Opal Lee has a story to tell, and the 93-year-old hopes that 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are listening.
She travels across the country from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to lead marches and to tell people about Juneteenth, a little-known day of celebration encompassing over 150 years of history that ought not be forgotten.
“And I thought if a little old lady about 92 or 93 years old was doing that walk, somebody would pay attention,” Lee said Thursday morning before kicking off a walk down the Fremont Street Experience with the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.
Juneteenth celebrates June 19th, 1865, the day Union soldiers rode into Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, more than two years after it went into effect in January 1863. Slaves in Texas had been free but didn’t know it.
“And when we found out about it, we started celebrating and we’ve been celebrating ever since,” Lee said.
Lee, who is on the foundation’s board of directors, is working to make Juneteenth a national observance day, like Flag Day, which would require Congress to pass legislation adding it to the national calendar.
She set her sights on Las Vegas because it hosted Wednesday’s Democratic debate, and Nevada’s caucuses are Saturday. Lee said she’s trying to spread the message of Juneteenth to presidential hopefuls so that no matter who gets the nomination, they’ll know about the day.
“Juneteenth is a unifier,” Lee said. “We’re not trying to make people or have them blamed for anything. We’re saying that we’re wasting time when we could unite and get so much done.”
More than a day
Steve Williams, president of the Juneteenth foundation, explained that June 19 celebrations are about more than the date in 1865.
The story of Juneteenth starts three years to the day before the actual date it commemorates. Congress passed legislation to abolish slavery in the United States on June 19, 1862, ahead of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth also has roots in Oklahoma, which has a long history of celebrations by black residents who moved to the territory before it became a state, Williams said.
The Civil Rights Act was passed in the Senate on June 19, 1964. And the Poor People’s March on Washington, organized by Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination, took place in June 1968.
“So the discussion that we want to be about,” Williams said, “is how has America changed since then?”
All things Juneteenth
As Lee walked the Fremont Street Experience, she and and handful of supporters carried signs and chanted “All things Juneteenth!”
She stopped tourists, street performers and workers to hand out flyers about the campaign. After handing one to a shirtless Chippendale performer, she looked back at the group with a wide grin.
It’s not her first attempt to turn Juneteenth into a national holiday, but Lee fears it could be her last. That’s why she’s pushing as hard as she can to get it recognized in 2020.
In 2016, Lee traveled to Washington, D.C., where she hoped to meet with President Barack Obama.
“He was in Chicago. It didn’t happen. I didn’t get what I wanted,” she said. “But I haven’t given up, so I’ve started again.”
After the walk, Lee rested briefly at the Plaza but kept leaving her seat to talk to young people in the lobby.
“I hold out hope, because there’s so many people I come in contact with who’ve never heard of Juneteenth,” Lee said. “And so we’ve got a tremendous educational job to do, and I’m hoping the young people will take it up.”