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Posted: April 10, 2009 12:01 a.m.

Remembering the Black Easter March

Event marks progress since start of local struggle for civil rights

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In commemoration: Norris Freeman, left, state Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta), District 4 County Commissioner J.C. Henderson and minister George Hamm lead marchers from Trailblazer Park on Clark Street to the steps of the Historic Courthouse during...

Black Easter will be commemorated at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Covington square, as city and county leaders remember the 5,000 black men and women who marched in protest of racial segregation in Newton County in 1970.

The African-American Historical Association and The Georgia Black Elected Officials (GABEO) are hosting the fourth annual Black Easter commemoration, where local and state leaders will speak about the events of the past and path of the future. There will be entertainment and several speakers, including Tyrone Brooks, GABEO president and state representative, and Norris Freeman, a prominent local civil rights leader. Deacon Richard Johnson of Good Hope Baptist Church was one of the original marchers in 1970 and will be delivering the keynote speech.

"We need to learn from the past and use it to move forward; we need to use it as a stepping stone," Johnson said. "It’s good to remember the past, but we don’t want to get held back there. That (1970) was a time to break down old laws and barriers; this is a time to heal and move forward."

Johnson said that without the Civil Rights movement and Black Easter there wouldn’t be a President Barack Obama or a Sheriff Ezell Brown.

"Those things happened because of history," he said. "We all should be proud of where we are now, living together. It’s just a better day."

Forrest Sawyer, a Newton County civil rights leader, said the racial situation in Newton County and America has improved significantly, but he said there is still a lot of work to be done. This year’s theme is "My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper", because we need to continue to work together, Sawyer said.

"We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go," he said. "We still live in cities with 25 percent poverty levels. We still don’t have the (proper representation) based on the population. We still don’t have a lot of African-American policeman and other positions.

"We have to deal with keeping young black men out of jail. Our focus is shifting. We need to put them in work, put them in school. Create a generation of college graduates, rather than a generation of convicts or jailbirds. We need to bring the focus back on helping each other."

The purpose of Sunday’s ceremony is to remember how far our society has come and to use those experiences to tackle the problems of the present and future, according to Sawyer.

The Black Easter march is so important because it was the culmination of many previous marches and boycotts as black citizens protested racial segregation in local businesses, schools, the police department and the hospital, Sawyer said.

"A lot of people in Covington and the county don’t even know this happened," Sawyer said. "They see Covington as a lovey-dovey town, a sleepy town, but all hell was breaking loose in 1970. We had night marches every night, marched over 1,000 people every night. We had some 50 to 100 state troopers out here every night.

"During the day we picketed and had economic boycotts. Even if we had to go across county lines to buy, we would, because we refused to buy from Ku Klux Klan. We refused to buy in Newton County until the (store owners and residents) treated us with dignity. It was not civil rights; it was human rights."

Those boycotts forced change to happen and over the next months and years, blacks began making more inroads. Blacks were allowed to work as the cashiers of white-owned stores, become policemen and Sheriff’s deputies and sit in the same restaurants and hospital waiting rooms as whites. Johnson said the marches in 1970 paved the path to the changes we’ve seen today.

"I feel like an American now," he said. "I look at Obama and feel like the United States is actually the "United" States now. But we’re not quite to the promised land yet; there’s still more land to go."

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