On June 19 this year, 96 year-old Opal Lee will once again invite others to join her on a 2.5 mile Walk for Freedom in Fort Worth, Texas. Known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” Opal began campaigning decades ago for a national holiday to commemorate the anniversary of the day in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. In 2016, at age 89, Opal began a symbolic walk from Fort Worth to Washington D.C. in an effort to get 100,000 people to sign a petition to create the holiday. She was transported from city to city where she would walk 2.5 miles, representing the 2.5 years it took for freedom to reach Texas. By the time she made it to Washington, she had obtained over 1.5M signatures. In June 2021, her efforts succeeded – a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden.
Juneteenth has long been celebrated by Black people; Opal Lee has vivid memories of celebrating Juneteenth as a child in East Texas with music, food, and games. Since the creation of the federal holiday, more employers are recognizing its importance and embracing their role in promoting Juneteenth in the workplace. In 2021, just 9% of employers had made Juneteenth a paid company holiday. That jumped to 33% in 2022 and rose again this year, to 39%.
Recognizing Juneteenth reminds us of times and places in history in which freedom was not shared by all, and of the importance of continuing to advocate for freedom for all people. The upcoming holiday is a time to reflect on how freedom has evolved in the United States: July 4th celebrates attaining independence from Britain and tyranny; Memorial Day honors the sacrifices made to preserve the freedoms we enjoy; and Juneteenth recognizes the day when freedom at last included all Americans. These holidays give us time to participate in celebrations and spend time with our families – but also invite us to consider our role in creating a free, equitable and inclusive society.
Whether or not Juneteenth is a holiday for your organization, I hope you can take a moment to reflect on what the day means to people who have freedom, those
who fight for freedom and those who still need a voice. As we can learn from the example of Opal Lee – who keeps on walking -- this work is never finished.