ATLANTA — Thousands of people are gathered across metro Atlanta Friday to celebrate Juneteenth, the official commemoration of the end of slavery in the U.S.
Channel 2′s Tyisha Fernandes and Lori Wilson were at Centennial Olympic Park, where participants from hundreds of local churches across denominational and cultural lines gathered to pray for unity and justice and then marched to the State Capitol.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when a Union army general read orders in Galveston, Texas, stating all enslaved people in Texas were free according to federal law. Though June 19 is not yet a federal holiday, lawmakers from both parties are introducing bills to designate it as such.
The rally was first large event to be held in Centennial Olympic Park since the pandemic began. Many companies and businesses gave employees the Juneteenth holiday off for the first time this year.
Fernandes said organizers told her they counted more than 6,000 people at the Park, where the atmosphere was much like church. Attendees sang gospel songs, talked about God and how Christians need to celebrate Juneteenth and not be silent in this fight for racial equity.
“It’s been a long time, and we deserve this day,” one speaker said. “We’re here to lift up those we’ve lost, and we’re here to continue to path, and let’s make change. And freedom is coming.”
One couple Fernandes spoke to said they didn’t even know what Juneteenth was until a pastor invited them to the event.
[PHOTOS: Juneteenth Celebration in Atlanta]
“A lot of us are learning about it, and it’s such a wonderful day to come out here and demonstrate with other Chrstians,” they said. “Again, we’re very encouraged.”
NewsChopper 2 flew overhead as the group marched from the park to the Capitol and to the plaza, carrying signs and chanting.
People of all ages, races and ethnicities -- most wearing masks -- marched with a common purpose.
The event downtown was organized by One Race Movement which works to make sure laws are enforced in just ways and officials work to act quickly against racially-motivated crimes.
Other Juneteenth celebrations were planned all across metro Atlanta including events at Morehouse, a parade in Lawrenceville, a motorcade in Clayton and voter registration rally and concert in Atlanta.
Channel 2′s Christian Jennings was at the Morehouse School of Medicine, where demonstrators called for equality.
The group marched from the campus to the Capitol around 5:15 p.m. to commemorate the end of slavery in this country 155 years ago.
The Student Coalition of Equality organized the event.
Jennings spoke to student Simone Howard, who said they are marching to bring attention to the systemic injustices black people still face today.
“We are here to work this through,” Howard said. “We’re here to try and figure this out, so we can remain at peace and continue to live. There have been different policies put into place that have oppressed us, and it’s gotten to the point where people are just able to kill us on the street.”
Channel 2′s Matt Johnson was at Murphy Park in downtown Atlanta, where organizers not only honored the day, but helped register people to vote.
The event was also providing free COVID-19 testing to anyone who wanted it through the non-profit Core.
When Johnson asked organizers about all the newfound attention on Juneteenth, they said it was “about time.”
“We’re attempting to shift the culture,” organizers said. ‘We need to let everybody know that Juneteenth is our day, our holiday.”
“You don’t have an excuse not to vote, because we’re bringing it to you,” another organizer said.
Channel 2′s Tony Thomas was in Lawrenceville, where the United Ebony Society sponsored its first-ever Juneteenth parade, in cars this year due to the pandemic. A couple dozen cars with signs on them made their way from Lawrenceville Highway to Rhodes Jordan Park.
“I have three grandchildren, three grandsons, and it’s very important that they know their heritage,” participant Pam Martinez said. “I’m worrying about having three grandsons in this nation right now. We need change.”
She drove the route with her grandsons and a friend. Others walked the two-and-a-half miles in memory of the two-and-a-half years it took for the word of emancipation to spread across the country in the 1860s.
“People think we are just complaining,” Innocent Wamey said. “But it’s been 155 years that we’ve been free, and we don’t feel free.”
Several people at the Lawrenceville parade advocated that Juneteeth become a national holiday.
Gov. Brian Kemp issued a video message acknowledging Juneteenth and asking Georgians to unite.
"This is an emotional time in Georgia and across America, a moment we will not soon forget," Kemp said. "Over the last several weeks, we have all witnessed injustice with our own eyes. And in every corner of America, Americans of every background are urging change."
“As we observe Juneteenth, I’m urging all Georgians to unite,” Kemp said. “Let’s support our fellow Georgians in the African-American community. Let’s reconfirm our shared commitment to our highest ideals: Liberty and justice for all.”