think this will count as one of the greatest honors I've had as president," Biden told the crowd before signing the law.
The 11th national annual holiday was set just two days before June 15 itself and less than three weeks after the 100th anniversary of the massacre of the Tulsa breed. It also followed the first anniversary of the death of George Floyd, the unarmed black man whose taped murder in police custody sparked a nationwide outbreak of civil unrest.
At a time when Republicans and Democrats are practically disagreeing, they came together this week to vote overwhelmingly to make June 15 a federal holiday.
Just a year ago, in mid-June 2020, all of these factors – Tulsa, Juneteenth, the waves of protests and the Covid pandemic – were creating problems for then-President Donald Trump, who came under fire for planning a rally in Tulsa on the holiday .
"I made Juneteenth very famous," Trump told the Wall Street Journal after postponing the date of the rally. "It's actually an important event, an important time. But no one had ever heard of it."
The contrast between Trump's last Juneteenth as President and Biden's first could hardly be more stark. It illustrates not only the seismic changes at play in the nation and how they have shaped the present, but also the differences in the way the two presidents have dealt with racial issues.
The way to the national holiday
Juneteenth celebrates the date in 1865 when black slaves in Texas finally heard they had been released under the Emancipation Proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln had issued more than two years earlier.
The Confederate Army under General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865, a surrender that led to the end of the Civil War. But it wasn't until June 19 that Union forces under General Gordon Granger arrived in the coastal city of Galveston, Texas, to deliver General Order No. 3, which officially ended slavery in the state.
"The people of Texas are being informed that all slaves are free according to a proclamation by the United States executive branch," the order said.
Lincoln was shot dead by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth just five days after Lee's surrender at Ford's Theater.
The name "Juneteenth" has evolved over the decades from numerous different names and spellings, historians note.
While the vast majority of states are already recognizing Juniteenth as a holiday, activists like Opal Lee have been battling for decades to get the federal appointment.
In 1939, when Lee was 12 years old, a white mob set her family home on fire. Nobody was arrested. In 2016, Lee, then 89, moved from her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. to walk – about 1,400 miles – to campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
"The fact is, none of us are free until we are all free," Lee told the New York Times in a June 2020 interview.
A year later, Lee attended the White House ceremony to declare Juniteenth the first new public holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.
Previous attempts to pass a June 18 bill in Congress have been unsuccessful. In 2020, one such bill was blocked in the Senate by Ron Johnson, R-Wis, who opposed the cost of another day off for federal employees.
This time he withdrew and said in a statement: "It is clear that Congress has no appetite to discuss the matter further."
The reason why?
"In two words, it's George Floyd," Karlos Hill, chairman of the Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said in an interview with CNBC.
In May 2020, the video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes sparked a firestorm of protests across the country. The officer's behavior was condemned from across the political spectrum and prompted lawmakers to draft law on police reform on Floyd's behalf.
Chauvin was convicted of second degree murder, third degree murder, and second degree manslaughter in April.
"It took something so bold to change the conversation," said Hill.
"These things are deeply connected," said Hill, explaining that the shock of Floyd's death "created a space and an opportunity for Juneteenth."
Few legislators – even those who complained about the bill – stood in the way this week than those of Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass. introduced legislation that flew by Congress.
The bill was passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday evening. A day later, the House passed it with an overwhelming 415 to 14 votes. The 14 no votes were all Republicans, while 195 GOP lawmakers voted yes.
Republicans have criticized the fact that the decision to name the holiday "National Independence Day of June" clashed with the existing July 4th Independence Day. They pointed out that the holiday was also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, and other names throughout its history.
Others, like Johnson, complained about the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue lost from being granted another day off for federal employees. And some lawmakers scolded the Democrats for bringing the bill to the House of Representatives, bypassing congressional committees and the ability to vote on amendments.
A Republican, Matt Rosendale of Montana, issued a statement before the final vote announcing his opposition to the measure because he claimed it was an attempt to promote "identity politics" and "critical racial theory" in America.
Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas dismissed Rosendale's attitude as "insane."
The 14 House Members who voted against the law are: Rosendale; Mo Brooks, R-Ala .; Andy Biggs, R-Ariz .; Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn .; Tom Tiffany, R-Wis .; Doug LaMalfa, R-California; Mike Rogers, R-Ala .; Ralph Norman, R-S.C .; Chip Roy, R-Texas; Paul Gosar, R-Ariz .; Tom McClintock, R-California; Ronny Jackson, R-Texas; Thomas Massie, R-Ky .; and Andrew Clyde, R-Ga.
In a statement Friday afternoon to celebrate June 10th, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel said of her party: "We are excited to see its adoption as our newest national holiday after President Trump called for it last year."
In September, Trump promised to establish June 16 as a national holiday as part of a series of overtures to black voters. But there's a lot more to Trump's relationship with Juneteenth than McDaniel's testimony suggests.
In June 2020, when the pandemic was raging, no vaccines in sight and then-candidate Biden had a clear lead in the polls, Trump announced he would return to campaigning to hold face-to-face events.
The marquee for his campaign launch: a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 19.
The Trump campaign initially defended the deadline decision as an opportunity for him to showcase his "track record for black Americans". Critics, however, called it a slap in the face that Trump chose the Juneteenth to come to Tulsa, site of one of the worst white-on-black massacres in US history, to resume his re-election campaign in mid-April, over national turmoil Racism.
Wall Street Journal's Michael Bender reported, in an adapted excerpt from his upcoming book on Trump's election defeat to Biden, that top campaign official Brad Parscale picked the time and place for the rally and that he "buried himself" after others pushed he had to make changes.
Bender reported that Trump, confused by the backlash to the rally date, asked a Black Intelligence agent if he knew about Juneteenth. The agent said he knew about it and added, "It is very offensive to me that you are holding this rally on Juneteenth," said Bender.
Less than a week before the rally, Trump tweeted that he would hold the event on the 20th vacation. "
On Juneteenth itself, Trump's White House issued a proclamation celebrating the holiday as a reminder of "both the unimaginable injustice of slavery and the incomparable joy that must be associated with emancipation".
Less than a month earlier, the Floyd video had drawn millions of people into marches and demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality. Numerous protests led to outbreaks of violence and looting in large cities.
Before the event at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Trump, who was still active on Twitter at the time, made an ominous threat to potential counter-demonstrators via the social media app.
"Any protester, anarchist, agitator, looter or lowlife going to Oklahoma, please understand that you will not be treated like you were in New York, Seattle or Minneapolis," Trump tweeted. "It's going to be a whole different scene."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who gave a speech in June in Tulsa that Friday, accused Trump of "provoking an incident" with the tweet.
Trump's Tulsa audience fell short of expectations and failed to fill thousands of seats in the nearly 20,000-seat arena. But in attendance was Herman Cain, a prominent black businessman, Conservative commentator, and former Republican presidential candidate.
74-year-old Cain, a stage 4 cancer survivor, was photographed at the event alongside other people, none of whom appeared to be wearing a mask.
In early July, Cain was hospitalized with the coronavirus and he was put on a ventilator when his condition worsened. He died on July 30th, making him one of the most famous people in the United States to succumb to the virus. Cain's staff said there was "no way to know for sure" how or where he caught Covid.
Bender des Journal reported that Trump raged over his lack of support from black voters the day after the Tulsa rally.
"I've done all these things for the blacks – it's always Jared (Kushner, Trump's son-in-law) who tells me to do that," Trump told a confidante, Bender reported. "And they all hate me, and none of them will vote for me."
Hill said the US is now "in a different reality" than it was last June, "in the sense that we saw the full aftermath of George Floyd."
"We carried on as if things had corrected themselves and we just didn't," said Hill. As a federal holiday, "June could, maybe, just be a break."