60,000 march in Atlanta for civil liberties and human rights

Marchers respond to speakers at the Center for Civil and Human Rights before the start of the Women’s March in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, January 21, 2017. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

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Marchers respond to speakers at the Center for Civil and Human Rights before the start of the Women’s March in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, January 21, 2017. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Rhonda Cook, Raisa Habersham and Michelle Baruchman contributed to this report.

Tens of thousands of people converged Saturday on downtown Atlanta, in what’s believed to be the largest politically-motivated march this city has seen in decades.

Held the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the nation's 45th president, it was one of more than 600 marches held across the globe in support of civil liberties and human rights. The size of the crowd in Atlanta left some gasping. Organizers had initially hoped for between 10,000 and 12,000 people. And as torrential rain soaked metro Atlanta early that morning, no one was sure they'd get close. In what seemed like an omen, organizers seeking to dodge the worst of the storm made the decision to delay the march's start by a half-hour.

ExploreInstead, Atlanta police estimated 60,000 people showed up.

“The direction the country is taking is scaring me and I just wanted to come out and walk with people that had the same mindset that I did and who are just as afraid as I am,” said Elizabeth Brady, 27, a math teacher from Clayton County who joined what turned out to be a 1.7-mile-long mass of humanity waving signs and chanting peacefully for four hours as it moved toward the state Capitol.

Many on Saturday expressed similar concerns, saying they were scared at the direction the country was taking under the new GOP-led Congress and the Trump administration. It was a sentiment on display across the nation and internationally in cities including Paris, London and Madrid — events all timed to show solidarity with the Women's March on Washington, D.C.

More participants than expected seemed to show up at many of them. In Chicago, media outlets reported that organizers at one point said streets were so crowded with people that they did not think they could march. In D.C., officials estimated turnout at 500,000 — more than double the 200,000 people initially expected to attend..

Back home, Sgt. Warren Pickard, an Atlanta Police Department spokesman, said he had not seen a march like the one here “in my 28-year career.” The size of the crowd was comparable to the city’s annual AJC Peachtree Road Race, an event that draws about 55,000 runners and is believed to be the largest 10k race in the country (and, organizers claim, the world).

As things got underway early Saturday afternoon at the Center for Civil and Human Rights near the city’s downtown Centennial Park, marchers even began celebrating the rain.

“It’s just water,” said Sue Hunter and Terry Hamrick, who rode to the center on MARTA, starting at the Midtown Arts Center station. “We’re still going to go out there and march for justice.”

Lee Ann Jones, 59, of Atlanta, said the last time she had been to the center was to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling on same-sex marriage. Jones said she came Saturday “to bring some visibility to social justice issues.”

Allison Perry, of Decatur, brought along her 4-½-year-old daughter, Vivienne: “I feel like a lot of our rights are being taken away,” she said.

A sense of calm permeated the crowd. Signs were everywhere. Among them: “A woman’s place is in the revolution” and “Hands off my uterus.” Families seemed to flood any empty spaces, with some saying they had neither the time or money to get to Washington but wanted to express themselves in the best place they knew: At home. Colorful umbrellas, ponchos and rain jackets dotted the scene.

The march drew many prominent Democrats including former gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, U.S. Reps. John Lewis and Hank Johnson, state House Democratic Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and others.

“We know from whence we came and we’re not going back,” former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said.

Lewis — who has clashed with Trump — drew a hero's welcome from supporters in his hometown. He helped lead the march, often drawing chants of support as he offered his own encouragement: "Speak up, speak out and find a way to get in the way," he said.

Abrams, noting that state lawmakers in the GOP-led General Assembly are already back in session, urged marchers to continue the fight. “The resistance isn’t in Washington DC, it’s in Atlanta, GA,” Abrams said.

No problems were reported: “The march has been peaceful and without incident,” Pickard said.

And they seemed to inspire even the youngest attendees.

For 11-year-old Amelia Mevers, the protest was her first real brush with politics. She decided to take part after reading a quote from Mahatma Gandhi in class.

“It motivated me to be the change I want to see in the world,” the middle-schooler said.

She said the march was crowded and so loud she couldn’t hear the speakers. And it moved a lot slower than she had expected. But she said she enjoyed the experience and would do it again.

“I thought it was amazing because I had never seen so many people all gathered together,” Mevers said. “We’ve learned about the civil rights marches, but I’d never seen anything like this.