Opal Lee has walked hundreds of miles throughout her journey to raise awareness of the Juneteenth holiday and its historical significance.
She added some distance to her years-long trek Sunday during a walk through the Satilla Shores neighborhood. The walk/caravan ended with a prayer vigil at the site where Ahmaud Arbery was killed in February and included several members of Arbery’s family.
Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” has led a national effort to make June 19, or Juneteenth, a federal holiday in the United States. Her visit to Brunswick, organized by the local group Juneteenth-GA, celebrated her work and aimed to raise awareness of her mission.
She wrapped up her three-day trip to Brunswick with the vigil, during which she encouraged the group to never stop fighting for what’s right.
“I’m saying to all of us here — make yourself a committee of one and get others to understand that we need to work together for freedom,” Lee said, standing beneath the moss-covered live oaks that line the neighborhood’s streets and at the same location where on Feb. 23 Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed after being pursued by three White men who resided in Satilla Shores.
Arbery’s family members and friends shared the anguish they felt when they learned of his death. Each said they plan to continue taking steps toward achieving justice for him.
“When I got that call that said that was him, it just tore my heart apart, y’all, because my nephew meant the world to me,” said his aunt, Kim Cummings, who became emotional recalling the day she was told Arbery had been shot. “And I’m going to miss him because I love him.”
Organizations like Juneteenth-GA, which is part of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, intend to create change by helping people understand slavery’s legacy and the roots of enslavement, said Sheri Bailey, founder of JuneteenthVA. Without that understanding on a national level, full-scale change will not come, she said.
“They need to see that we will no longer take this without fighting back, without standing up for what is right,” Bailey said. “What the world needs to understand is that this has been going on since the beginning of the founding of this country. The values of equality and freedom for all have never existed.”
Lee is the oldest living board member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which has worked to raise awareness of Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of those who were enslaved in the United States.
Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas, and commemorates the June 19, 1865, anniversary of the announcement by a Union army general who proclaimed freedom from slavery in Texas more than two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln.
Lee has been a social impact leader for decades, and in 2016 she established a campaign called “Opals Walk 2 DC,” through which she’s worked to create a national Juneteenth holiday.
Juneteenth serves as a unifier, Lee said, that could help the country address some of its most pressing challenges and better serve its citizens.
“Freedom — we don’t have it yet,” she said before the prayer. “You see me with the Juneteenth signs moving all around the country because I believe Juneteenth is a unifier.”