President Joe Biden said that signing legislation into law on Thursday establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day – a US federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States – will go down as “one of the greatest honors” of his presidency.
“I have to say to you, I’ve only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president,” Biden said at the White House during a signing ceremony.
“I regret that my grandchildren aren’t here, because this is a really, really, really important moment in our history. By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history – and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come (and) the distance we have to travel,” Biden said.
The ceremony, which took place in the East Room, included some 80 members of Congress – including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, local elected officials, community leaders and activists. The President specifically noted that Opal Lee, the activist who campaigned to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday, was in attendance.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Only a handful of states currently observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday.
Biden, speaking at the White House alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, repeated the sentiments he relayed when he commemorated the Tulsa race massacre earlier this year, that “great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments.”
“They embrace them. Great nations don’t walk away. We’ve come to terms with the mistakes we made and in remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger,” the President said.
During the ceremony, the President said it was not enough to commemorate the holiday, but to use it as a day of reflection and action.
“We can’t rest until the promise of equality if fulfilled for every one of us in every corner of this nation. That to me is the meaning of Juneteenth,” Biden said.
Biden also underscored how his White House agenda is working to deliver equality and emphasized that the promise of equality is not going to fulfilled “so long as the sacred right to vote remains under attack.” The President specifically pointed to restrictive voter laws in some states, calling them “an assault that offends our very democracy.”
The holiday is the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983 and becomes at least the eleventh federal holiday recognized by the US federal government. The US Office of Personnel Management announced Thursday that most federal employees will observe the holiday on Friday since Juneteenth falls on a Saturday this year.
The legislation, which was passed by Congress on Wednesday, gained momentum following Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd last year. It was also spurred after Democrats won the White House and control of the House of Representatives and the US Senate.
The bill passed the House on Wednesday with a 415-14 vote after the Senate unanimously passed the legislation the day before.
The bill had bipartisan sponsors that included Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts.
At the White House on Thursday, Biden lauded members of Congress for the bipartisan effort, saying, “I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another.”
Lee told reporters ahead of the final passage of the bill, “what I see here today is racial divide crumbling, being crushed this day under a momentous vote that brings together people who understand the value of freedom.”
The 14 Republicans who voted against the bill were Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin, Doug LaMalfa of California, Tom McClintock of California, Mike Rogers of Alabama, Matt Rosendale of Montana, Ronny Jackson of Texas, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Chip Roy of Texas and Paul Gosar of Arizona.
Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson had previously blocked the bill in 2020, saying that the day off for federal employees would cost US taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But Johnson dropped his objection this week despite his concerns, which paved the way for the bill’s passage in the Senate.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Daniella Diaz, Annie Grayer and Alex Rogers contributed to this report.