Civil rights activist Opal Lee to receive honorary degree

Often described as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth”, Lee will speak at May 9 SMU symposium.

DALLAS (SMU) – Civil rights icon Opal Lee will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from SMU at the University’s May 11 commencement ceremony. The “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” led a national grassroots campaign that resulted in the 2021 establishment of Juneteenth, June 19, as a federal holiday. On May 3, 2024, President Biden honored for her achievements with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. 

Lee will participate in a symposium with her granddaughter, Dione Sims, founding executive director of the National Juneteenth Museum, at 5 p.m. Thursday, May 9, at SMU’s Moody Hall auditorium, 6404 Airline Rd. The symposium, focusing on Lee’s achievements, is free. Make reservations here. Candice Lucas-Bledsoe, director of the Action Research Center in Dallas and SMU Cox Executive Education facilitator, will moderate the discussion.

Her degree will be presented at commencement, which begins at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, May 11, in Moody Coliseum, 3009 Binkley Ave. Tickets to commencement are not available, but the presentation of her degree will be included in the event’s live stream, available at

“Having Ms. Lee join us at commencement and share her work through a symposium is a signal honor for our University,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “Her life’s work is most deserving of this recognition, and our students will be inspired by her.”

A retired teacher and lifelong activist, Lee was 89 in 2016 when she conducted a symbolic walk from Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C. as part of a campaign to convince lawmakers to designate Juneteenth as a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery after the Civil War. Juneteenth has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1880s, recognizing the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, two and a half years after it was issued, freeing enslaved Texans.

Another of Lee's goals will be met with the planned opening of the National Juneteenth Museum in Fort Worth. The $70 million, 50,000-square-foot museum will be located on Fort Worth’s South Side, where Lee has operated her own modest Juneteenth museum. In addition to serving as a museum, cultural center and business incubator, the new complex will include a mixed-income residential community. Lee is honorary chair of the museum, and with her granddaughter, a legacy board member of the museum.

A longtime community leader, Lee is a board member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. She has served on the boards of Unity Unlimited, Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity, Habitat for Humanity, the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society and chaired the board of the Community Food Bank of Fort Worth.

Lee is the recipient of seven honorary doctorates, was named 2021 Texan of the Year by the Dallas Morning News editorial board, Fort Worth Inc.’s 2022 Person of the Year, and was a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize nominee. In 2023, she became the second African American to be honored with a portrait in the Texas State Senate chamber.

At SMU, Lee will be hosted by staff host and honorary degree nominator Pamela Bailey, project coordinator for the Center on Research and Education in the Simmons School of Education and Human Development, and faculty host Ashley Stone, clinical assistant professor and director of the Master’s of Higher Education in the Simmons School.


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