92-year-old Opal Lee spent years fighting for Juneteenth. Now that it is a federal holiday, she took a moment to celebrate but reaffirmed that there was more work to be done.
Opal Lee, aged 92, exclaimed in delight when she watched Congress pass a bill to make Juneteenth, June 19, a federal holiday. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery and was formerly celebrated by African American communities. While President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 had officially outlawed slavery in Texas, Black slaves only enjoyed freedom two and a half years later. Lee, known as the Grandma of Juneteenth, had been a longtime advocate of marking the occasion at the national level. Notably, she marched from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to fight for a federal holiday in 2016. She is now taking a moment to savor the win but has stressed the anti-racism work that remains, CNN News reports.
"I'm not just going to sit and rock, you know?" She said in an interview with the news outlet. "The Lord is going to have to catch me." In a later interview, following the passing of the bill, she shared, "I've got so many different feelings all gurgling up here—I don't know what to call them all." Although she has taken a beat to celebrate the achievement, Lee hopes to get back to her anti-racism work as soon as she can. "We've got all of these disparities that we've got to address and I mean all of them," she said. "While we've got some momentum I hope we can get some of it done. We can have one America if we try."
Lee, who moved with her family to an all-White neighborhood at the age of nine, was deeply affected by a traumatic and racist incident. One day, a mob attacked her home and threatened her family's lives. "My dad came with a gun and the police told him if he busted a cap, they would let the mob have us," she recalled. "They burned furniture. They set the house on fire. It was terrible. It really was." At the time, her parents had sent her to a friend's home "under the cover of darkness," but the experience had already been traumatized. The date of the attack was Juneteenth. Her parents never spoke of it again. She said, "They buckled down, they worked hard. They bought another home, but we never discussed it. I just know if we had had an opportunity to stay a while they would have found out ... we were just like them. We wanted the same thing they wanted. A place to live. We wanted food, jobs that would pay a wage."
Today, so many Black families continue to fight for the same rights. That is why the federal holiday matters so much to Lee. "I've got children, grandchildren, great-grands, and even some great-great-grands and I'm wanting them to have a much better world than the world I came up in," she affirmed. "I want so much for my family and so I think I can do something about it before I go." Nonetheless, the holiday is only one step forward. There is still more work to be done. If you would like to get involved, here are some ways you can help fight racism and commemorate Juneteenth.
1. Donate to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
2. Find an affiliate chapter of the National Urban League near you.
3. Attend StepAfrika's virtual theater for a Juneteenth performance.
4. Take part in the Juneteenth Foundation's annual festival weekend.