MILWAUKEE — There's a push on Capitol Hill to mark Juneteenth Day - a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States - as a federal holiday.
A bill that would add Juneteenth as a federal holiday is now heading to President Joe Biden's desk for signature after the House approved the measure Wednesday afternoon by a vote of 415-14. The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent Tuesday night.
Many people in the Black community consider Juneteenth their Independence Day, which is why many places nationwide are making sure June 19th is a time of celebration and reflection.
But, not everyone agrees that the day. Should it be a paid holiday for federal employees?
To understand different perspectives, we are going 360 and digging into arguments both for and against the change. We share what Wisconsin lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are saying, and we hear from the chairwoman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors on why the county decided to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday for the first time last year. We also hear from the Milwaukee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP MKE) on why having time set aside to recognize and celebrate Juneteenth matters. That's where we start.
"It’s important for Civic engagement," said Clarence P. Nicholas, President of NAACP MKE. He says recognizing Juneteenth Day as an official holiday is overdue. "It needs to be taught in all public schools so that students, as well as adults and parents, will know the significance of Juneteenth Day. And the importance of not just celebrating but knowing the history."
All but four states declare Juneteenth an official holiday. Many cities and counties do the same. But, June 19th is still not recognized as a legal, federal holiday like Labor Day or George Washington's birthday. Some members of Congress have been working to change that.
In February of 2021, Senator Tammy Baldwin (WI-D) threw her support behind a bill that would add Juneteenth Day to the list of federal holidays.
Earlier this month, Senator Ron Johnson (WI-R) sponsored a senate resolution celebrating Juneteenth. However, he says he is against giving federal employees the day off and in the past he has blocked attempts to make that change happen.
One of Johnson's spokespeople said in a statement to TMJ4 News, "[On June 8], Senator Johnson co-sponsored the Senate resolution celebrating Juneteenth. However, we are currently $28 trillion in debt with trillions more guaranteed to be added over the next few years with President Biden and the Democrats’ reckless spending proposals. Senator Johnson doesn’t support legislation which adds over $600 million to our national debt so that two million federal employees can have another paid day off of work, something most Americans in the private sector do not receive."
The $600 Million figure that is mentioned in the statement comes from official White House numbers given by the Obama Administration when the then-president gave federal employees the day after Christmas off back in 2014.
However, Senator Johnson changed course earlier this week and chose not to object to this year's proposal to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
In a statement he said, “Resolutions recognizing the significance of, and celebrating, Juneteenth have unanimously passed with my support in Congress every year I’ve been a U.S. Senator. Last year, a bill was introduced to celebrate Juneteenth by providing an additional paid holiday for 2 million federal employees at a cost of $600 million per year. They attempted to pass the bill without debate or amendment process. Although I strongly support celebrating Emancipation, I objected to the cost and lack of debate. While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter. Therefore, I do not intend to object.”
Still, some feel Senator Johnson's previous lack of support is notable.
"Senator Ron Johnson is very out of touch with the community at the local level and even statewide," said Marcelia Nicholson, Chairwoman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.
Nicholson disagrees with Senator Johnson. Milwaukee County declared Juneteenth a county holiday in 2020.
"We wanted to make sure that Milwaukee County celebrated diversity and pursued inclusivity because everybody deserves to have their heritage, their background, their experiences acknowledged, recognized and celebrated," said Nicholson. "I would love to see this a federal holiday and I’m pretty sure our allies in the house of representatives will represent us and make sure that that happens."
Wisconsin was the 32nd state to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday. The bill was signed by former governor Jim Doyle in 2009.