Ms. Opal Lee is on the move. The 94-year-old activist from Fort Worth, Texas, who is oft-referred to as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” has already begun her annual Walk to D.C., as part of her efforts to see the momentous day recognized as a federal holiday.
Each year on June 19, Lee makes a two-and-a-half-mile pilgrimage to commemorate the date in 1865, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, when more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas learned that they were finally free, marking the true end of slavery in America. The resulting holiday, Juneteenth — also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day and Emancipation Day — has long been a major celebration in Texas, but until Thursday, when President Biden signed a bill establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, not all 50 states recognized or commemorated it.
Lee has been on a mission to change those stats since 2016, when she launched Opal’s Walk 2 D.C. at the end of President Barack Obama’s second term in office. For more than 40 years, she had carried on the tradition, working with the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation and leading local Juneteenth events. But that year she was particularly inspired, coming up with a plan to walk the 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to petition the Obama administration and Congress to grant the holiday an official position on the calendar.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Gee, I’m 89 years old and I think that there’s lots more that needs to be done,’” Lee tells Variety, looking back 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.”
From September 2016 to January 2017, Lee traveled the country, marching the symbolic two-and-a-half-mile stretch in cities that invited her to take part in their Juneteenth festivities. “I went to Shreveport and Texarkana, Little Rock and Fort Smith, Denver and Colorado Springs,” she recounts. “I went to Madison, Wis., Milwaukee, Atlanta, the Carolinas. I was all over the place.”
As incredible as Lee’s achievement has been, she clarifies that she didn’t walk all the way from Texas to Washington. “I did some hundreds of them, but not 1,400,” she quips. Indeed, the nonagenarian is no Forrest Gump, but over the past five years, she’s become just as famous.
“It’s really humbling,” Lee says of all the people who’ve joined her campaign. “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.”
Lee was spurred to preserve the historical significance of the holiday, having grown up in a time not far removed from racial horrors such as the Red Summer of 1919 and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, which many citizens have recently learned about. And with celebrities like Usher and Lupita Nyong’o sharing Lee’s story, the movement is rapidly growing.
“Recognizing Juneteenth nationally would be one more way to acknowledge the intrinsic value of Black people and their history to the wealth and prosperity of the USA,” Nyong’o tweeted to her 1.9 million followers. “We are aware that oversight of these historical events blinds and misleads both our present and our future generations. It encourages willful ignorance and the touting of revisionist history.”
Hip-hop artist Niko Brim was one of the first entertainment figures to help Lee get the word out on Juneteenth. “To see Ms. Opal, at her age, answering the call for human rights as it pertains to African Americans is inspiring beyond measure and beyond words,” Brim says. “Ms. Opal really reminded me there’s no excuse.”
Another admirer is Pharrell Williams, who last year successfully petitioned the governor of Virginia to make Juneteenth a state holiday, with workers receiving paid time off. The trailblazers will meet for the first time during Variety’s Changemakers summit, and Lee is eagerly anticipating the encounter. If they were attending in person, she says, “I’d hug him sure to death. I’ll be so glad to meet him and to thank him for all that he’s done.”
When Lee connected with Variety via Zoom in early June, she’d just completed a walk in Galveston, Texas. The occasion was the city’s May 31 dedication ceremony for a 5,000-square-foot mural titled “Absolute Equality,” unveiled at the location where Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger made the proclamation that the Civil War had ended and slavery was abolished.
For the virtual interview, Lee used as a backdrop her Juneteenth quilt, a hand-sewn family heirloom made of T-shirts from celebrations of the holiday across the country. One square shows a photo of Muhammad Ali, cut from the shirts made for Atlanta’s 2016 Juneteenth celebration. Another shirt came from a Fort Worth celebration and bears the phrase “Freedom — How long and how far?”
“Still we are saying, ‘How long?’” Lee says, pointing to the square. “How long must we put up with the atrocities? How long must we put up with people being killed in the street like that young man George Floyd? Or women, even in my town, are getting killed in their own home. How long do we put up with this kind of stuff?
“It hasn’t been so many years that they stopped having lynchings, but it’s a different kind of lynching. We’ve got to put a stop to it.”
Lee believes that last summer’s worldwide protests against systemic racism and racial violence have helped Juneteenth go mainstream. When she began her journey, Lee’s goal was to collect 100,000 signatures on her Change.org petition to take to Congress; she’s now accrued more than 1.5 million supporters.
“I think it was enough is enough. I think losing that man’s life just pushed us over the edge. We’ve put up with so much,” Lee says of America’s awakening to its untold history. “When I think about what our ancestors had to put up with before the Emancipation — before that General Order No. 3 was declared down in Galveston — the situations aren’t that far different.”
As a native Texan — she was born in Marshall on Oct. 7, 1926 — Lee has been observing Juneteenth for as long as she can remember. Not all her memories of the holiday are happy ones.
Lee recalls the Juneteenth when her family’s home on Fort Worth’s Southside was burned by white neighbors. “People gathered. The papers say that it was 500 strong, and that the police couldn’t control them,” she says, evoking the decades-old memory. “My dad came home with a gun, and the police told him if he busted a cap, they’d let that mob have him.”
“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 continues. “We would have made good neighbors, but they didn’t give us an opportunity. And I felt like everybody needs an opportunity.”
Instead of living in fear, Lee has faced the brutal realities of racism head-on and has never given up her activist spirit. She says it’s just in her DNA, having learned the power of generosity and neighborly love from her parents and grandparents. The former teacher and longtime charity worker believes that if the country can find a way to come together, as opposed to pulling against one another, it can achieve the dream of equality and celebrate “freedom for all.”
Paraphrasing civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer, Lee says, “None of us are free until we’re all free, and I’m not just talking about Black people. There are so many disparities that could be worked on.”
Lee’s mission is to ensure that people recognize that Juneteenth isn’t just a Texas holiday, or a Black holiday, but an American holiday. “Black people weren’t free on the Fourth of July,” she adds. “I’m even advocating having the celebration from the 19th of June to the Fourth of July.”
On Thursday afternoon, Lee’s fight to see Juneteenth recognized federally was officially won. After several false starts on the legislative front, the legislation passed unanimously through the Senate on Tuesday; the House of Representatives approved the motion with a vote of 415-14 on Wednesday, Congress passed a bill. Then the bill then went to President Biden to sign into law.
Ahead of the action, Lee was confident that the current administration would be on board to get things done. “The [Biden] administration already knows Opal Lee because I was at the debates,” Lee says. “I have no doubt that they’re in our corner.”
Over the last year, the rising tide of awareness surrounding Juneteenth has been staggering. Before 2020, Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota were the only states that did not formally recognize Juneteenth in any capacity, while only Texas observed it as a paid state holiday. Since then, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington are among the states to have recognized Juneteenth with a paid day of leave for state employees.
Additionally, a growing number of corporations across industries — including Nike, Postmates, Spotify, Target, Twitter, Uber and Variety’s parent company, PMC — have adopted the day as a paid holiday for their employees.
For her part, Lee is gearing up for the grandest edition of her Juneteenth festivities to date. When the COVID-19 pandemic canceled last year’s parade, she says her crew settled for a caravan instead. “I thought I’d walk the two and a half miles from downtown Fort Worth to Will Rogers Auditorium and 10 to 15 cars would follow,” she recalls. “We had 300 cars. It was off the chain! That’s what the young people would say.”
This year, the event will expand nationally, broadcasting live exclusively on Fox Soul, with marches occurring simultaneously in major cities across the U.S., including Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Detroit; Atlanta; and New York City. “If we step off at 10 a.m. here in Fort Worth, they’re going to step off at 8 a.m. in L.A. and 11 a.m. in Atlanta,” she explains. “People are going to know, all over the United States and the world, that we are together.”
As much as Lee believes in the power of the community that’s helping her push the movement along, she’s grateful for the celebrities who’ve brought awareness to the cause, like Sean “Diddy” Combs, who hosted a conversation with her on his Revolt network.
“You excite me, just everything you stand for,” Combs said in their virtual meeting. “It’s important as we bring this young generation together to fight and to win this war … that it’s mixed and matched with the foundation of the pioneers and of our people, our elders in the tribe that want something done while they’re alive to see that.”
Combs pledged to help Lee reach the new goal of 1.5 million signatures, and “when Diddy talked to his people, we didn’t have a problem,” she says.
Mike Jones, managing director of campaigns at Change.org, praised Lee for making such incredible progress.
“Over the last year, it’s been pure joy to watch how the Change.org community has mobilized behind Ms. Opal’s efforts,” Jones says. “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.”
Brim has also been an eyewitness to the growth of Lee’s campaign, saying that Lee had only 12,000 signatures when they first met in early 2020. Since then, the 24-year-old multi-hyphenate (Brim is also a producer and an actor) has marched alongside Lee in Washington, D.C., which he calls, “a powerful moment I’ll forever cherish.”
“She’s a living national treasure, and I got to be part of history supporting her,” Brim adds.
The duo also collaborated to design a pair of custom-painted Nike Air Force 1 sneakers in honor of the Juneteenth campaign. The collectors’ item fetched a cool $6,000 at Sotheby’s, with the proceeds split evenly between Hip Hop Public Health and Lee’s social impact organization Unity Unlimited. “I told them they can give me a shoe any day to put my name on if it’s going to help,” Lee says. “I don’t know how to express how thankful I am that the young people are joining in and being a part of what’s going on.”
Beyond social media, Lee’s story has been shared far and wide. The 94-year-old was also recognized by PeaceTech Lab’s International Peace Honors for her humanitarian work. Next year, HarperCollins will publish a children’s book about Lee’s life, titled “Opal Lee and What it Means to Be Free,” by Alice Faye Duncan, with illustrations by Keturah A. Bobo, which tells the story of how she grew up to become an activist.
Lee earned a special thanks in the credits for “Miss Juneteenth,” the award-winning independent film from writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples (another Fort Worth native) that honors the holiday. “I’ve got a bit part that might last a half a second … I’m not Miss Juneteenth,” Lee quips, detailing her trip to visit the film’s set. “I thought, Hollywood can’t be any better than this.”
Just as “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country” enlightened audiences about the Tulsa Race Massacre, there’s power in the media interpretations of Juneteenth, Lee explains, pointing to former Dallas Cowboys lineman Greg Ellis’ “Juneteenth the Stage Play,” as another must-see homage.
“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.
“I’m hopeful because I think that we are getting the attention that we need,” Lee adds, sharing that she aims to connect with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Steve Harvey to bring more attention to the cause. “I’ve got some 900 people that follow me on Facebook, and if you got that many people and you tell them to give us their signature, oh, we would overwhelm those [politicians].”
Speaking of politicians, Lee considers Stacey Abrams to be one of her biggest idols. “When I grow up, I want to be just like her. I think that girl is really somebody,” Lee coos. “Somebody who could turn a whole state blue. Somebody who worked with people, and they understood what she was about. Oh, I wish I could just do that in my little city, if I had that much power.”
Based on the number of signatures alone that this grandmother has accrued, it’s safe to say that Lee is selling her own impact quite short.
In any case, like Abrams, who didn’t give up public service after losing a gubernatorial race, Lee has no plans to stop fighting until she reaches the finish line. “There’s not a day that passes that I’m not somewhere doing something, but I’m happy doing it. I get a big kick out of it,” she says. “I’m going to keep walking, and keep on talking, until Juneteenth is a national holiday.”