By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — Opal Lee, the “Grandmother of the Juneteenth Movement,” was in Memphis Aug. 28-31 to promote her children’s book, which is the first leg of the “Change is Possible Tour.” 

Aptly titled “Juneteenth: A Children’s Story,” the book was written by Lee, who was largely responsible for petitioning Congress to set aside June 19 as a federally-recognized holiday. 

“We want you to know that Juneteenth is not a Texas thing, and it’s not a Black thing. It’s a ‘we’

Opal Lee

thing,” said Lee, 94, who lives in Texas. “Now that we have it as a holiday, we can’t rest on our laurels.”

It was in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, when enslaved Blacks learned that they were freed two years after President Lincoln signed into law the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lee arrived in Memphis with her tour manager, Dr. Belay Reddick; Shinita Reddick, his personal assistant and publicist; Dione Sims, Lee’s granddaughter; and Robert Sims Jr., Lee’s great grandson and photographer. 

State Rep. Karen D. Camper, Tennessee General Assembly’s District 87 representative, assisted Dr. Reddick in bringing Lee to Memphis. Telisa Franklin, president of the Memphis Juneteenth Festival, hosted Lee and her entourage.

Lee’s visit, said Franklin, “gave me a spark that should never die, that Juneteenth in Memphis should always be around. And we must continue educating as well as celebrating.” 

Dr. Reddick said Memphis was the first stop on the tour because he thought it would be a good idea to combine Lee’s civil rights activism and her social impact leadership with his interest in mass incarceration.

“We wanted to stop in Memphis first, because it was FedEx that hired me as an ex-felon,” said Dr. Reddick, a mentor coach, youth advocate, and conflict resolution expert who spent two decades in prison for a non-violent offense.

“We want to affect change, from incarceration to restoration, because we live in a society that arrests people and throws away the key,” he said. “We have to have a plan to acclimate them back into society.”

Dr. Reddick honed-in on that message and more when he took the pulpit at Pursuit of God Church-Memphis, where members purchased copies of Lee’s book. Before Dr. Reddick’s message, Ricky Floyd, the church’s lead pastor, held a Q & A with Lee and Franklin.

For Lee, it had been a decades-long effort on her part and a 1,400-mile trek from Texas to D.C. that prompted Congress to act. The House vote was 415-14. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, representing Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District, had cast his vote to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

On June 17, President Joe Biden paid tribute to Lee at the White House before signing into law the groundbreaking Senate Bill 475, i.e., the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. 

“There is too much more to do,” said Lee, encouraging more people to get involved. “I’m asking everybody to make yourselves a committee of one. You know people who are not on the same page you’re on.”

Lee is keenly aware that some people may be ignorant of Juneteenth and need to be educated to understand its significance. “It’s left up to you to change their minds,” she said.

Elaine Lee Turner, who operates the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, where Lee held a book signing, said, “She is an inspiration to all of us because of her perseverance, stamina, her determination to have Juneteenth proclaimed a national holiday.”

For copies of Opal Lee’s book, “Juneteenth: A Children’s Story,” reach out to Dr. Belay Reddick at 469-951-8418.