Forget about making Juneteenth a holiday. If Congress wants to do something for people who look like me—Black people—make Election Day a holiday. That was the story I woke up wanting to write on Saturday.
I have become more and more rageful with each account of the new, diabolical voter suppression and nullification efforts fanning out across almost every state in the nation. That African Americans, who have fought and died for the right to vote are being obstructed or prevented from their civic duty, excised from the rolls without their knowledge and potentially intimidated at the polls by partisans, is too much to bear.
A mentor I had early in my nonprofit career served on the board of an organization I worked for. A crushed larynx was her souvenir from Freedom Summer, and at the end of each day, my mentor’s warm contralto was reduced to a scratchy whisper by her injuries. One evening, after a long board meeting, I asked for her advice about a job offer I had received from a Historically Black College (HBCU). “Don’t take the job you think you should take,” she whispered, her voice cracking. “Take the one that will make you happy. Life is short.”
That conversation, which I had tucked away in my memory, haunts me now. I wonder if this is where we are once again in this nation, with people of color working to ensure that we have the rights other people take for granted. Are we going to have a full-fledged Freedom Summer 2021? And what should we give up this time to make our voting-rights stick? A larynx? A skull? Our lives?
Why should I care about Juneteenth, the new Federal holiday that even cynical Republican politicians (minus 14 detractors) voted for while simultaneously applauding statewide bills to curb the teaching of the very history that explains why there is a Juneteenth in the first place?
This is the screed I wanted to write on Saturday, but there is perhaps another more compelling story: that of Opal Lee, a 94-year-old educator, activist and patriot. At 89, retired and worried about her legacy, Ms. Lee embarked upon a campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
That in 2016 she walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas to DC–some 1400 miles—to advocate for a national Juneteenth holiday is not the most remarkable fact about Ms. Lee. In 1939 when she was 12, her parents bought a home in a “white” neighborhood, and days later it was destroyed by a mob of 500 whites—on none other than Juneteenth. Rather than allowing that horrifying incident on that sacred day to embitter her and destroy her life, Ms. Lee sought to do the opposite. The nonagenarian, who seldom discusses that terrifying event, told a CBS station after legislation passed last Wednesday, “I am so delighted to know that suddenly we’ve got a Juneteenth. It’s not a Texas thing or a Black thing. It’s an American thing.”
As President Barack Obama recently told ABC’s Michael Strahan, in response to the ubiquitous question about how to be hopeful in turbulent times: “[By] taking the long view, recognizing that resilience, determination, the ability to deal with setbacks and disappointments and keep going—those are qualities that can carry us forward. And no one has exhibited that more historically in this country than African Americans.” Amen to that. And Amen to Ms. Opal Lee.
So rather than viewing Juneteenth as a replacement for legislation on voting or on the myriad other issues needing immediate attention in America, I view it as a reminder that wanton violence can be met with purpose, and trauma can be turned into activism. That ultimately is the story I want to tell today. That ultimately is a story Americans can embrace no matter their race, ethnicity or geography.
BlackVoters Matter has embarked upon a commemorative bus tour which began on Friday and will end on June 26. Please visit the organization’s website, https://blackvotersmatterfund.org for more information.