A diverse group of protesters decried racism, sexism and tolerance of injustice before taking to the streets of Atlanta Saturday night in a rally organized in response to last week’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The interracial crowd — numbering about 2,000 — marched to the tomb of Martin Luther King Jr. Similar rallies were taking place in other cities on Saturday. Thousands of people crammed Boston Common to demonstrate against a “free speech” rally that some feared would spark additional violence by attratcting white supremacists.
In Atlanta, many demonstrators held aloft signs that ranged from “Make Racism Wrong Again” to “Reclaiming My Time Against neo-Nazis.” There were also periodic references to the controversy over Confederate monuments that was the trigger to last week’s violence.
Georgia must remove the symbols that justified segregation and glorified a war to defend slavery, state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat who is running for mayor of Atlanta, told the crowd. “We must call on the City Council to change every Confederate named street in this city. The Confederate memorial in Piedmont Park has to be pulled up by the roots.”
And while mentioned only now and then, President Donald Trump was vehemently denounced for tolerating or even encouraging white supremacists.
“We need to make a point, after Charlottesville,” said Jenny Howard, 66, of Decatur, standing at the back of the crowd. “Will a couple thousand people marching in Atlanta topple the Trump presidency? No. But it is part of something bigger. It takes a lot of little things to build to a larger momentum.”
Her mother fled Nazi Germany as a child and her father served in the Navy in World War II, she said. “So it’s also personal.”
Sarah Miller, 26, of Atlanta, said she has taken part in many marches and doesn’t expect any one action to make a dramatic difference. “But this is about expanding the crowd, to get people who thought that it’s not that bad to see how bad it is.”
Change is daunting, but it is necessary and it can be a kind of privilege to work for change, said Sarah Walton, 58, of Atlanta, who also said she is a veteran of many marches. “It feels like a blessing to be alive at this time. We have an opportunity to be God’s hands and feet.”
There were chants: “Self-defense is our culture! Survival is our duty!”
There was enthusiastic call and response: “Show me what democracy looks like!” “This is what democracy looks like.”
Later in the evening, a separate event was planned for Decatur, another local aftershock from last week’s events in Charlottesville.
The event in downtown Atlanta was organized by the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice, a coalition that includes Black Lives Matter, the American Friends Service Committee and Georgia NAACP, as well as others. The Georgia Alliance was created in the aftermath of the women’s march in January.
The Atlanta march and rally were meant as non-violent resistance to hate, said Janel Green, co-founder of the Georgia Alliance. “This is about bringing people together.”
The event was hastily organized after last week’s dramatic events in Virginia, when marches by white supremacists that led to counter-demonstrations, violent clashes and ultimately the death of a woman who was run down by a car.
Speakers included Rabbi David Spinrad of The Temple and Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Georgia.
“There is only one good reason to transgress the Sabbath and that is … to save a life, and that is why I am here,” Spinrad said.
Mitchell told of a call from a man who said it was time to kill all Muslims. “I kept talking to him. Because I am not afraid.”
And while the organizers share a criticism of Confederate monuments, their views differ as to dealing with those icons.
“There is a diversity of opinion,” Green said. “Some people just want the monuments gone. Others are open to creative ways to remove symbols of hate while being honest about our history.”
The route of the march was not announced in advance, for security reasons, she said. However, the path was chosen “intentionally to go by some monuments that do represent diversity and civil rights.”
After the speeches, the crowd marched along a circuitous route to Auburn Avenue and King’s tomb. Saturday’s events in Boston, where a crowd of counter-demonstrators vastly outnumbered attendees at the “free speech” rally, spurred organizers here to invoke local pride.
“The streets of Boston are full! Let’s make sure the home of the Civil Rights Movement has an even bigger presence!” the organizers wrote on Facebook.
Rebecca Hernandez heard about the march through a Facebook group. She made the trip from Johns Creek with her 11-year-old daughter, and held up a sign: " I am no longer accepting the things I can not change. I am changing the things I can not accept."
Hernandez, who has a prosthetic leg, pointed to others marching with canes and wheelchairs.
"I can't just sit by and watch things happen," Hernandez said. "I have to do every little thing I can to let my voice be heard, and show them that we're united."
"Eventually, something's going to be the tipping point," she said.
In Decatur on Saturday evening, an obelisk in the square near the old DeKalb Courthouse is both the location and the subject of discussion, said Hannah Hill.
Roughly 2,000 names are on a petition calling for the removal of the 30-foot tall monument, but the idea Saturday is to invite a wide range of opinions about a response to the obelisk, said Hill, who is a local minister. “It is a discussion, not a rally. We want to hear all points of view.”
In fact, there is at least one online effort to protect the monument, a web site that says it has 250 supporters.
Hill said she welcomes those who want the monument to stand unchanged. “That it not what I want, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t listen to those people.”
Although the monument makes reference to the Civil War, it was erected in the early years of the 20th century when former Confederate states were passing Jim Crow laws that effectively made blacks second-class citizens, Hill said.
The monument and its position was clearly meant to underscore that status, she said. “It is a stone, phallic object in front of the place where African-American people were going to be tried for violating those laws. So it was a statement.”
-Staff Writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this story
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.