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Meet Opal Lee, the 94-year-old activist who marched for miles to make Juneteenth a federal holiday

Opal Lee speaks with President Biden on June 17 after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In 2016, civil rights leader Opal Lee, then 89, laced up her sneakers for the 1,400-mile trek from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., hoping to ask President Barack Obama to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

But she wasn’t sure she would be let into the White House.

“You could save me a lot of shoe leather and a lot of wear and tear on an old body by saying how soon you can see me,” she wrote to Obama.

Despite the uncertainty, Lee began her march to the capital, gaining national attention in the effort to recognize June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought the news of freedom to enslaved Black people in Galveston, Tex. — 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in the Southern states. She made national headlines, earned a credit in the film “Miss Juneteenth” and gained more than 1.6 million signatures on a petition to mark the holiday.

However, it wasn’t until this week that Lee, called the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” finally witnessed the moment she had worked and walked to achieve. On Thursday, President Biden signed legislation establishing a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery, with Lee, now 94, beside him.

Juneteenth holiday marking the end of slavery becomes law after decades of inaction

“You’re an incredible woman, Ms. Opal,” Biden told her at a ceremony in the White House. Along with Vice President Harris, Biden praised Lee’s efforts, kneeling next to her before joking she was 49.

Biden spoke about Juneteenth 1939, when a mob of 500 white supremacists set fire to Lee’s childhood home. Lee, just 12, and her family fled.

“Such hate never stopped her,” Biden said.

“Over the course of decades, she’s made it her mission to see that this day came,” he continued. “It was almost a singular mission. She’s walked miles and miles, literally and figuratively, to bring attention to Juneteenth.”

Growing up in Marshall, Tex., Lee said the day was treated like other holidays, with food, music and baseball games.

“It was pure festival,” she told CNN.

Lee merely wanted to share the holiday, widely recognized by the Black community in her state, with the rest of the country, she had said, as some states had not yet formally acknowledged the historic day.

“I just thought if a little, old lady in tennis shoes was out there walking, somebody would take notice,” she told NPR at the time.

Like a scene from the movie “Forrest Gump,” Lee was joined by others during her march, some carrying signs cheering her on. After friends worried for her health, Lee did not walk the full distance but rather traveled to cities that had invited her to join their Juneteenth celebrations.

“I went to Shreveport and Texarkana, Little Rock and Fort Smith, Denver and Colorado Springs,” she told Variety. “I went to Madison, Wis., Milwaukee, Atlanta, the Carolinas. I was all over the place.”

At each spot, she strode 2½ miles in the morning and in the afternoon, paying homage to the emancipated enslaved people in Texas who didn’t know they were free for that many years.

Celebrating the power of Juneteenth on the spot in Virginia where enslaved Africans arrived in 1619

Every year on June 19, she continued to walk 2½ miles, raising awareness about what the day meant.

After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in May 2020, Lee saw a nation galvanized. The month after Floyd died, millions across the country marked the holiday, prompting Lee to believe that change could come.

“We can’t let the swell of support just simply disappear until the summer rolls around again,” she wrote in the petition that was quickly gaining signatures. “We have (to) make sure Congress follows through with their commitment to honor the lives of those who came before us.”

This week, Congress answered her call, as the House joined the Senate in overwhelmingly supporting the legislation Wednesday.

Lee, watching on a laptop screen from her Fort Worth home, whooped, jiggled her legs and threw up her arms like a runner passing the finish line.

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