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Opal Lee Didn’t Win the Nobel Prize, But She’s Not Stopping

Opal Lee makes things happen. The "grandmother of Juneteenth" didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize on her 96th birthday, but she continued her vow to keep pushing.
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Opal Lee Juneteenth
Elizabeth Lavin

There were 343 people and organizations across the world nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year, and one of those candidates was Fort Worth’s Opal Lee.

Lee is known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” and was instrumental in getting the date marked as a national holiday. The writer Trinity Hawkins profiled Lee for our June issue, where she explained the basis for her advocacy efforts.

“The one word I’d use is persistence,” Lee said. “I’m just somebody’s grandmother.”

Although usually the identities of the candidates are secret, Congressman Marc Veasey released the letter he wrote to the Norwegian Nobel Committee that nominated Lee. It was co-signed by a bipartisan roster of senators and representatives, including Sen. John Cornyn, and U.S. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Colin Allred, Joaquin Castro, and Sheila Jackson Lee.

“Her tireless efforts over the decades and her work to advance understanding and respect between individuals of different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels along with her continuing mission to equality is why we members of Congress proudly nominate Ms. Opal Lee for the Nobel Peace Prize,” reads the letter, which details Lee’s advocacy work in addition to her quest for a national Juneteenth holiday.

The organization made its announcement this morning, which is also Lee’s 96th birthday. The winners of the prize were activists from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, who, the chair of the committee told reporters, “have revitalized and honored Alfred Nobel’s vision of peace and fraternity between nations, a vision most needed in the world today.”

Lee gathered with a small group at the Paris Coffee Shop in Fort Worth’s Near South Side to watch the announcement at 4 a.m.

The Star-Telegram was on hand. “Just being nominated is one of the greatest honors and says we have a chance to sit at the table,” she told supporters, who gave her a standing ovation. “You’ve got to keep going. And nothing’s going to be smooth and easy all the time,” she told WFAA’s Tashara Parker. “You’re going to find bumps bumps in the road. You’re going to fall. You have to get up and keep moving.”

It’s a message she has echoed for years. As she told Hawkins this summer, “We can’t rest on our laurels. There is still work to be done. Our educational system doesn’t tell the truth and we need the truth told … we have to work together to get rid of the disparities.”

She would have been the oldest recipient in the history of the award. The oldest laureate to date was Joseph Rotblat, who was 87 years old when he was awarded the prize in 1995.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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