6 influential figures in the Juneteenth movement you need to know

Dora Abena Dzaka June 15, 2023
Opal Lee, popularly known as the "Grandmother of Juneteenth". Photo credit: Opal Lee

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19th, holds immense historical and cultural significance for African Americans in the United States. It marks the day when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the enslaved people in Texas in 1865, declaring their freedom and ending the institution of slavery.

This momentous event took place more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, highlighting the delayed dissemination of crucial information and the persistence of slavery in remote areas.

Juneteenth serves as a poignant reminder of the struggles and resilience of African Americans throughout history. It represents a day of jubilation, liberation, and the beginning of a new chapter for millions of enslaved individuals. This commemoration not only celebrates freedom but also acknowledges the challenges faced by African Americans in their ongoing pursuit of equality and justice.

In recent years, Juneteenth has gained increased recognition and popularity as a day of observance across the nation. The significance of this date has expanded beyond African American communities, as more individuals recognize the importance of acknowledging and understanding the history of slavery and the continuing struggle against racial injustice. As a result, the celebration of Juneteenth has become more widespread, transcending regional boundaries and ethnic backgrounds, and gaining support from diverse communities.

Throughout history, several remarkable individuals have played pivotal roles in the Juneteenth movement, both in the past and present. In this article, we will delve into the lives and contributions of five influential figures associated with Juneteenth.

Abraham Lincoln

The Juneteenth celebration owes its origins to the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Although the proclamation did not immediately free all enslaved people, it marked a crucial step towards their liberation. Lincoln’s commitment to ending slavery set the stage for Juneteenth as a day of remembrance and freedom. His legacy as the “Great Emancipator” remains central to the Juneteenth narrative, highlighting the importance of presidential leadership in championing equal rights for all citizens.

General Gordon Granger

General Gordon Granger, a Union Army general during the American Civil War played a pivotal role in the Juneteenth story. On June 19, 1865, he arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce General Order No. 3, which proclaimed the freedom of enslaved African Americans. Granger’s orders effectively marked the end of slavery in Texas, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Granger’s proclamation resonated deeply with the newly freed individuals, igniting the Juneteenth celebrations that persist to this day. His enforcement of emancipation and his commitment to upholding freedom solidified his place among the significant figures in Juneteenth history.

Rev. Jack Yates

Rev. Jack Yates was a prominent minister, educator, and community leader during the Reconstruction era. As a formerly enslaved person, Yates advocated tirelessly for education and political empowerment for African Americans. He played a vital role in establishing Houston’s first African American church, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, as well as the Emancipation Park, which became centers of community organizing and key focal points of early Juneteenth celebrations in Texas. Yates’s tireless efforts in educating and empowering the Black community left an indelible mark on the Juneteenth movement, emphasizing the significance of education as a means of liberation and progress.

Opal Lee

Opal Lee, an American civil rights activist and educator known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth has been instrumental in advocating for Juneteenth’s national recognition. Her relentless dedication led to the passing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, 2021, establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Lee, at the age of 89, embarked on a two-and-a-half-mile walk to symbolize the journey toward freedom, capturing national attention and galvanizing support for the holiday. Her tireless activism has not only brought awareness to Juneteenth but has also reinforced the ongoing struggle for racial equality, making her an iconic figure in the modern Juneteenth movement.

Black Lives Matter Movement

While the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement emerged as a response to police brutality and systemic racism, it has significantly impacted the modern Juneteenth movement. BLM’s mission to fight for justice, equality, and liberation aligns closely with the historical and ongoing struggles that Juneteenth represents. The movement has played a crucial role in raising awareness about the significance of Juneteenth and has amplified the voices of Black activists, scholars, and community leaders advocating for the celebration’s national recognition. The powerful protests and social activism sparked by the BLM movement have contributed to the increased understanding and acknowledgment of the historical injustices faced by African Americans, making Juneteenth a focal point for demanding change and pushing for systemic reforms.

Senator Edward Markey

On June 17, 2021, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill introduced by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, establishing Juneteenth National Independence Day as a federal holiday. The bill was then sent to the U.S. House of Representatives, where it passed with overwhelming bipartisan support on June 16, 2021. Finally, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on June 17, 2021, officially designating June 19th as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Senator Edward Markey was the lead architect of the Juneteenth bill. He played a crucial role in advocating for the recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday and gathering support from his colleagues. This historic decision marked a significant step in acknowledging the importance of Juneteenth and its significance to African American history and culture.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: June 14, 2023


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