Opal Lee Walks for Freedom in Fort Worth as America celebrates Juneteenth

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn joined Opal Lee on her Walk for Freedom in Fort Worth. (Photo courtesy office of Sen. John Cornyn).

Fort Worth educator-activist Opal Lee led her annual Walk for Freedom through the city’s historic south side neighborhood Monday as America celebrated the Juneteenth holiday – an observance that became reality largely through Lee’s hard work and determination.

Known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” Lee is credited with rallying others behind a decades-long nationwide campaign to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and she was on hand at the White House two years ago when President Joe Biden signed the bill creating the holiday. Lee, 96, this year became only the second Black person to have her portrait hung in the Senate chamber of the Texas Capitol.

Elsewhere in the U.S., the relatively new national holiday was observed with cookouts, parades and other gatherings as the nation commemorated the end of slavery after the Civil War.

While many have treated the long holiday weekend as a reason for a party, others urged quiet reflection on America’s often violent and oppressive treatment of its Black citizens. Still others have remarked at the strangeness of celebrating a federal holiday marking the end of slavery in the nation while many Americans are trying to stop parts of that history from being taught in public schools.

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“Is #Juneteenth the only federal holiday that some states have banned the teaching of its history and significance?” author Michelle Duster asked on Twitter, referring to measures in Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama prohibiting an Advancement Placement African American studies course or the teaching of certain concepts of race and racism.

The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they had been freed — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued during the bloody Civil War. For generations, Black Americans have recognized Juneteenth, but it took until June 17, 2021, to become officially recognized as a federal holiday.

In brief remarks on a CNN special that also featured musical guests, including Miguel and Charlie Wilson, Vice President Kamala Harris said the holiday honors Black excellence and celebrates freedom, one of the country’s founding principles.

“America is a promise, a promise of freedom, liberty, and justice,” Harris said. “The story of Juneteenth, as we celebrate it, is the story of our ongoing fight to realize America’s promise, not for some, but for all.”

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At a Sunday Mass in Detroit, one Roman Catholic church devoted its service to urging parishioners to take a deeper look at the lessons from the holiday.

“In order to have justice we must work for peace. And in order to have peace we must work for justice,” John Thorne, executive director of the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, told the congregation at Gesu Catholic Church while standing before paintings of a Black Jesus and Mary.

It was important to speak about Juneteenth during the service, the Rev. Lorn Snow told a reporter.

“The struggle’s still not over with. There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.

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Most Black Americans agree, according to a recent poll. A full 70% of Black adults queried in a AP-NORC poll said “a lot” needs to be done to achieve equal treatment for African Americans in policing. And Black Americans suffer from significantly worse health outcomes than their white peers across a variety of measures, including rates of maternal mortality, asthma, high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s disease.

Ryan Jones, the associate curator at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, said Juneteenth should be celebrated in the U.S. with the same emphasis that July 4 receives as Independence Day.

“It is the independence of a people that were forced to endure oppression and discrimination based on the color of their skin,” Jones said.

The museum is located at the site of the old Lorraine Motel, the former Black-owned hotel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968. It offered free admission on the holiday. At the museum, visitors can hear recorded speeches from civil rights leaders including King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and others.

Jones said the Juneteenth holiday is a time to reflect on the past.

“It acknowledges the sacrifices of those early civil rights veterans between World War I and World War II, and of course in the modern society, the protests, the demonstrations, the non-violence, the marches,” Jones said.

The Tennessee Legislature passed a bill this year making Juneteenth a state holiday.

In New York, a hybrid event in Central Park on Monday celebrated the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, with an emphasis on the local Black’s community’s impact on the genre. The event capped off a packed weekend of festivities that saw a growing number of collaborators working together to spread awareness of the holiday, according to Athenia Rodney, the founder of the nonprofit group Juneteenth NYC.

Rodney said she planned to spend Monday at home, reflecting on the historical roots of the holiday and how much has changed.

“Juneteenth isn’t just about a party or a festival, it’s about how we bring the community together under the umbrella of unity,” Rodney said.

As Americans gathered to mark the holiday, at least one event was marked by violence. In the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, Illinois, on Saturday night, one person was killed and 22 were injured in a shooting where hundreds had gathered for a Juneteenth celebration.

And in Milwaukee, at least six teenagers were shot Monday afternoon near the site where the city’s Juneteenth celebration had just wrapped up.