Earl Ofari Hutchinson
This is the second in a two-part series on the battle for the Juneteenth Federal Holiday based on the forthcoming book, The Juneteenth Drama (Middle Passage Press)
One year after Congress passed and President Biden signed into law the bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday, Gallup took a poll about the holiday. The majority of Americans had heard of Juneteenth. However, when probed about it a majority knew little to nothing about Juneteenth, its significance, and even why it was declared a federal holiday.
Many of the states took their cue from the public’s ignorance about the holiday. Most of the states did not give their employees the day off as a paid holiday day. Most private businesses followed suit. They did not give their employees the day off either.
There was nothing that Congress or the White House could do about that. They did not have the power to compel states to observe a federal holiday. Federal holidays are just that federal holidays. The only employees who are legally entitled to a paid holiday day off are federal employees and those in the District of Columbia.
The issue of who does and doesn’t celebrate a federal holiday was a point of sharp contention and controversy in celebrating the King federal holiday from the moment Reagan signed the bill making it a holiday into law in 1983.
For the first two decades, most businesses did not give their employees a paid day off. Most states followed the same pattern. That gradually changed as more states and businesses came on board to acknowledge the holiday with a paid day off for workers. Yet the fierce resistance continued. In 2020, the King Holiday was a workday for more than eighty percent of workers in manufacturing businesses. That remained the case in 2023.
Despite the recognition of the King Holiday as a national holiday by all fifty states, observance of the King Holiday remained largely a discretionary matter for most state officials. The District of Columbia is the only public district that mandates the King holiday as a work-off day for federal employees.
The mixed reaction to the King Holiday ranged from turning a blind eye, indifference, or just outright ignoring it in many quarters. In signing the King holiday bill, Reagan strongly signaled that this was not likely to change, “To make it a national holiday in the sense of businesses closing
down and government closing down and everyone not working? I’d like to call your attention to [the fact that] we only really have a couple of those…not even Abraham Lincoln has that kind of a national holiday.”
In far too many public and private circles, the King Holiday was regarded as a “Black holiday” or more charitably a “civil rights issue.” That reinforced the chronic fiction that King was solely a Black leader, that the civil rights movement was a movement only for Blacks, and that his holiday should be celebrated exclusively by Blacks.
The same tag was inevitably slapped on Juneteenth. That fiction was amply reinforced by pictures of marches, rallies, events, and festivals on that day in which in most instances the marchers and celebrants shown were African Americans.
There’s also the question of numbers. The Juneteenth holiday is the eleventh federal holiday. In the century before Juneteenth was added to the federal holiday calendar, only four federal holidays were added. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, purely in terms of numbers, there is a scarcity of federal holidays. On the other, some consider that there are too many.
It’s a Hobbesian Choice dilemma. The more holidays on a calendar over time diminishes the impact and importance to many Americans of the holiday. It’s just another day off for many.
However, a holiday such as the King Holiday and the Juneteenth Holiday were intended as holidays to cajole, educate, and remind Americans of America’s history of racial turmoil, struggles, and progress. They are not holidays for leisure or shopping. “Juneteenth marks the date of major significance in American history. It represents the ways in which freedom for Black people has been delayed,” said Democratic Rep. Anthony Nolan, who fought to make making Juneteenth a paid holiday in Connecticut. He added, “If we delay this, it’s a smack in the face to Black folks.”
The irony is that GOP state legislators in some of the states where legislators dragged their feet on making Juneteenth an official state holiday, moved with lightning speed to limit what can be taught about systematic racism in classrooms.
They also moved swiftly to introduce and pass bills to scuttle critical race theory teaching even when almost none of the nation’s school districts mandated in 2023 that it be taught. They likewise moved speedily to torpedo the expansion of voting rights protections and meaningful police reforms.
Yet, despite the foot-dragging and obstructionism, fifty states in one way or another recognize Juneteenth. That speaks for itself.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Juneteenth Drama (Middle Passage Press) He is the host of the weekly The Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network. His political affairs commentaries can be found weekly on thehutchinsonreport.net.