As President Joe Biden signed a law recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States on Thursday, June 17, one woman in the audience got a lot of attention.
Biden referred to Opal Lee as the “grandmother of the movement” to establish Juneteenth (June 19) as a federal holiday, and he stepped up to the 94-year-old to talk with her openly.
Opal Lee is 94 years old and claims she and her family have been waiting 155 years, 11 months, and 28 days to perform the holy dance to mark the day.
Since Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in Confederate states. It had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years before.
“And now it’s time for us to all rejoice. The country as a whole, “Lee spoke to the press minutes after the House passed legislation designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday to mark the end of slavery in the United States by a landslide vote on Wednesday.
Lee remembers her decades of involvement in the Juneteenth movement after joining the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, which handled local Juneteenth festivities. But, after more than four decades as a community organizer, she said she “truly doubled down in 2016” by “going bigger.”
Lee, at the age of 89, embarked on a new life goal similar to Granger’s: “I realized I just had to disseminate the news about Juneteenth to everyone.” She reasoned that the best way to do this was to assist in establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday.
She chose to begin by walking a path from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C. It wasn’t a perfectly straight path. Lee traveled to towns where she’d been asked to speak for many weeks, walking two and a half miles to represent the two and a half years it took for enslaved people in Texas to realize they were free.
“I was thinking that surely, somebody would see a little old lady in tennis shoes trying to get to Congress and notice,” she laughed as she recalled the incident.
Lee has been dubbed the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” since then. Her yearly treks culminated in a September visit to the Capitol when she delivered a petition signed by 1.5 million Americans requesting Congress to approve legislation establishing a public holiday. “It didn’t work out,” she remarked of the trip.
Undaunted, she returned in February to present a revised version of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.
It’s tough to have a day proclaimed a national holiday in the United States.
According to the Congressional Research Service, there is no such thing as a national holiday because neither the president nor Congress has ever claimed the right to proclaim a holiday that applies to all 50 states.
Instead, the two branches agree on permanent federal holidays that only government workers in the United States and the District of Columbia are allowed to take. States, on the other hand, set their own holidays and remembrance days.
There have been ten federal holidays in the United States before Juneteenth.
Only four additional holidays had been introduced to the national calendar in the previous 100 years until the House and Senate passed the Juneteenth Act this week.
The most recent one occurred in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed legislation designating Martin Luther King Jr. Day to honor King’s contributions to the civil rights struggle. It was a 15-year adventure that started four days after King’s assassination in 1968 and ended in 1986. Even after that, it took nearly two decades for every state to acknowledge the holiday.
Arizona was one of the most vocal opponents, only recognizing it in 1995, a few years after the NFL moved a Super Bowl game to California in protest. The state lost an estimated $500 million in income as a result of the decision.
South Carolina, meanwhile, resisted national pressure to recognize the day until 2000, when it eventually decided to grant state workers a paid holiday. The governor of that state attempted to fly the Confederate battle flag over the Statehouse, which sparked a brawl. To avoid the uproar, he signed a law designating two holidays: Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Confederate Memorial Day, both of which fall in May.
In terms of Juneteenth, there has been a boom in municipal and state government recognition in recent years—47 states recognize it in some form, with some, like Texas, making it a paid holiday.
The cost was a big stumbling block.
The expense is one obstacle that elected authorities must confront when designating a new federal holiday. That was true for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it was a huge stumbling block for Juneteenth.
A day of payroll plus holiday premium pay costs $660 million, according to a 2014 estimate from the White House budget office.
That was the stumbling point for Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who voted against the Juneteenth bill when it was initially proposed in 2020. While he supported commemorating the abolition of chattel slavery—the system of enslaving and owning individuals and their progeny as property that could be purchased, sold, or forced to labor for no pay—he said he couldn’t support paying for another day off for government workers. He proposed eliminating one of the ten federal holidays at the time.
The Senate’s overwhelming backing this year overrode Johnson’s concerns. “While it still seems strange that having taxpayers provide federal employees paid time off is now required to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter. Therefore, I do not intend to object,” he stated.
Several House Republicans, including Rep. James Comer, who voted in support of the bill, voiced the same point on Wednesday. He claimed that the Congressional Budget Office was not given enough time to evaluate the implications of “granting the entire federal workforce another day off work.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Houston who was one of several who backed the bill, downplayed the issue of the price tag a day before the House vote, calling it a distraction.
“I don’t think that we will lose our shirt by adding only one other holiday that commemorates the life, the legacy, and the history African Americans,” Jackson Lee told NPR.
“Am I to believe that it is too costly to have one other holiday that commemorates our history?” she continued.
Jackson Lee displayed horrific pictures of slavery’s brutality and history throughout the voting. One depicted the welted scars on a man’s back from being severely whipped. Another depicted two Black men being hanged during the Jim Crow era. Hundreds of happy white males stared directly at the camera, flanking the lifeless bodies in the middle of the shot.
On the phone, Jackson Lee discussed the inherent paradoxes of Juneteenth celebrations, as well as the pain of knowing that liberated people remained enslaved after they should have been freed.
“Two years and they did not know,” she added.
“How many lives were lost? What kind of brutality did they face in that period of time?”
“Yet,” she continued, “because it allows little children in schools to be taught the wonderment of America and that America can overcome its ills to be able to rise to its better days.”
“What better concept to rally around in the idea of freedom for us all?” Jackson Lee remarked, despite the “history of its ills,”
Juneteenth, like MLK Jr. Day, had an uphill battle.
Professor emeritus Clayborne Carson, head of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, finds parallels between the efforts for a King holiday and the Juneteenth commemoration. He is, however, astounded by the current movement’s momentum, which he noted was not a part of the mainstream discourse until a few years ago.
He believes this is due to King’s declining support, especially among Black leaders, at the time of his death.
“Martin Luther King faced a lot of criticism for his stand on the Vietnam War, and his Poor People’s Campaign was not meant to build his popularity,” Carson explained.
King “was very controversial during his time. … He was at the low point.” Carson said, although he is today a beloved figure across the world.
King’s followers put forth a lot of effort to define his legacy as “a leader who provided a good way ahead for the country,” he added. Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, is credited with initiating the campaign and uniting Black leaders behind it.
This Juneteenth is “like a dream” for Opal Lee, whose paternal great-grandmother was born into slavery in Louisiana.
With a throaty laugh, she remarked, “I knew I would see it happen in my lifetime.
“But I have to keep my cool.”
She stated that everyone “all over the country can cherish it as a day of unity.” when she puts on her white sneakers for the yearly two and a half-mile trek.
This year’s walk will be national, according to Lee. Organizers in Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, and other locations have organized walks to remember the day, in addition to the Fort Worth event.
Lee said she’d be praying and giving gratitude at every stage. “I’ll be thinking about my forefathers and mothers. My thoughts will turn to my great-great-grandchildren, grandkids, and children.”