Summer 2021 finally saw the adoption of Juneteenth as a national holiday, bringing to 12 the number of permanent federal holidays. Its advocates had pushed for decades for a national holiday that would recognize the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas became the last in the U.S. to find out they were free.
Yet advocates have long sought federal recognition of two other observances: Election Day and Indigenous Peoples Day.
Indigenous Peoples Day is a local and state holiday in some parts of the country — usually held on Columbus Day — that celebrates the cultures of Native Americans. It was created in 1992, the 500th anniversary of explorer Christopher Columbus’ coming to the Americas.
Election Day has been proposed as a national holiday at least since 2005 to increase voter turnout in a country with low voter participation.
Pushes for both moved to the forefront in 2020 in the wake of heightened calls for social justice and increased accessibility to voting. Like the path to Juneteenth, the drive for these days to become nationwide holidays has been anything but a picnic.
Now that Juneteenth is on the books, what’s the likelihood that Election Day and Indigenous Peoples Day, both occurring in the fall, could be added to calendars nationwide? A look at the road to reality for other holidays tied to representation may provide clues.
Getting on the calendar
By now, the story of Opal Lee as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” is well-known.
The 94-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, resident has for decades championed the day that had been celebrated in her home state for over 150 years. On June 19, 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to give enslaved Black people the news that their owners never told them: President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier.
The years that followed saw Juneteenth celebrations across Texas, which later spread across the South and to various other areas in the U.S. Lee helped organize many of them in the Fort Worth area, some of which involved doing 2.5-mile walks in tribute to the 2½ years it took for slaves to get the information about their freedom.
But then in 2016, she pushed further to make this day a national holiday, with a 1,400-mile walk from her home to the White House. Five years later, Lee was front and center when President Joe Biden signed the bill on June 17.
The long path to federal recognition of Juneteenth follows in line with some other holidays receiving that eventual status.
Years before Biden picked up a pen in the White House to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, then-President Ronald Reagan did the same on Nov. 2, 1983, when he signed the bill to mark the birthday of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
However, it was a 15-year process that started with then-Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, an African American who began advocating just days after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
Conyers was initially rebuffed, yet he gained support from various quarters: Stevie Wonder recorded the “Happy Birthday” song in tribute to King. Millions of citizens signed a petition.
That led to the Senate and House both approving legislation for the holiday to fall on the third Monday in January, starting in 1986. Yet it took another 14 years for all 50 U.S. states to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Columbus Day, of course, commemorates the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas on Oct. 12, 1492, and has been celebrated by Italian Americans to show pride in their culture as far back as the 1860s.
The day itself was not acknowledged officially until 1892. That’s when President Benjamin Harrison declared a national celebration on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to calm tensions among Italian Americans after the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans that same year.
During the 19th century and into the early 20th century, opposition arose over celebrating Columbus Day due to anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment.
It would take another 40 years before Congress approved a statute calling for Columbus Day to become a federal holiday. But it did not become one until 1971.
As it turns out, the day still provokes much debate, although now it’s over contention about the Italian explorer’s legacy.
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Where does that leave recognition of holidays like Indigenous Peoples Day and Election Day?
Fourteen states — Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin — and Washington, D.C., as well as more than 130 cities observe Indigenous Peoples Day instead of or along with Columbus Day.
Indigenous Peoples Day has been celebrated by Native Americans and their allies to counter the honoring of a man who critics charge ushered in exploitation and enslavement.
The day’s increasing popularity was not convincing to the angry residents who spoke out at a Board of Education meeting earlier this summer in the North Jersey town of Randolph.
The speakers, many of them Italian Americans, took issue with the school board’s vote in May to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on the district calendar. The board followed up a few weeks later and removed all holiday names, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, to avoid offending any groups.
Those in opposition railed at the board’s moves, accusing them of giving into “cancel culture,” being anti-Columbus and anti-Italian, turning the town into a “nationwide embarrassment,” going down “the road to communism” and not getting feedback from the community before voting on the changes to the calendar. They also called for the resignation of the school board. Their outcries received loud applause.
Some spoke in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day sharing the day with Columbus Day as a “peaceful recognition” of other cultures, and that the board’s decision followed what other New Jersey towns have done. Those opposed interrupted them by booing and shouting.
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Newark and Princeton are among the towns in the Garden State that observe Indigenous Peoples Day. The Montclair school district also observes Indigenous Peoples Day.
This, in a state where there are just over 19,000 Native Americans, according to the 2019 U.S Census American Community Survey. Across the U.S. there are 5.2 million Native Americans.
Aaron Payment, vice president of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., said the spread of Indigenous Peoples Day across the nation warrants its becoming a federal holiday.
“The time is here, and has come, for us to celebrate Indigenous people. If we’re moving in the direction of celebrating and undoing some of the social injustices, it’s time to consider those celebrations,” said Payment, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Payment cited as hope the heightened awareness of Native American issues through social justice movements brought about by Black Lives Matter and the police killing of George Floyd, and efforts to remove Indian mascots from sports teams.
“I think we’re in an era right now where there’s a lot of pushback and cancel culture, so I don’t think it’s automatic,” he said. “But I do think history is on our side, and I think we will get to the point where we will embrace Indigenous Peoples Day for a national celebration.”
Montclair State University associate dean and history professor Leslie Wilson sees Indigenous Peoples Day being recognized in more towns across the country in coming years. However, he is not sure if it will become a national holiday unless it is uncoupled from Columbus Day.
“There will have to be some kind of public awakening that could make it happen. There will be a lot of resistance,” Wilson said. “If it was to happen, September would be the best month to move it because there not a lot of holidays to think about and you want it to happen sometime during the school year when kids are in school.”
As for Election Day, a bill is pending in Congress, the For the People Act, containing a package of reform measures that includes same-day voter registration and expansion of early voting. Moreover, it would make Election Day a federal holiday, as it is in nations such as Israel and South Korea.
The bill, also known as H.R.1, passed in the House, but there is a good chance it would be defeated in the Senate due to Republican opposition in the form of a filibuster, a procedure in which legislation is blocked by denying it the 60 votes needed for passage. No date has been set for it to come up for a vote.
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But the viability of an Election Day holiday could shift to a more favorable probability if the electoral situation improves for Democrats. For supporters, the momentum of this summer’s Juneteenth victory also is encouraging.
“Juneteenth shows what is possible” when it comes to gaining the same status for Election Day, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, said in a statement to NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network.
“Congress’s swift enactment of it should not obscure the fact that it was decades in the making. Now that we have reached that mountaintop we will make a renewed push to finally make Election Day a federal holiday,” Pascrell said.
Saladin Ambar, an associate professor at Rutgers University and the Eagleton Center on the American Governor, doesn’t see Election Day following Juneteenth’s victory.
“Part of what we have to think about is just the political environment that has made Juneteenth a federal holiday but also what may make Election Day less likely to become one,” Ambar said.
While Juneteenth is an important recognition of the country’s horrible slavery past, it does not have the political impact that Election Day would, Ambar said. That’s because Election Day could potentially bring out more voters during an election that would affect a candidate who wants to suppress the vote, which is why there is opposition, he explained.
He hopes that Election Day eventually does have federal holiday designation. It would give citizens free time to vote, especially in places where restrictions have been put in place that have led to long lines, making voting more complicated.
“The United States should get in line with most of the advanced, industrialized, wealthy countries in the world and many of the developing countries that have Election Day as a federal holiday, a day off for people,” Ambar said.
The Washington, D.C., think tank the Brookings Institution in a report last year observed that countries such as Australia, Uruguay and Belgium achieved voter turnout of nearly 90% during the 2000s. In the United States since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was enacted, voter turnout has been around 57% in presidential elections and 41% in midterm elections.
Wilson, of Montclair State, also agrees that Election Day should be a federal holiday. He noted that opposition to Election Day as a federal holiday has been about not just politics, but also economics, in that federal holidays are paid days off.
“The argument in return has been about the cost, and nothing about democracy or democratic practices behind it,” Wilson said. “There has always been that fight over why do we need to pay people basically to make them go out and vote.”
Ricardo Kaulessar is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.