The full Washington state Legislature has approved a bill to make Juneteenth a state legal holiday.
It passed through both chambers on strong bipartisan votes: The Senate approved it Friday 47-1, and the House of Representatives approved it 89-9 earlier this session.
The holiday, also known as Emancipation Day, commemorates June 19, 1865, when people in Galveston, Texas at last learned the Civil War was over and enslaved people were freed — well over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.
“This bill is more than just about a holiday, it is about true recognition and acknowledgment that chattel slavery did happen in this country,” said sponsor Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Tacoma, in floor debate. “Without this, then how can we truly advocate for racial equity?”
The bill now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature. The governor has supported it as one of many proposals aimed at addressing equity issues in the state this session.
According to a nonpartisan bill report, 46 other states and Washington, D.C., recognize Juneteenth as either a holiday or day of observance.
In public hearings, testimony was almost entirely positive, with representatives from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, the Governor’s Office, Washington Build Back Black Alliance, organizations representing public employees, Blacks United in Leadership and Diversity, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and others voicing support.
“As we reflect upon recent events and images of the traumatizing confederate flag being proudly waved in the halls of the nation’s Capitol building, it is a stark reminder of the atrocities faced by Black Americans and a continued sentiment of many who we live among us today,” said Marcus Glasper, director of the Washington State Lottery and executive sponsor of Blacks United in Leadership & Diversity.
In the Senate State Government & Elections Committee, a representative with the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance testified against the bill and a representative with Washington for Black Lives signed in “other.”
“Washington BLM Alliance opposes the tokenization of our history and culture in a time where it is increasingly obvious that some Black people in Washington and in America may be free but we are far from liberated,” said Sakara Remmu. “We cannot and should not, in this case, commemorate something that does not exist. It is erasure of our past and denial of our present.”
Samuel Martin with Washington for Black Lives highlighted a preference for “substance over symbolism” and encouraged lawmakers to also vote yes on more substantive bills that positively impact the community.
The handful of votes against the bill in the House were explained by referencing the cost of the bill, which is expected to be roughly $7.5 million per biennium. There’s a clause in the bill that makes it null and void if it goes unfunded in the budget.
Morgan addressed the financial argument against her bill in floor remarks.
“Some say that the cost is just too much to acknowledge the end of slavery,” Morgan said. “To that, I say … it’s not even close to the real cost of racial injustice. As the data shows, this country made over $3 trillion on the backs of my ancestors, so this is just a down payment.”