On the second anniversary of her son’s death, Wanda Cooper-Jones wants the world to think of one thing: Change.
“Laws changing is just the beginning,” she said. “Next we must change the minds and the perception of Black men in this country.”
Cooper-Jones established The Ahmaud Arbery Foundation in hopes no other family will endure the pain hers has since Ahmaud, then 25, was shot and killed on Feb. 23, 2020. Three white men were convicted of state murder charges last year and this week were also convicted of federal hate crimes charges.
Speaking at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta on Wednesday, Cooper-Jones said that the nonprofit foundation will award six $3,000 scholarships to students at Brunswick High School, where Arbery graduated in 2012. The recipients will be announced on May 8, which would have been Arbery’s 28th birthday.
“We believe in helping to create opportunities for young Black men to further their education, to start a business, to simply build a life. Something Ahmaud did not have the chance to do,” Cooper-Jones said. “Justice goes beyond judgment made in the courtroom. Justice ensures every child, no matter what their skin color, his socioeconomic situation, is safe and has equal opportunities to realize their dreams.”
The announcement and anniversary of Arbery’s death came the day after Travis McMichael, 36, his father Greg McMichael, 66, and William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, were convicted of federal hate crimes. At the downtown gathering, state Rep. Sandra G. Scott presented Cooper-Jones with a copy of the House resolution proclaiming Feb. 23 to be Ahmaud Arbery Day.
“Today is a great day here in the state of Georgia,” Scott said. “And it’s a great day all over the world because the people will be out thanking God for this day, which is known for the rest of our lives... as Ahmaud Arbery Day.”
Other vigils and community events were being planned in both metro Atlanta and in Brunswick.
In south Georgia, Marcus Arbery woke up Wednesday morning feeling relieved that the men who murdered his son two years ago as he ran through a neighborhood just outside Brunswick had been found guilty of hate crimes.
“I feel great,” Marcus Arbery said. “But we still have a long way to go. We’ve got a lot more work to do.”
Events Wednesday in Brunswick included lunch with members of the local clergy, a 2.23-mile run/walk at Brunswick High School’s track and a dove release in the Satilla Shores subdivision where Arbery was chased, then fatally shot.
Dozens of people attended the prayer vigil, some of whom held signs that read, “I run with Maud.” The birds were released around the same time Arbery was killed two years earlier, and in the same spot.
“Ahmaud was loved by his family and he was loved by everybody who knew him,” his father said, fighting back tears.
During his prayer, the Rev. DeWayne Cope said they were grateful “for verdicts some said would never come.”
The McMichaels and Bryan, sentenced last year to life in prison, were found guilty of the federal crimes by a jury of eight white members, three Black members and one Hispanic person. The state jury consisted of 11 white members and one Black juror.
“Let the word go over all over the world that a jury of 11 whites and one Black in the deep South stood up in the courtroom and said that Black lives do matter,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said after the state jury returned guilty verdicts.
Glynn County leaders recently renamed a park Arbery liked to visit near his father’s home Ahmaud Arbery Park, and held a dedication to mark the anniversary of his death. Commissioner Allen Booker, who spearheaded the renaming efforts, said county officials plan to spend $100,000 to improve the park.
Booker grew up in the same neighborhood as Marcus Arbery, and his great-nephew was best friends with Ahmaud. He saw Ahmaud Arbery regularly as he was growing up and remembers his infectious smile.
Booker said he was initially told by county officials that Arbery was shot after breaking into somebody’s house. Arrests in the case came 74 days after the shooting, after the GBI took over the investigation.
The county’s lone Black commissioner praised Arbery’s parents for their relentless efforts to get justice for their son, but said Arbery should still be alive.
“I’m happy for the family, but I know they would certainly prefer to have their baby with them,” Booker said.
Since Arbery’s death, Glynn County has hired its first Black police chief in the department’s 102-year history. Booker said he hopes to repair relations between law enforcement and the community and bring about what he called meaningful change.
Marcus Arbery, while grateful for the community’s support, described the anniversary of his son’s murder as bittersweet.
“It’s still a sad day because Ahmaud’s gone and I won’t see him no more,” he said. “I don’t get Ahmaud’s phone calls. He’s gone and we still have to deal with that every day. It’s something we’ll never get over.”