FORT WORTH — If you’ve seen Forrest Gump, you know he had his own fictional role in the fight for Civil Rights.
Miss Opal Lee, though? She lived it.
“Dr. King led us here, but we’ve done absolutely nothing since,” the nearly 90-year-old activist said.
Her fight for her rights began long before Martin Luther King, Jr.
It started with her upbringing in Marshall, Texas. As a 13-year-old, her family, led by father and mother Otis and Mattie Flake, moved into an area of Marshall called Newtown. It was one of the first pushes by black people into the primarily white residential area of Marshall. Less than a week later, it ended in flames.
“They bombed that house. They set it on fire,” Lee said. “They didn’t want us there. On the 19th of June, mind you.”
That’s one of her first Juneteenth memories. You know Juneteenth? The holiday celebrating when the last American slaves were freed right here in Texas?
Her house was burned to the ground by a 500 person mob on Juneteenth 1939, with the Police standing by. In fact, when Otis Flake arrived from work with a gun, law enforcement told him if he fired it he’d be turned over to that mob.
Miss Opal tends not to dwell on such things, though, pointing out that the whole family left the ordeal without physical violence and moved on with their lives.
Now, on Thursday, she’s setting a fire of her own.
“We need each other. We can’t do it without each other,” she said.
And she’s doing it with her feet.
“That’ll be my first five miles toward getting to Washington, D.C.,” Miss Opal said.
And unlike Forrest Gump, she isn’t walking just because she feels like it. She wants Juneteenth to be named a national holiday, and she needs your help. Who knows. It could even go viral!
“What is viral?” she asked. “When it can go viral and we’ll get all the signatures we need. Well, that’s my job.”
She needs 100,000 signatures, and along with a petition on the White House website, she’ll be stopping by college campuses hoping young people will help the cause.
What would she say to President Obama if she gets to see him?
“I would just tell him how much I appreciate what he has gone through,” she said. “The man has worked with his hands tied behind him. He has tried to do what needed to be done, and he has had obstacle after obstacle to try to hold him down, but he hasn’t given up. Why should we?”
And this isn’t the first time she’s traveled to the nation’s capital with a cause to promote.
“Three of my sons were in Vietnam at one time. I used to tell people I walked to Washington. I really didn’t. I got there as fast as I could, I knocked on Lyndon Johnson’s door. Didn’t get to see him, so I got Liz Carpenter (Lady Bird Johnson’s Press Secretary, among other things) and told her the situation,” she said. “They moved two of those boys.”
This time, though, she’s turning 90 on this trip. So is she worried she won’t make it?
“If you start something, finish it,” she said. “I don’t care how difficult it seems. If you start it, finish it. If I get too tired, I’ve got this walker. It’s gonna have my bottled water in it and my lip balm. If I have to sit down and rest, there’s something to read. I’ve got no problems!”
Miss Opal plans to walk 10 miles per day, a big step up from her usual. She says she walks at least a mile every day, rain or shine, and she logs even more on the 2nd and 15th of each month when she delivers food to people from the local food bank. As for sleep? That’s happening on a mattress in the back of her Ford Explorer, though she’s hoping hotels will take notice and help her remedy that last part.
So when will she arrive?
“We’ve gotta have the signatures by the first of October, just gotta have that 100,000 signatures. I give it December, if the creek don’t rise. I’ll get there by December,” she laughed.
What if this whole thing is a success, and Juneteenth really becomes a national holiday thanks to Opal Lee’s walk?
“If Juneteenth becomes a holiday, look what we’ve achieved,” she said. “If we can achieve this, we can achieve some other things because we did it together, not just one person.”
Now that’s inspiration, y’all! 90 years in the making.