Black members of Congress, singer Usher react to Juneteenth becoming federal holiday

EXCLUSIVE: President Biden's signing into law Juneteenth as a national holiday was met with praise, but attendees acknowledge more needs to be done

A majority of members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Black officials in the Biden administration, members of the civil rights community along with singer Usher Raymond were present at the White House on Thursday to witness the president sign Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday. 

Usher speaks with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley,
Entertainer Usher (Usher Raymond IV) speaks with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) before U.S. President Joe Biden signs the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas where more than 200,000 enslaved Black people were told two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued that they were free. That was months before the 13th amendment was in place to officially eradicate slavery. 

The historic White House event marked a step forward in acknowledging Black history as American history and an inch toward closing a chapter in the United States fraught with illness and crises. The location of the event proved just that as the East Room, where the signing took place, left almost only standing room and few seats for lawmakers and guests spread across the floor to allow for COVID-19 compliance. 

Congressman Al Green of Texas, who wore his lone star tie, was flanked by members of the CBC and was exuberant about the signing telling theGrio, “Hopefully we’ll have a celebration today and many, many more in the future. But we cannot forget also that there are some substantive matters that have to be dealt with.

“The George Floyd Justice and Policing (Act) — that’s important too,” Green added. “We also want to get to H.R.1 For the People (Act) so we can have better voting opportunities.” 

Rep. Al Green
Rep. Al Green (Credit: Rep. Green)

Green also highlighted the John Lewis Voter Rights Act is needed to bring Texas back to the table to strengthen voting rights protections.  

Those in attendance at the event expressed similar views on the celebratory nature of the event, as well as provided their personal take on what significance the holiday held for them. Galveston, Texas native, Lawrence Thomas’ great great grandfather was enslaved by the founder of Galveston, Texas and his father was instrumental in bringing Juneteenth back to the city. He said Juneteenth should be a time for Black Americans to reflect on their history. 

Music sensation Usher Raymond was in attendance and marked the occasion by taking it all in with his own picture taken on his phone. theGrio caught up with Usher in an exclusive interview in the West Wing where he said, “I am excited about this moment.” 

“I have been fighting this fight for a long time,” said the R&B star. And when it comes to those who are upset about this moment he added, “Just look for the silver lining.”

Opal Lee, 94, received one of the pens President Biden used while signing the bill into law. She wants people to “understand Juneteenth is more than a festival.” When it comes to slavery she says today “our minds are enslaved and there are things like homelessness and joblessness, schools that need to teach the truth. The justice system, the health system all those that exist are forms of slavery and we need to adjust them.”

Opal Lee,
Ninety-four-year-old activist and retired educator Opal Lee, known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, speaks with U.S. President Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law in the East Room of the White House on June 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Congresswoman Maxine Waters was all smiles in the crowd before the bill signing. However, the California congresswoman understands the controversy surrounding the newly established federal holiday. 

“We were celebrating our own Juneteenth without anybody’s permission to do so, ” Waters told theGrio.

“So, I am looking forward to the same kind of support on voting rights. We have to deal with not just symbolism but with true support to fill the gap that has lasted so long that has denied us our rights,” she added.

Michigan Congresswoman Ilan Omar talked with theGrio exclusively about the moves forward on voting rights and policing. 

“There are still conversations that are taking place. Obviously, there are some compromises that are going to be made. I just hope that those compromises don’t take the teeth out of this important legislation,” Omar told theGrio.

Rep. Ilhan Omar,
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaks during a press conference at Black Lives Matter Plaza calling for an end to U.S. support for a Saudi Arabia-led blockade of Yemen on April 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There are also reports that Senator Joe Manchin, who despite expressing his opposition to the For The People Act has taken meetings with civil rights leaders on the matter, supports a holiday for Election Day.

Many are holding their breath on voting rights legislation. And others are keeping their eyes on policing in the same manner. Sources close to policing negotiations feel a compromise is close, however, changes to qualified immunity may not make the bill.

During President Biden’s speech on Thursday, he acknowledged the current issues still haunting the Black community in which corresponding legislation continues to linger on Capitol Hill. He also highlighted the connection to combating hate and the Charleston church shooting that took place on June 17, 2015. Throughout his public engagement with the Black community, the president remains cognisant of the violence and discrimination Black Americans have and still do confront. 

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