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Parties unite on Juneteenth vote, but can bipartisanship last?

Biden, Harris and members of Congress

President Biden signs the measure making Juneteenth a federal holiday alongside Vice President Harris, members of Congress and activist Opal Lee.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Even as our political discourse remains mired in partisan sniping and the parties fail to collaborate on major policy initiatives, Republican and Democratic officials came together in near unanimity this week to make Juneteenth the newest federal holiday.

The measure moved swiftly through Congress, facing zero opposition in the Senate and only minimal resistance in the House. President Biden signed the bill into law on Thursday, just two days before Juneteenth (a portmanteau of June 19).

While the end of chattel slavery in the United States will now be officially commemorated, civil rights advocates emphasize there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, particularly on voting rights. Advocates say the wave of restrictive voting laws being enacted in GOP-led states is especially harmful to voters of color.

Biden noted that he was pleased with the overwhelming bipartisan support the bill garnered from Congress. "I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another," he said.

But the president also underscored that this progress will be for naught so long as "the sacred right to vote remains under attack."

"We see this assault from restrictive laws, threats of intimidation, voter purges and more. An assault that offends our very democracy. We can't rest until the promise of equality is fulfilled for every one of us in every corner of this nation," Biden said.

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Juneteenth is the 11th federal holiday, and the first added since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was approved in 1983. Also known as Freedom Day, it recognizes the events of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news to Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War was over and enslaved Black people were now free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. It would be another six months before the 13th Amendment was ratified, abolishing slavery except as punishment for a crime.

Activists have fought for decades to make Juneteenth an official holiday. One of the most prominent leaders of this campaign is Opal Lee, a 94-year-old activist known to many as the "grandmother of Juneteenth." In 2016, Lee started leading walks to raise awareness about Juneteenth and gain support for making it an official holiday. She was in attendance, along with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, when Biden signed the bill Thursday.

"While we rightfully celebrate this momentous moment today, the Congressional Black Caucus recognizes that the work to build a brighter tomorrow for Black Americans is far from over," said Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus.

During the bill signing ceremony Vice President Kamala Harris — who is the first woman, Asian American and Black person to hold the office — spoke of the importance of remembering history and using it to build a better future.

"We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. And we are here to witness President Joe Biden establish Juneteenth as a national holiday," Harris said. "We have come far and we have far to go, but today is a day of celebration."

Starting this Juneteenth, a coalition of civil and voting rights advocacy groups, led by Black Voters Matter, is embarking on a Freedom Ride for Voting Rights. The bus tour will start in Jacksonville, Miss., and travel through several Southern states before ending in Washington, D.C., on June 26. The goal is to raise awareness about restrictive voting measures and rally support for federal legislation like the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

"With state legislatures actively working to undermine our rights and strip us of our most basic freedoms, the parallels to Juneteenth are uncanny," said Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown, co-founders of Black Voters Matter. "We are launching this Freedom Ride for Voting Rights on Juneteenth alongside local and national partners to show voters, communities, and elected officials of how far we've come and remind them what Black power can do."

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Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

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Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

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