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Death of Juneteenth bill in Alabama Legislature sparks accusations

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Death of Juneteenth bill in Alabama Legislature sparks accusations

May 27, 2024 | 7:57 am ET
By Jemma Stephenson
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Death of Juneteenth bill in Alabama Legislature sparks accusations
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Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, stands on the floor of the Alabama Senate on April 25, 2024 at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

A bill that would have made Juneteenth a state holiday died in the Alabama Legislature, leading to accusations from the sponsor about the reasons why.

HB 4, sponsored by Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, would have made Juneteenth, commemorating the end of American slavery, a state holiday. The legislation would not have created a mandatory day off for state employees. Instead, the bill, amended in the Republican-controlled chamber to match a version of the legislation by Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greeneville, would have required state agencies to grant that day off or Jefferson Davis’ Birthday.

Jefferson Davis’ Birthday is a state holiday on the first Monday of June that commemorates the former Confederate president, a slaveholder and the head of an explicitly white supremacist government.

“We live in a state where there’s an attempt to eradicate Black history,” Givan said in a Friday phone interview. “We can no longer teach it in schools. So, all those things, and I just believe that it, a, it deserves a standalone holiday.”

The bill passed the House of Representatives in April but was never assigned to a Senate committee, the first step in getting legislation through a chamber. 

Givan accused Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, of preventing the bill from moving forward. 

“He was angry with me because I told him that I want the same level of respect as a legislator that he expects as a senator,” she said. “I’m saying it very slow because I want you to quote me, because you cannot go into the district which he represents and do anything or nor ask any other legislator to sponsor something in the district he represents without him going from zero to 60 in less than point zero seconds.”

Smitherman told the Reflector Wednesday that he supported Givan’s bill and did not kill it.

“I don’t know what you referring to in terms of the validity or anything of that, but I don’t have that authority to do what she’s talking about,” he said Wednesday.

Four follow-up attempts were made to Smitherman on Friday.

Givan claimed that the Juneteenth bill was targeted because legislation that would have extended a financial lifeline to Birmingham-Southern College, a liberal arts school that will shut down this week, failed to come to a House vote.

“I think is absolutely, it was a sad day for the state of Alabama that a Black man which I said on the floor, a Black man in leadership would kill a bill, not only my bill he killed several bills, as retribution regarding the Birmingham-Southern situation,” she said.

Givan also said that House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, held Smitherman’s bills. 

“It takes two houses, please put this in here to pass a bill, and what I saw this year from the legislators in the house, the Speaker, when he found out what was going on, he held the remainder of Smitherman’s bills, and that’s why those five bills did not get out, and I want you to print it just like I gave it to you,” she said.

A spokesperson for Ledbetter on Friday said that was incorrect.

Givan also said that Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Reed, R-Jasper, informed her that Smitherman requested the bill stay in the basket.

“Many pieces of legislation require extensive work and consideration both before moving and while moving through the Senate,” wrote a spokesperson for Reed over text Friday. “This would certainly seem to be one of those many cases.”

Givan said she was planning to file the bill again next year. Smitherman said he would support the bill.

President Joe Biden signed legislation in 2021 making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Gov. Kay Ivey proclaimed Juneteenth a state holiday last Monday. Unless legislation is passed establishing Juneteenth as a state holiday, it will be up to governors to set the holiday.

This story was updated to reflect that four, rather than two, follow-up calls were made to Smitherman.