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Opal Lee and ‘Just Mercy’ author Bryan Stevenson inspire action against injustice

“Just Mercy” author Bryan Stevenson and Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” encourage audience members to “be a committee of one” to enact change in the community. The pair spoke at the inaugural evening of the National Juneteenth Museum’s speaker series.
Marcheta Fornoff
/
Fort Worth Report
“Just Mercy” author Bryan Stevenson and Opal Lee, known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” encourage audience members to “be a committee of one” to enact change in the community. The pair spoke at the inaugural evening of the National Juneteenth Museum’s speaker series.

A trio of young men stood on the stage at I.M. Terrell Academy and sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to a packed auditorium.

The audience stood for both songs and clapped along to the second, which is frequently called the Black national anthem.

An emcee then reminded the crowd that they were sitting on Fort Worth’s hallowed ground. I.M. Terrell, the city’s first school for Black students, opened in 1882.

The setting was apt for the inaugural event of the National Juneteenth Museum’sspeaker series “Uniting Voices,” which featured one of the school’s many notable graduates: Opal Lee.

The Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Grandmother of Juneteenth was joined by acclaimed author and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson.

Rather than focusing on what they had accomplished, both guests shared what motivated them to keep moving forward.

Despite winning cases in front of the Supreme Court, being a best-selling author and a Harvard Law graduate, Stevenson recalled the time a judge mistook him for a defendant as he sat in the courtroom.

The judge and opposing council started laughing when Stevenson introduced himself and said he was a lawyer.

“Here I am this middle-aged Black man in my best suit and all my degrees and all my awards, and I still have to laugh at my own humiliation,” he said. Stevenson had no other choice because he didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize his client’s case.

But that experience is just one small example of how far the nation still has to go, he said.

Even though he recalled feeling humiliated, Stevenson and Lee offered a message of compassion and hope for the future.

“Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” Stevenson said. “Hopefulness is our superpower.”

Being willing to pursue something that others can’t yet see or believe is the only way to make the types of change that are needed to confront our challenges, Stevenson said.

That spirit is something that Lee also channeled when she started her march to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday.

“I want all you young people and the children to understand that we need freedom,” she said. “And so I ask you, make yourself a committee of one to change somebody’s mind … If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.”

Having a space dedicated to forming these connections and educating visitors about the truths of the country’s history is vitally important, Stevenson said in an interview with the Fort Worth Report before the event.

He pointed to important cultural spaces in Germany memorializing the Holocaust and in South Africa educating people on the apartheid as being critical in those nations’ success in moving forward.

The absence of that in the United States is one of the reasons why I think we have not made the progress we need to make. After Juneteenth, Black people were disenfranchised. They were subjected to Jim Crow laws and a racial caste and segregation,” he said. “And we continue to see the consequences of the presumption of dangerousness and guilt assigned to black and brown people.”

But, having spearheaded the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, he has seen the power of these cultural sites firsthand. He wasn’t sure how the sites would be received, but it didn’t take long before a million people had visited.

“That’s a source of great hope for me, particularly in these divisive and polarizing times when a lot of people seem to be preaching fear and anger,” he said. “To know that there are people who want something better than just another manifestation of this long history of racial injustice is inspiring.

Telling the truth and discussing hard topics can be uncomfortable, but, for Stevenson, these conversations are not meant to punish the country, but rather to liberate it. He said the benefit of focusing on Juneteenth in particular is twofold.

“It creates an opportunity to do two things: to acknowledge the barriers and obstacles that fighting for freedom have always created,” he said. “But also celebrating the resilience, the tenacity, the commitment of those who believe in freedom to never give up. It’s those two concepts that make Juneteenth particularly beautiful.”