Friday is Juneteenth, recognized as the day that thousands of enslaved people in Texas learned they were free more than 150 years ago. It’s an important day in American history, one that remains meaningful to millions of Black Americans. That’s why lawmakers are now pushing for Juneteenth to become a national holiday.
Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, and Republican Sen. John Coryn plan to introduce bills in Congress to officially recognize the day as a national holiday. Harris says she is also working with Sens. Tina Smith, Ed Markey and Cory Booker on the bill.
“On Juneteenth, we reflect on the past and rejoice in the progress made,” Harris wrote for USA Today. “On this day, we recognize the hard-fought road that led to the emancipation of enslaved people and recommit ourselves to America’s promise of equal justice for all.”
Juneteenth is currently observed in some form in 47 states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states that currently do not recognize the holiday, while New York, Virginia, Oregon and Philadelphia announced this week that they will also recognize the day an official holiday.
For years, Congressional leaders in both the House and Senate have passed resolutions to recognize Juneteenth as Independence Day, but legislation to declare it a national holiday has stalled. Now may be the time to push forward the holiday, as Juneteenth has gained national attention this year, especially in relation to the ongoing protests for Black liberation and amid calls to defund and abolish the police.
Calls to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday have been louder more recently, just as the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s ushered in a period of renewed attention to efforts around recognizing the day nationally.
Even as they introduce legislation now to make Juneteenth a national holiday, lawmakers acknowledge it could take many years still for that to happen. But Rep. Jackson Lee sees this moment as an important one to increase awareness of the day and the legacy of American slavery.
“There needs to be a reckoning, an effort to unify. One thing about national holidays, they help educate people about what the story is,” Jackson Lee told TIME. “Juneteenth legislation is a call for freedom, but it also reinforces the history of African Americans. We’ve fought for this country. We’ve made great strides, but we’re still the victims of sharp disparities.”
Rep. Jackson Lee herself introduces a resolution every year to observe Juneteenth, and helped introduce the legislation this year to recognize it as a national holiday with more than 200 co-sponsors.
Black activists are also shedding light on what this day means, particularly right now. “On this Juneteenth, as we are having a new conversation about what freedom looks like, let’s think about the role that police play in keeping Black people from being free,” Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter wrote for USA Today. “Let’s think about the role jails play in keeping Black people from being free. Let’s think about how every single moment this country used Black bodies as slave labor.”