Setting the pace for Fort Worth’s Juneteenth caravan on Friday is 93-year-old Opal Lee. The activist and educator will lead her community on foot for two and a half miles — a distance thatrepresents the number of additional years it took before enslaved people in Texas were informed of their freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lee has pushed for Juneteenth — celebrated every year on June 19 — to be recognized as a national holiday for more than 20 years. She’s too persistent to give up now, and this year in particular, she has the wind at her back as people across the country echo her calls.
“I have persistence in my DNA. There’s absolutely nothing that I start that I don’t want to finish. I gotta finish this,” said Lee, who added that she wishes she was young enough to be out there protesting in the streets against the police brutality that has taken the lives of so manyblack Americans. “I just gotta see it be a national holiday.”
Juneteenth, also known as “Black Independence Day” and “Texas Emancipation Day,” has taken on additional meaning this year as Texans head into almost a month of protests against police violence and racial injustice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson and Mike Ramos at the hands of police.
The fight to make Juneteenth a national holiday has gained additional momentum this year from the corporate world. Somebusinesses have decided to give employees the day off, while prominent employers from Twitter to the National Football League have declared Juneteenth a permanent company holiday.
On Thursday U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas’ senior Republican senator, announced that he will introduce bipartisan legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. But he’s not the first Texas lawmaker to propose commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in Texas.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, introduced a resolution — as she has for the past eight years — with the same goal. With 202 cosponsors, the bills’ supporters quadrupled this year compared to previous years. While Jackson Leehas been one of Juneteenth’s fiercest congressional advocates in recent years, similar legislative attempts date back to at least 1996.
In 1980, Texas became the first state to adopt Juneteenth as a state holiday. Today, it’sofficially recognized in all but three states: Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota.
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