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One Woman's Decades-Long Fight To Make Juneteenth A U.S. Holiday

Updated June 17, 2021 at 4:23 PM ET

Opal Lee is 94, and she's doing a holy dance.

It's a dance she said she and her ancestors have been waiting 155 years, 11 months and 28 days to do.

Ever since Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to spread the news of the Emancipation Proclamation outlawing slavery in Confederate states. President Abraham Lincoln had signed it more than two years earlier.

"And now we can all finally celebrate. The whole country together," Lee told NPR minutes after a landslide House vote on Wednesday approving legislation establishing the day, now known as Juneteenth, as a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

President Biden signed the bill on Thursday, and Lee was standing beside him during the ceremony.

She's known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth

In a warm and raspy voice, Lee recalls her decades of work in the Juneteenth movement after joining the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, which oversaw local Juneteenth celebrations. But she said that after more than 40 years as a community activist, she "really doubled down in 2016" by "going bigger."

At the age of 89, Lee decided her new life mission was much like that of Granger: "I knew I just had to spread the word about Juneteenth to everybody." The best way to do that, she figured, was to help get Juneteenth accepted as a national holiday.

She decided to start with a walking campaign in cities along a route from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C. It wasn't a straight line. Over several weeks, Lee arrived in cities where she'd been invited to speak and walked 2½ miles to symbolize the 2½ years that it took for enslaved people in Texas to learn they were free.

Protesters chant last year as they march after a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.
John Minchillo / AP
Protesters chant last year as they march after a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.

"I was thinking that surely, somebody would see a little old lady in tennis shoes trying to get to Congress and notice," she said, laughing at the memory.

Since then, Lee has become known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth. Her annual walks culminated in a trip to the Capitol in September, carrying a petition signed by 1½ million Americans urging Congress to pass legislation for a federal holiday. "It wasn't a success," she said about the trip.

Undeterred, she returned again in February as a new version of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was reintroduced.

It's difficult to get any day declared a U.S. holiday

Technically, there is no such thing as a national holiday, because neither the president nor Congress has ever asserted power to declare a holiday that binds all 50 states, accordingto the Congressional Research Service.

Instead, the two branches establish permanent federal holidays that only legally apply to federal employees across the nation and in the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, states independently establish their own holidays or commemoration days.

Until Juneteenth, there have been 10 federal holidays for the country at large.

Before the passage of the Juneteenth legislation by the House and Senate this week, there have only been four new holidays added to the national calendar in the past 100 years.

The last one was in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill adding Martin Luther King Jr. Day to celebrate King's contribution to the civil rights movement. It was a 15-year journey that began in 1968, four days after King was assassinated, and it wasn't observed until 1986. Even then, it took nearly two more decades for all individual states also to recognize the holiday.

Among the most avid opponents was Arizona, which didn't come around until 1995 — a couple of years after the NFL moved a Super Bowl game to California in protest. It was a move that cost the state an estimated $500 million in revenue.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, shown here speaking last year, was a co-sponsor of the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images
Getty Images
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, shown here speaking last year, was a co-sponsor of the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

South Carolina also resisted national pressure to acknowledge the day until 2000, when it finally agreed to give state employees a paid holiday off. The fight in that state revolved around an effort by the governor to fly the Confederate battle flag over the Statehouse. To get around the controversy, he eventually signed a bill declaring two holidays: Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Confederate Memorial Day, which is celebrated in May.

As for Juneteenth, there has been a surge in recognition in recent years by local and state governments — 47 states acknowledge it in some way, with some, including Texas, declaring it a paid holiday.

The price tag was a major hurdle

One challenge elected officials face in declaring a new federal holiday is the cost. That was true for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it became a major roadblock in the case of Juneteenth.

According to a 2014 estimate by the White House budget office, it costs $660 million to cover a day of payroll and holiday premium pay.

That was the stumbling block for Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who voted against the Juneteenth legislation in 2020 when it was first introduced. While he favored celebrating the end of chattel slavery — the practice of enslaving and owning people and their offspring as property, to be bought, sold and forced to work without wages — he said he could not get behind paying for another day off for federal workers. At the time, he suggested dropping one of the 10 federal holidays.

This year, Johnson's concern was overridden by the Senate's overwhelming support. "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 said in astatement.

Still, several House Republicans raised the same issue Wednesday, including Rep. James Comer, who voted in favor of the bill. He complained that the Congressional Budget Office hadn't been given time to consider the impact of "granting the entire federal workforce another day off work."

A day before the House vote, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the Democrat from Houston and one of many who sponsored the act, dismissed the problem of the price tag and called 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 added.

During the vote, Jackson Lee held up graphic photos of the brutality and legacy of slavery. One showed the welted scars on the back of a man who'd been savagely whipped. Another showed the gruesome hanging of two Black men during the Jim Crow era. The lifeless bodies stood at the center of the frame, flanked by dozens of smiling white men looking directly at the camera.

On the phone, Jackson Lee remarked on the inherent contradictions of celebrating Juneteenth and the sadness in knowing that freed people remained enslaved after they should have been released from bondage.

"Two years and they did not know," she said.

"How many lives were lost? What kind of brutality did they face in that period of time?"

"Yet," she concluded, it is a profoundly joyous day "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."

Despite the "history of its ills," Jackson Lee said, "What better concept to rally around in the idea of freedom for us all?"

Professor Clayborne Carson says he sees some similarities in the movements for a holiday celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the one commemorating Juneteenth.
Horace Court / AP
Professor Clayborne Carson says he sees some similarities in the movements for a holiday celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the one commemorating Juneteenth.

Like MLK Jr. Day, Juneeteenth faced an uphill struggle

Professor emeritus Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, sees some similarities between the movements for a King holiday and the one commemorating Juneteenth. But he said he's amazed by the momentum of the latest movement, which until a few years ago was not a part of the mainstream conversation.

He said that is likely due to King's waning support at the time of his death, even among Black leaders.

"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 said.

Though he's now a beloved figure around the world, Carson emphasized King "was very controversial during his time. ... He was at the low point."

A tremendous amount of work by King supporters went into defining his legacy as "a leader who presented a positive way forward for the nation," he said. He credits Coretta Scott King, King's widow, with spearheading that effort and rallying Black leaders around the cause.

To Lee, the holiday's creation is like a dream

For Opal Lee, whose paternal great-grandmother was born into bondage in Louisiana, this Juneteenth "is like a dream."

"I knew I would see it happen in my lifetime," she said with a throaty laugh. "But I have to keep my cool."

She's delighted the day will be an official holiday. When she straps on her white sneakers for the annual 2½-mile walk, the nonagenarian said everyone "all over the country can cherish it as a day of unity."

The walk this year will be national, Lee said. In addition to the Fort Worth event, organizers in Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and other cities have set up walks to commemorate the day.

With every step, Lee said she'll be praying and giving thanks. "I'll be thinking of my ancestors. I'll be thinking about my great-great-grandchildren and my grandchildren and my children."

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.