For decades Opal Lee has been marching to make Juneteenth a national holiday. While the 93-year-old garnered attention in her local home of Fort Worth, her campaign skyrocketed this year as it took on more meaning following the death of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests.
Lee has been organizing her Juneteenth walks around Fort Worth and has been a longtime member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. This year she marched alongside members of her community for 2.5 miles, symbolizing the amount of time it took for word to get to Galveston, Texas about the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lee and her granddaughter Dione Sims also started a petition on Change.org to make Juneteenth a national holiday. It currently has more than a million signatures and has been shared on Twitter by celebrities like Lupita Nyong’o, Jennifer Lopez, and Katie Couric.
On Saturday, Lee joined a conversation with Joe Biden for Texas organizers about Juneteenth. Greg Ellis, a former Dallas Cowboys player, spoke about his own involvement with Juneteenth, a day he had never heard about until he moved to Texas.
Ellis was a writer, director, and producer of “Juneteenth: The Play.” On Saturday it streamed for $10 with proceeds going to Communities in Schools Dallas.
Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker recently proposed a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Texas was the first state to recognize the holiday in 1980. Currently, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth.
Several organizations and corporations including the National Football League, Twitter, and Nike announced they were observing Juneteenth with a paid day off.
Speaking to KERA, Lee reflected on the current political climate. “We think Juneteenth is the catalyst. We think it’s a unifier. And when we get a million signatures and Congress realizes it’s not just a little old lady in tennis shoes that they are going to take notice and do something.”
Sen. Cornyn announced he was going to be filing a bipartisan resolution to make Juneteenth a national holiday. On Monday, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee filed a bill H.R. 7232 to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Jackson Lee’s bill has more than 80 co-sponsors in Congress.
Sen. Royce West, currently in a run-off to challenge Cornyn in November, acknowledged Cornyn’s bill, but also chided him for not joining Jackson Lee’s effort.
“With all due respect, I’m glad Senator Cornyn has awoken to some present realities. However, he’s still not ‘woke.’ And there is a difference. When will he publicly say the words, “Black Lives Matter,” and acknowledge that systemic racism exists in this nation?”
The push to make Juneteenth a national holiday has never been stronger. And now with possibility closer than ever, Opal Lee’s hard work (and countless steps) have certainly made all the difference.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images