Juneteenth 2020: How Atlanta is marking the holiday devoted to the end of slavery

Hundreds of participants of the "OneRace Movement" listen to leaders inside Liberty Plaza, across the street form the Georgia State Capitol building, as they call for a biblical response of justice in Atlanta, Friday, June 19, 2020. The group marched from Centennial Olympic Park to the State Capitol building.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Hundreds of participants of the "OneRace Movement" listen to leaders inside Liberty Plaza, across the street form the Georgia State Capitol building, as they call for a biblical response of justice in Atlanta, Friday, June 19, 2020. The group marched from Centennial Olympic Park to the State Capitol building.

Today marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, commemorating the date in 1865 when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

The holiday has gained new attention in the wake of nationwide protests over racism and police violence.

A number of observances from marches and rallies to silent reflections and virtual museum exhibits are planned for the metro area, including a gathering of religious and community leaders at the Atlanta Wendy’s location where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed during a suspected DUI arrest by Atlanta police a week ago.

In Marietta, the Cobb NAACP held its Juneteenth observance at Marietta Square Friday afternoon. Marchers walked from the Cobb NAACP headquarters on Roswell Street to the Square.

At the Square, a mix of elected officials and community leaders addressed the crowd.

James Ford of Acworth, a member of Zion Baptist Church in Marietta, said these last three weeks have been a "trying time," but couldnt pass up coming to the Square with his friend Willie Robinson for a "good unifying event."

Friends James Ford and Willie Robinson attend the Cobb NAACP Juneteenth observance Friday June 19, 2020 at Marietta Square. KRISTAL DIXON / AJC

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Ford said it's been difficult to explain how he has been feeling about the events of the last few weeks to his co-workers, but he makes sure he regularly checks on his friends."We are black men, and we are taking the time to check on the young black men around us," he said.

Chrissy McGuire of Marietta learned about Friday's Juneteenth rally from a friend through Facebook. She said she felt it was important to come out and support efforts to address racism.

Chrissy McGuire attended the Cobb NAACP Juneteenth rally on Friday, June 19 2020.

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"It's important for people to see us coming together in a civil and orderly way," she added.

During legislative session at the Georgia Capitol Friday, sporting a Juneteenth T-shirt, state Sen. Gail Davenport, D-Jonesboro, wished her colleagues a Happy Freedom Day.
"I think sicne I've been in the Senate all these years, we have not met in June so we have not come to the well to say Happy Juneteenth. Last night our commander-in-chief said he made Juneteenth famous. That no one had ever heard of it before," Davenport said. "I'm here to tell you that many people have heard of Juneteenth. And in Clayton County, for the past 20 years, we have had that celebration."

Georgia Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro) reflects on Juneteenth during a personal point of privilege in the Senate Chambers on day 34 of the legislative session at Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Friday, June 19, 2020. 

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Shortly before voting against the state budget, Atlanta Democratic state Sen. Nan Orrock invoked Juneteenth when asking colleagues to consider the implications of cutting funding to areas such as education and health care.
"On this day – Juneteenth –we should feel compelled to look at how all these cuts and these deficits and programs lacking money … how it impacts our African American population here in this state and other communities of color," she said

At lunchtime Friday hundreds of participants of the OneRace Movement’s “March on Atlanta” Juneteenth observance marched to the state Capitol where they would rally for lawmakers to review laws to ensure they are written and enforced equally for all people and to move quickly to act against racially motivated crimes.

Josh Clemons, co-executive director of OneRace Movement, said the events over the past month  — the COVID-19 disproportionately affecting black people and the killings of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and most recently Rayshard Brooks — led to the daylong protest.
"They are all the reasons that we felt like the church needed to speak on this most crucial issue, that black lives matter to Jesus and they should matter to us and our legislators," Clemons told the AJC.

Crowds from OneRace’s “March on Atlanta” Juneteenth observance which kicked off at Centennial Olympic Park rallies for racial justice and equality at the state Capitol on Friday, June 19, 2020.   

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

“We would like for our legislators to begin to consider systemic racism and systemic oppression of communities of color. We would like to see task forces built around investigating policing and judicial systems and it relates to people of color,” he said.

One of the speakers at Friday's event was Roswell's Fellowship Bible Church pastor Crawford Loritts, who said the noticeable difference between protests in the 1960s and now is the diversity of the crowds. "Although I'm not declaring victory, I'm saying this is a start. The cross, the cause, and the church are coming together," he said.
But Loritts said he worries the church will miss the opportunity to continue to lead in a period of social unrest. "My biggest fear is that after the rally is over and after the stuff dies down is that we will retreat back to business as usual and we will miss the opportunity that God is giving to us to be the models of the ultimate destination."

Leaders of OneRace’s “March on Atlanta” lead marchers to the state Capitol Friday, June 19, 2020. The Juneteenth observance included prayer and worship at Centennial Olympic Park before marching to the Capitol for a rally. 

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Loritts also urged the crowd to continue the work for social justice beyond the rallies and protests.
"The truth of this day will take place 5, 10, 15 years from now. Will you speak up for justice then? Will you speak up in the privacy of your homes then? Will you model it in your churches then?"

Outside the Wendy’s on Friday morning, several people approached the restaurant to pay their respects to Brooks. One woman carried a bouquet of flowers. A group that set up a tent outside said they’ve remained through the day and night at the site to watch over it. One person called it “ground zero.”

People came to pay their respects to Rayshard Brooks outside the Wendy's early Friday, June 19, 2020. 

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The “Save Our City” coalition of leaders is set to announce a “public policy commitment to ending economic disparity within Atlanta’s communities” at the location later today.

>> READ | Why Juneteenth will take on greater meaning this year

One of the earliest events, was the “March on Atlanta” which kicked off at Centennial Olympic Park at 9 a.m. Friday.

The observance, hosted by the Christian-based OneRace Movement, includes a day of prayer, worship and a march from the park to the Capitol and back.

The "March on Atlanta" crowd observing Juneteenth at Centennial Olympic Park Friday morning June 19, 2020. 

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About 500 people had gathered inside the park at start time. For attendees like Erica Bolden, the Juneteenth holiday also represents a day of protest.

Former police officer, Erica Bolden, 30, participates in the "March on Atlanta" Juneteenth observance Friday, June 19, 2020. 

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Bolden, 30, a former police officer, said she wants to see changes in policing. “I’m tired of seeing the systematic racism that we have. I’m a former police officer, but I’m also black. So, there are a lot of things that just need to be resolved. I’m here to make a statement on both ends that something needs to change,” said Bolden, who left law enforcement in 2018.

“We talk a lot about knowing, owning and changing the story,” OneRace co-director Josh Clemons said in a press release. “The story right now is tension and violence surrounding the many events that have precipitated this moment. We must own it in prayer, intercession and lament, and must move forward together to change the story for generations to come.”

Outside the park, a separate group of marchers were seen making their way toward Marietta Street while chanting “Black Lives Matter.”

More than a dozen protests and marches are planned today, including at Atlanta City Hall and Atlanta Police headquarters, the locations of several protests over the past few weeks.

Outside Atlanta City Hall late morning, a group of more than 50 protesters chanted “care not cages” and “Black lives matter.” Protesters held signs that read “defund APD.”

Protesters out Atlanta City Hall on Friday, June 19, 2020. 

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>> RELATED | Emancipation Day and Juneteenth celebrations aren’t new to Georgia

Several local companies, including the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Public Schools have designated Juneteenth a paid holiday for employees. There is also momentum to have the day designated as a federal holiday, which would make it a paid day off for many employees.

Columbus artist Davian Chester, whose Juneteenth illustration was featured as a Google doodle last year, released his newest illustration for the holiday early Friday morning.

Davian Chester, a graphic artist and teacher unveils 2020 Juneteenth ilustration.

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This year’s image shows people who were enslaved running from away from slave holders with the date 1865. On the other side of the illustration there are young African-Americans holding protest signs, including one that says, “Stop Killing Us,” and running away from the police.

“It’s supposed to be Freedom Day, technically,” said Chester. “But with everything that’s going on it doesn’t feel like it anymore. I knew I would be going deeper and this is a sadder piece.”

>> MORE | Some Georgia companies granting Juneteenth holidays

Hours before Juneteenth, the city of Decatur saw its long-divisive Confederate monument removed from the downtown city square.

A 30-foot obelisk, which stood for 112 years, was taken down late Thursday night. The monument was erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The Confederate obelisk in downtown Decatur was removed from its pedestal late Thursday night. 

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“I can think of no more fitting start to Juneteenth,” said Sara Patenaude, a leader of Hate Free Decatur said while watching the monument’s removal Thursday night.

Stay with AJC.com for updates today on metro Atlanta’s Juneteenth observances.