Juan Williams: Happy Juneteenth – new holiday's approval a surprising act of racial unity in divided times

Did you know that it’s been almost four decades since Congress created a new federal holiday?  

In a surprising act of racial unity, even heavenly grace, a politically divided Congress passed recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday this week. The vote was by unanimous consent in the Senate on Tuesday and it was 415-14 on Wednesday in the House. President Biden is expected to sign the bill on Thursday.  


The last time Congress approved a new holiday was 1983. That holiday was the much more controversial Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  

President Ronald Reagan had to be personally convinced by James A. Baker, his chief of staff and a Texan, that celebrating King’s birthday was a historic gesture that dwarfed the objections from Southern White conservatives who opposed King’s activism and his legacy.  

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Fast forward to Tuesday, June 15, 2021. 

It is remarkable how quickly momentum was built for a politically polarized Congress to designate “Juneteenth” as a federal holiday.  

The biggest surprise is that a conservative Republican senator from Texas, John Cornyn, was one of the lawmakers leading the way. Cornyn is sensitive to the racial divide and often looks for healing.  

With some on the far right making a boogeyman out of teaching the nation’s racial history – critical race theory – the Texan stood tall and stuck his neck out to cross political and ideological lines to make Juneteenth a national holiday.  

On the other side of the political divide, Cornyn found a helping hand in liberal Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a progressive congresswoman from Houston, another Texan, reached out to build support in the House.  

 I’ve written about America’s amazing, often difficult racial history for years, including in best-selling books such as “Eyes on the Prize – America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965” and “Thurgood Marshall – American Revolutionary.”  

“The freedom of all Americans that Texas celebrates every Juneteenth should be celebrated all across the nation,” Sen. John Cornyn said in his statement.   

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