What could have been an outpouring of outrage Saturday in downtown Atlanta turned out to be chance for several thousand people to hear speakers talk about race, violence and community engagement.
Atlanta police estimated 3,000 people attended the rally/prayer vigil for Trayvon Martin, one of 100 such gatherings held across the country in part to call for federal action against George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch captain found not guilty last week in the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Martin.
But the rally’s speakers, who included two children of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., focused instead on healing and moving forward.
The crowd never budged, despite a heavy rainstorm that broke just after the noon rally began at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building. The Atlanta Police Department reported no arrests or trouble at the rally.
“We are trying to tell Americans to taste the rainbow. We are all in the package together,” the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, said in reference to the brightly colored Skittles candy that Martin was carrying the night he was shot.
“Trayvon Martin had a God-given right to get home safe,” Warnock added. “And when he didn’t, he had a right to have his death taken seriously.”
Brenda Jackson, who is black, said she brought her 11-year-old son Brendon to the rally from their Lithonia home so he could hear others reiterate the message she drills into him: Make sure your speech, behavior and demeanor are above reproach, because some people are judging you on sight.
“Until you prove them differently, some people perceive a young black man as someone who will hurt or rob you,” said Jackson, an administrative assistant at Georgia Pacific. “We have to talk about that.”
For Brendon, the rally was more personal than political. He will soon turn 12 and identified with the teenage Martin.
“Trayvon felt scared. I would have been scared,” Brendon said. “I would have run. That would have been better.”
Just what Martin could or should have done will remain an open question, said Damien Conners, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The SCLC had planned a nonviolence forum before the rally, to address how to respond when confronted or attacked. That session, which will be led by former King lieutenant Bernard LaFayette, has been moved to Thursday.
But Connors, who did not speak at Saturday’s rally, said the topic — and the conversation — are especially important in the wake of the Zimmerman trial.
“At this point, we have to think about creating a culture where we all react nonviolently, whether we are the George Zimmerman or the Trayvon Martin,” Conners said. “Your first response, your first reaction, should not be violence. What we have now is a moment to have that conversation.”
Many in the crowd at the rally used symbols to have their voices heard. Someone in back waved an upside down American flag, a distress sign. Peppered throughout the sea of people were homemade signs carrying messages ranging from “R.I.P. Trayvon Martin” to “Know justice, know peace.”
Speakers reminded those at the rally that the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement’s March on Washington will be marked in late August.
“We must leave here headed to Washington for mobilization,” said Martin Luther King III, who appeared at the rally with his sister, Bernice King. “People thought the civil rights movement was dead. People’s rights are still being violated.”
John Hardie, pastor at Grace North Atlanta Church in Roswell, said he came to the rally with his daughter because the Zimmerman trial showed racial biases and perceptions that may seem outdated still linger beneath the surface.
For Hardie’s daughter Katelyn, 16, it was important to get involved as a way to get beyond those stereotypes.
“It’s like people are tricking themselves into the idea they’re not racist,” said Katelyn, who is white. “There isn’t as much upfront racial hatred, but people have to stay engaged if they want to really make it better.”