Today, the North Texas community celebrated Dr. Opal Lee’s annual Walk for Freedom, and the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” proudly waltzed with her fellow brothers and sisters down the streets of Fort Worth to celebrate the new federal holiday she helped pioneer.
At 96 years old, Dr. Lee is still on a mission to bring hope and healing to the community in all sorts of ways. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize nominee wants people to work together to promote harmony and unification in the world.
Juneteenth, now officially called Juneteenth National Independence Day, is a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. The name is derived from June and nineteenth, and it celebrates the proclamation of freedom for enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865 (two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed).
About 250,000 Black people enslaved in Galveston were the last in the country to receive notice of the proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln had issued more than two years earlier, granting freedom to everyone in Confederate states.
When President Biden approved the law two years ago, he noted during a White House ceremony that a national holiday had not been established since one was declared in 1983 to honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Lee’s Walk for Freedom is a 2.5-mile walk in Fort Worth’s historic south side neighborhood and represents the two-and-a-half years it took to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas and free the slaves here.
Dr. Lee is a pioneer who campaigned for years to have June 19 declared a federal holiday, and her dream came true in 2021 when the president signed the bill into law.
“If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love,” she said. “And loving people, it’s freedom. Juneteenth means freedom. Help other people who need help. It frees us as well as them. So, all I can say is I will walk and talk about freedom as long as I can.”
In 2016, at age 89, Dr. Lee walked more than 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to convince lawmakers to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. She is a national hero, and this year she was honored as the second Black woman to have her portrait hung in the Texas Senate chamber.
A new affordable housing complex, The Opal, is being built in her honor in Fort Worth, as is the National Juneteenth Museum she’s long advocated.
“I’m gonna keep on walkin’ and talkin’ and maybe somebody will listen and understand that we can do so much more together than the way we’re doing things now,” Dr. Lee said. “And there’s so much that has to be addressed. I just know that if people can get over my black skin because I bleed red blood just like everybody else. And it’s a mindset. And people can change their minds. And I want us to be able to do that.”
Dr. Lee courageously fought for the rights of Black people, and her desire to create substantial change for her community has made her one of the world’s most beloved treasures.
Recently, Dallas Mavs CEO Cynt Marshall, the first Black woman CEO in the NBA, sat down with Dr. Lee for the latest session of The HUDDLE. Parts of the interview, originally on film, have been edited for brevity.
Dallas Mavs fans are encouraged to watch the entire interview by clicking here.
The HUDDLE is a courageous conversation series that creates a safe space for dialogue and allows people to learn from each other. The goal is to eliminate racial divides, uplift communities and empower future generations.
Cynt Marshall: Why is Juneteenth so important? We have so many different holidays, and we don’t celebrate most of them as a national holiday. So why did Juneteenth have to be a nationally-recognized holiday?
Opal Lee: People have to be aware that it represents freedom. When General Gordon Granger made his way to Galveston with 7,000 colored troops, they spread it all out, and they were all over Galveston, telling those people that the enslaved in Galveston were free. There were 250,000 of them there.
The plantation owners knew that when the war was over, they [would] go back and get them, and that didn’t happen. Granger took his order, General Order No. 3, and read it to the people that said all slaves were free. Then he took it and nailed it to the door of what’s now the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Somebody read that to them when those people came in from their work. We started celebrating then, we’ve been celebrating ever since!
Cynt Marshall: It’s wonderful because many people didn’t grow up knowing what Juneteenth is. Why is it important for the community to know what happened so long ago?
Opal Lee: Because each of us, and the Bible tells us so, is responsible for another of us. And I am advocating that we make ourselves a committee of one to change somebody’s mind. We know people who need to be on the same page we’re on, and we need to change their minds. If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. And loving people, it’s freedom. Juneteenth means freedom. Help other people who need help. It frees us as well as them. So, I will walk and talk about freedom as long as possible.
Cynt Marshall: Oh, I love that message. So we are celebrating freedom. We’re celebrating the power of one and the love that we have for each other. Yes! Oh, I just love that. And I love that Biblical foundation because, you know, that’s what I’m about too.
Okay, so tell me about your most memorable Juneteenth. You’ve probably celebrated it in a variety of ways. Give me some examples of some that stand out to you.
Opal Lee: Well, there was a time in Fort Worth when we had 30,000 people in a tiny little park, Sycamore Park. [There were] 10,000 people a day for three days. The Historical Society had carried exhibits to the park. Nobody paid much attention to them, but we had a good time. Now we knew when the lights went out, they just pulled the plug at 10 o’clock and we were supposed to go home. Would you know that I got on a flatbed truck and plugged the lights right back in? We partied until dawn!
Cynt Marshall: Oh goodness, so you were just out there doing things (laughs)! Tell me about your walk.
Opal Lee: Well, you know what? Let me tell you what happened. I thought I needed to do something more than what had been done. I gathered some people at my church, my pastor, the musicians, the county commissioner, school board members…I don’t know how many people. They gave me this sendoff. I decided I’d walk two and a half miles because it took two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation to become a law.
So I left the church, and I walked. The next morning I got up and walked two and a half more. So I walked from Fort Worth, Arlington, Grand Prairie, Joppa. I walked before my team said you can’t do it like that. We won’t do it.
Somebody had promised us an RV and we wouldn’t have to return home or go to a hotel. They decided what I was doing was too political, so they kept their RV. My team says, “You will only go where you’re invited, and you will only go where they have Juneteenth festivals or celebrations.”
I was invited all over the United States. Shreveport, Texarkana, Little Rock, St. Louis, Denver, Colorado Springs, Atlanta, Chicago. I was all over the place.
So, I left in September 2016. I actually got to Washington in January 2017. I had to ask President Obama to walk with me from the Frederick Douglass House to the Capitol. He was in Chicago. I didn’t get what I wanted. But do you know he helped me get 1,500,000 signatures that we took to Congress? When we got the call to go to the White House, and President Biden signed that bill, the Juneteenth Bill, into law – I could have done a holy dance, but the kids say when I try, I’m twerking.
Cynt Marshall: (laughs) Some people aren’t familiar with the holy dance, but I am! We know what that dance is about because you were celebrating. What was so special about that day?
Opal Lee: Oh, listen. I was humbled. I was. I just don’t know how I felt to be in the presence of the President of the United States, the Vice President, and all those legislators. I pinch myself even now to be sure it really happened.
Cynt Marshall: Well, I’ll tell you a secret. They probably pinched themselves, too. They probably were overwhelmed by being in your presence. Think about what you did for this whole country.
Opal Lee: Well, I just want the country…I want people to know I’m just everybody’s grandma.
Dallas Mavs fans can watch the entire interview between Cynt Marshall and Dr. Opal Lee by clicking here.