President Joe Biden signed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday on Thursday. It’s a move made possible by the years-long campaign by a tireless group of activists.
Foremost among them: Opal Lee.
Biden deferred to her during the presidential signing ceremony, getting down on one knee to greet Lee, a 94-year educator from Texas who is often referred to as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”
“We’re blessed to mark the day in the presence of Ms. Opal Lee. As my mother would say, ‘God love her,’” Biden said during the ceremony. “Over the course of decades, she’s made it her mission to see that this day came.”
Lee led the charge to see this day recognized as a national holiday, commemorating the historic benchmark dating back to June 19, 1865.
That’s when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to tell more than 250,000 enslaved African-Americans that they were finally free — two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Although the date has long been a major celebration in Texas, the rest of the nation will officially join in this year.
Mark 2016 as a pivotal year. That’s when Lee officially launched “Opal’s Walk 2 D.C.” at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term in office to petition the Obama administration, along with members of Congress, to commemorate Juneteenth as a national holiday. She began walking 2.2 miles each day from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. — a total of 1,400 miles.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Gee, I’m 89 years old and I think that there’s lots more that needs to be done,’” Lee told Variety, reflecting on the first time she laced up her sneakers to march.
“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.”
But she’s been on this path for more than 40 years as a leading activist working with the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation and other groups.
“I’ve got so many different feelings all gurgling up here, I don’t know what to call them all,” Lee told reporters after Congress passed the bill on Wednesday. “I’m so delighted to know that, finally, we’ve got a Juneteenth bill passed.”
Not surprisingly, she said her work isn’t finished.
We’ve got all of these disparities that we’ve got to address and I mean all of them. While we’ve got some momentum I hope we can get some of it done. We can have one America if we try,” she told KTVT.
And so, she will persist.
“I’m not just going to sit and rock, you know?” she told CNN. “The Lord is going to have to catch me.”
Rock on rock star. And Happy Juneteenth.