94-Year-Old Activist Opal Lee Reacting To Juneteenth Becoming Federal Holiday Is A Literal Mood
It's a great day to be Black, yall.
June 17, 2021 at 8:55 pm
Opal Lee, a staunch activist who has been petitioning to make Juneteenth a federal holiday for more than 40 years, shared a wholesome response after seeing her hard work finally come to fruition.
“I’ve got so many feelings all gurgling up here. I don’t know what to call them all,” the 94-year-old said after learning Juneteenth became a federal holiday, CBS News reported. “I’m so delighted to know that finally we’ve got a Juneteenth bill passed."
On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, marking June 19 as an official federal holiday, as Blavity previously reported.
Watch the moment 94-year-old activist Opal Lee found out the Juneteenth bill she had been campaigning for passed, making June 19th a federal holiday. pic.twitter.com/cEkJkpmYud— CBS News (@CBSNews) June 17, 2021
In 2016, Lee established Opal’s Walk 2 D.C., a journey that takes her and her supporters over 1,400 miles from Fort Worth, Texas to the nation’s capital. At the time, Lee was walking to petition to then-president Barack Obama and Congress about placing June 19 on the holiday calendar.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Gee, I’m 89 years old and I think that there’s lots more that needs to be done,’” the Fort Worth, Texas native tells Variety, recalling her initial thoughts about how to commemorate Juneteenth. “I gathered some people at my church — my pastor, the church musicians, a county commissioner, a school board member; not acres of people, but a few — and we had a little ceremony. I walked from the church, two and a half miles, went home, and the next day I started where I left off.”
Lee, who is often referred to as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” now makes an annual two-and-a-half-mile journey in cities across the country, beginning on June 19, as Blavity previously reported. The specific mileage symbolizes the two and a half years after news of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery, reached the more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas.
For four months, beginning in Sept. 2016, the activist marched across the country to promote Juneteenth-related festivities.
“I went to Shreveport and Texarkana, Little Rock and Fort Smith, Denver and Colorado Springs,” she said. “I went to Madison, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Atlanta, the Carolinas. I was all over the place.”
Lee has also worked with the National Juneteenth Observation Foundation and has coordinated a myriad of local Juneteenth events.
Aside from celebrating Juneteenth over the years with fun activities, Lee disclosed that as a child, her family was the target of a racially motivated attack on the date as white neighbors burned down her home.
“If they had given us an opportunity to stay there and be their neighbors, they would have found out we didn’t want any more than what they had — a decent place to stay, jobs that paid, [to be] able to go to school in the neighborhood, even if it was a segregated school,” Lee said. “We would have made good neighbors, but they didn’t give us an opportunity. And I felt like everybody needs an opportunity.”
Despite experiencing a traumatic event on a day that is supposed to be joyous, Lee didn't allow fear to shape her view of Juneteenth.
“It’s really humbling,” Lee says of all the people who have joined in spreading awareness of the commemorative date. “I’m just overwhelmed at the support. I’m overwhelmed at the people who didn’t know about Juneteenth and it’s just coming to their attention.”
The 94-year-old has also been recognized by PeaceTech Lab’s International Honors for being an unyielding humanitarian. Next year, HarperCollins is publishing a book about Lee’s life and her journey to becoming the activist she is today. The book will be entitled Opal Lee and What it Means to Be Free by Alice Faye Duncan.
At the beginning of her journey, Lee created a petition on Change.org, with the intent to collect 100,000 signatures for Congress. Following the death of George Floyd in 2020 and the widespread protests about racial injustice thereafter, that number grew to over 1.5 million.
“Over the last year, it’s been pure joy to watch how the Change.org community has mobilized behind Ms. Opal’s efforts,” Mike Jones, managing director of campaigns at Change.org, said. “Ms. Opal’s petition has reached every corner of American culture and politics. And it has shown how true movements for change extend far beyond the computer screen and reach the hearts of people everywhere.”
Ultimately, as Juneteenth permeates into the national consciousness with a plethora of campaigns, Lee says that the large-scale advocacy she’s witnessed throughout her life shows that there is hope.
“All of these things rolled into one are making people aware that we need each other,” Lee says. “I keep advocating that ‘Each one of us teach one of us,’ because we know people at work, at church, in our meetings, that aren’t on the same page, and we can change their minds. I mean, if people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.”