Opal Lee is 94 years old and she is doing a sacred dance.
It’s a dance she says she and her ancestors have been waiting for 155 years, 11 months and 28 days.
Since Major-General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, to spread the news of the Emancipation Proclamation banning slavery in the Confederate States. President Abraham Lincoln had signed it more than two years earlier.
“And now we can finally all celebrate. The whole country together,” Lee told NPR minutes after an overwhelming House vote on Wednesday approving legislation establishing the day, now known as Juneteenth, as a public holiday. federal government to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. States.
President Biden signed the bill on Thursday and Lee stood by his side during the ceremony.
In a warm, husky voice, Lee recalls his decades of work in the Juneteenth movement after joining the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society, which oversaw local Juneteenth celebrations. But, she says after more than 40 years as a community activist, she “really doubled in 2016” by “getting bigger”.
At the age of 89, Lee decided that his new life mission was a lot like Granger’s: “I knew I just had to let everyone know about Juneteenth.” The best way to do it, she thought, was to help get Juneteenth accepted as a national holiday.
She decided to start with a city walking campaign along a route from her home in Fort. Worth, Texas to Washington, DC It wasn’t a straight line. For several weeks, Lee arrived in towns where she had been invited to speak and traveled 2½ miles to symbolize the 2½ years it took for slaves in Texas to learn they were free.
“I thought someone would surely see a little old lady in tennis shoes trying to make it to Congress and notice,” she laughs at the memory.
Since then, Lee has become Juneteenth’s grandmother. Its annual marches culminated in a trip to the Capitol last September, carrying a petition signed by 1.5 million Americans urging Congress to pass legislation for a federal holiday. “It wasn’t a success,” she said of the trip.
Undeterred, she returned again in February as a new version of the June National Independence Day law was reintroduced.
It is difficult to get a day to be declared a public holiday
Technically, there is no such thing as a national holiday, as neither the President nor Congress has ever asserted their power to declare a public holiday that binds all 50 states, according to to the Congress Research Service.
Instead, both branches establish permanent federal holidays that legally apply only to federal employees across the country and in the District of Columbia. During this time, states independently establish their own holidays or days of commemoration.
Right now there are 10 federal holidays for the country as a whole.
Prior to the passage of the June 17 law by the House and Senate this week, there have been only four new holidays added to the national calendar in the past 100 years.
The last took place in 1983, when then 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’s assassination, and it was not observed until 1986. Even then, it took another 18 years for all states to recognize also the party.
Among the fiercest opponents was Arizona, which only came in 1995 – a few years after the NFL moved a Super Bowl game to California in protest. It was a decision that cost the state a an estimated turnover of 500 million dollars.
South Carolina also resisted national pressure to recognize the day until 2000, when it finally agreed to grant state employees paid leave. The fighting in that state revolved around an effort by the governor to fly the Confederate battle flag above the state house. To get around the controversy, he eventually signed a bill declaring two public holidays: Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Confederate Memorial Day, which is celebrated in May.
As for Juneteenth, there has been an increase in recognition in recent years by local and state governments – 47 states somehow recognize it, with some including Texas declaring it a paid holiday.
Price was a major obstacle
One of the challenges elected officials face in declaring a new federal holiday is the cost. This was true for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and it became a major obstacle in the case of Juneteenth.
According to a 2014 estimate from the White House budget office, it costs $ 660 million to cover a pay day and a paid vacation bonus.
It was the stumbling block for Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who voted against Juneteenth’s legislation in 2020 when it was introduced. While he preferred to celebrate the end of possessions slavery – the practice of enslaving and owning people and their offspring as property, buying, selling and forcing to work without pay – he said he could not agree to pay another day leave for federal workers. At the time, he suggested removing one of the 10 federal holidays.
This year, Johnson’s concern has been overtaken by overwhelming support from the Senate. “While it still seems odd that taxpayers grant paid vacation time to federal employees is now necessary to celebrate the end of slavery, it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to discuss further the question. Therefore, I have no intention of opposing it, “he said in a declaration.
Still, several House Republicans raised the same issue on Wednesday, including Rep. James Comer, who voted in favor of the bill. He complained that the Congressional Budget Office had not had time to consider the impact of “giving the entire federal workforce another day off.”
A day before the House vote, Rep. Sheila Lee Jackson, the Houston Democrat and one of the many who sponsored the act, dismissed the price issue and called it a distraction.
“I don’t think we’ll lose our shirt by adding just one more holiday that commemorates the life, heritage and history of African Americans,” Jackson told NPR.
“Do I believe it is too expensive to have another party that commemorates our history?” She added.
During the vote, Jackson held up graphic photos of the brutality and legacy of slavery. One showed the welt scars on the back of a man who had been savagely whipped. Another showed the horrific hanging of two black men during the Jim Crow era. The lifeless bodies stood in the center of the frame, flanked by dozens of smiling white men looking directly at the camera.
Over the phone, Jackson pointed out the contradictions inherent in the June 10 celebration and the sadness of knowing that freed people remain slaves after having to be freed from bondage.
“Two years and they didn’t know,” she said.
“How many lives have been lost? What kind of brutality did they face during this time?
“Yet,” she concluded, it is a deeply joyful day “because it enables little children in schools to learn the wonders of America and America can overcome its ills so that it can. to recover from its better days “.
Despite “the history of its woes,” Jackson said, “What better concept to rally around the idea of freedom for all of us?”
Two difficult struggles
Professor Emeritus Clayborne Carson, Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, sees similarities between the movements for a King’s Day and the one commemorating June 15. But he says he’s amazed by the momentum of the latest movement, which until a few years ago was not part of the mainstream conversation.
He says this is likely due to King’s declining support at the time of his death, even among black leaders.
“Martin Luther King has faced much criticism for his stance on the Vietnam War and his Poor People’s Campaign was not intended to bolster its popularity, ”Carson said.
Although he is now a beloved figure around the world, Carson pointed out that King “was very controversial in his day… he was at the bottom.”
A tremendous amount of work from King’s supporters has gone into rehabilitating his image and defining King’s legacy as “a leader who has presented a positive path for the nation,” he said. He credits Coretta Scott King, King’s wife, for spearheading this effort and rallying black leaders around the cause.
“It’s like a dream”
For Opal Lee, whose paternal great-grandmother was born into bondage in Louisiana, this Juneteenth “is like a dream”.
“I knew this would happen in my lifetime,” she said with a throaty laugh. “But I have to keep my cool.”
She is delighted that this day is a holiday. As she dons her white sneakers for the annual 2½-mile walk, the 90-year-old says everyone “across the country can treasure it as a day of unity.”
The march this year will be national, says Lee. In addition to the Fort. A newsworthy event, organizers in Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and other cities have put up marches to commemorate the day.
With each step, Lee says she will pray and thank. “I will think of my ancestors. I will think of my great-great-grandchildren and my grandchildren and my children.”
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