“No justice!” Francys Johnson called. “No peace!” the crowd responded. “No justice!” “No peace!” “Come on, lift your voice,” he urged. “No justice!” “No peace!”
So began the spoken and shouted part of the protest Saturday afternoon as a crowd of more than 400 people gathered. They carried signs with messages ranging from the most frequent, “Black Lives Matter,” to a poignant reference to lynching, “I’m Tired of Being Strange Fruit,” to one or two specimens of “Defund the Police” and a profane suggestion aimed at President Donald Trump.
“Many have asked, ‘Will this be a peaceful protest?’” said Johnson, a Statesboro attorney and minister and past Georgia NAACP state conference president. “All I can say is that the crucifixion of people is never a peaceful protest. It always involves the shedding of blood, and from 1619 until this very day, that blood is still being shed, and so from then until now we lift our voice with the crucified of this country.”
A massive wooden cross, more than 25 feet tall, was carried onto the grounds and laid down in front of the southern portico to the courthouse, where Johnson and others spoke. Chalked on the concrete walk around it were outlines of human forms, simulating those marked by police around murder victims.
Eventually, during the more than hour-long rally, other speakers presented a proposal to place a contextualizing marker at the base of the Confederate soldier statue that has stood at the corner of the courthouse square since 1909.
Eventually, young protestors plastered the cross with pieces of paper carrying the names of black Americans who have died in encounters with police or vigilantes. Among them were George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, but there were many others. Of 1,099 people who died last year in police-involved shootings in the United States, at least 634 were African American, Johnson said.
Then, protestors took up the cross and carried it. About half of the people who attended the courthouse rally followed, in a half-mile march to the doors of the Statesboro Police Department headquarters on West Grady Street.
But the majority of people who spoke did so at the courthouse. Johnson’s mention of 1619 was a reference to the year enslaved Africans were first brought to an English colony, Virginia, in what is now the United States. He also spoke of Native Americans, including the Yuchi people who inhabited this area of Georgia, who were forced from their homelands by white people.
“Before we can root up white supremacy, we have to strike at its heart, which is the lie of race, the sin of discrimination and the heresy that God favors some over others,” Johnson said. “White supremacy is a heresy, and so to that 25-foot statue, which is an image and a reflection of white supremacy, which has stood sentinel over this courthouse for far too long, we have constructed a cross that’s even larger.”
After Johnson spoke, April Burke introduced her niece, Lauren Young, 18, as initiating organizer of the protest. A 2020 graduate of Jenkins County High School, Young, a Statesboro resident, is headed to Georgia State University for fall semester.
“When my niece spoke out in pain and called for a protest, I felt motivated to help her and support her and to help her find her voice as a young black woman,” Burke said.
Young, in turn, introduced Kanette King, now a Spelman College student, from Statesboro. King read a poem she wrote.
“God hears my tears because I can no longer pray. I try to get the words but I suffocate. Thinking of my pain I begin to choke. I can’t breathe. …,” she began.
“And as the concrete tastes my final breath, I enter an eternal family reunion,” King recited as the poem neared its conclusion. “My father’s name is Rodney King, my brother’s name is Trayvon Martin, my son’s name is Emmett Till, my uncle’s name is Eric Garner, my mother’s name is Sandra Bland. … Michael Brown is my neighbor, and I saw Ahmaud Arbery jogging down the street the other day. My name is Justice. …”
Although people of various ages, including Johnson, Burke and others, helped them to organize the event, it was youth-led, Burke said. It featured not only King and Young, but Tre Byrd, Sheridan King and Yeshua Flowers as speakers in the approximate high school to college age range.
‘No more killing us’
Among older speakers, the Rev. Wayne Williams noted his past career in the Army and asserted that racism and white supremacy remain alive in the military. Bases, including Fort Lee, Fort Gordon, Fort Pickett, Fort Rucker, Fort Hood “and many more are named after white supremacists. …,” he said.
“Peaceful? If you got to ask me do I condone violence, you don’t know me,” Williams said. “I don’t condone violence. I don’t condone the violence you did for me. I don’t condone the violence that you did to my brother. …
“Young people, I commend you, and I will tell you this, if you ever want your future to be better that our history and your present, you cannot stop now,” Williams continued. “The only thing we need to stop is dying. No more killing us!”
Several white ministers also attended the program, and one who spoke was the Rev. Jane Page, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist fellowships in both Statesboro and Brunswick. A 1968 Statesboro High School graduate, she publicly apologized to black citizens for the privileges she enjoyed growing up in Statesboro during segregation.
Page recalled how the front entrance of the Georgia Theater – now the Emma Kelly Theater, but then a cinema – was the white entrance, while an entrance in an alley, up outside stairs to a balcony, was the black entrance. Among other things, Page also recalled that white teenagers climbed the courthouse clock tower and rang the bell, knowing they wouldn’t get in much trouble because they were white, she said, and how the Statesboro High School band, but not the William James High School band, paraded through downtown streets before home games.
“These streets belonged to the whites, and that wasn’t right, and I’m sorry,” Page said.
She particularly apologized to her classmate Dr. Alvin Jackson, who grew up near Portal but hitchhiked to become one of the first black students at Statesboro High School. Both are turning 70 this year. Page said she was admitting for the first time to anyone, to Jackson and to the public, that at age 13 or 14 she signed a Concerned Citizens of Bulloch County petition opposing desegregation of the schools.
“I’m so ashamed, and went all these many years in fear that someone might find out.… ,” Page said. “I’d been chanting with my friends, ‘Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.’ … I signed it, and I am so, so sorry.”
Jackson, who continues his career as a medical doctor, is board president of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center. It was Page and Jackson who brought forward the proposal for a contextualizing, temporary marker at the base of the Confederate statue, as reported in a separate story.
Jackson also encouraged everyone who attended the rally to be tested for COVID-19. Most but not all attendees wore face masks, but social distancing was not observed.
Kneeling at the P.D.
After the cross was carried to the police headquarters and again laid down, the protestors occupied the section of Grady Street in front of the building.
There, Johnson led a call-and-response appeal from the crowd to Police Chief Mike Broadhead, who had walked with the protestors, asking that he “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.” Johnson also recited a list of urgent requests for city of Statesboro actions regarding police use of force and other policies to Mayor Jonathan McCollar, who said he supported these and was ahead of the protestors on some of them.
Details of that will be reported in a later story.
Broadhead and McCollar kneeled with the protestors in the middle of Grady Street.
Protestors then walked back to the courthouse, leaving the cross at the police station.
A few SPD officers, in their ordinary uniforms and displaying no riot gear, had walked quietly among the demonstrators at the courthouse and halted traffic for the procession.