Marietta mayor vetoes declaring Juneteenth a city holiday

Exterior of Marietta City Hall. Red brick modern building

By Arielle Robinson

Marietta Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin vetoed a motion the City Council passed Wednesday night that tried to make Juneteenth a paid city holiday, saying he wanted to attach a Veterans Day holiday motion.

Councilmember Cheryl Richardson put the Juneteenth motion on the agenda. The motion was discussed at the very end of the meeting, after 10 p.m.

“I hate to do one and not the other,” Tumlin said at the meeting.

Richardson said that as the only veteran on the council, she did not have a problem with that, but pointed out that the mayor and other councilmembers had not brought up creating Veterans Day before she put forward the Juneteenth motion, despite having plenty of time to do so.

“I think to put them on together is to say that the only way one will be supported is if both happen,” Richardson said. “ … [Juneteenth] is also a federal holiday. I think the county has finally decided to recognize it and I don’t think that it would be inappropriate for us to do so.”

Richardson continued, saying “Before us today is the question of, does this city recognize the importance of Juneteenth as an ending date to a horrible time in our history and recognize it as a date of celebration of the ending of slavery?”

Tumlin responded, saying “Juneteenth was 1865, it’s sat on the table for a long time. That’s just my problem.”

“It’s set on the table for some communities,” Richardson said. “I will tell you that in the African-American community, it hasn’t sat on the table.”

Richardson pointed out that Veterans Day evolved from Armistice Day, which initially honored World War I veterans. In 1954, Veterans Day became official and honored veterans of all U.S. wars.

“Yes, holidays will move along and they become different things,” Richardson said. “Today, the question is, Juneteenth has been around and celebrated in several communities for years, and now will we recognize it?”

Councilman Griffin Chalfant backed up Tumlin.

“Personally, I would like to see it go back and [vote both of] them at the same time,” Chalfant said.

Richardson’s initial motion in favor of the Juneteenth holiday passed 4-3, with Councilmen Chalfant, Johnny Walker, and Andy Morris voting in opposition. 

Cheers could be heard from the crowd but they quickly turned into groans, as Tumlin decided to veto the decision.

Richardson then made a motion to override the veto, with Councilman Joseph Goldstein seconding it.

City councilors voted 4-3 along the same lines to override the veto, but it failed because the council must have five votes to override the mayor’s veto.

After the override failed, Richardson got out of her seat and left the meeting before it officially ended.

Juneteenth has its origins in the years after former President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared enslaved people free. The act was not immediately enforced and it took some states a few years to free many slaves.

President Joe Biden declared June 19 a federal holiday last summer. This came about a year after protests against police brutality rocked the country and the world.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1867, the day that slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free. In the following decades, the holiday was unofficially expanded in Black communities across the country to mark a day where Black people celebrate the official end of chattel slavery.

In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp signed the federal holiday into state law this month, making it a paid holiday for Georgia employees.

Cobb County government officials also passed a motion 4-1 in December last year to make Juneteenth a holiday.

Cobb cities have increasingly recognized the holiday, with Acworth, Kennesaw, and Powder Springs hosting their first celebrations last year.

Cobb’s chapter of the NAACP in conjunction with the city of Marietta have hosted annual Juneteenth celebrations in Marietta Square for over a decade now.

Cobb NAACP members and other community advocates attended the meeting Wednesday in anticipation of the discussion and vote. They gathered at around 5:30 p.m. and waited around five hours for the decision.

NAACP members were visibly and audibly frustrated after Tumlin’s successful veto.

When the crowd was permitted to speak, Cobb NAACP President Jeriene Bonner Grimes commented. She described herself as a “military brat” with a parent who has served.

She said that Juneteenth and Veterans Day do not fit together.

“It never has, it never will,” Grimes said. “ … You could’ve had Veterans Day any day of the week … A lot of us still live with the pain as we look into each one of you all’s eyes and wonder why would it even become a question?”

Cobb NAACP Second Vice President Janet Arnold Savage said that she grew up in Marietta and remembers her aunt warning her not to go to Marietta Square because the Ku Klux Klan was there.

“I lived with it,” Savage said. “I am a wife of a Black man, I am the mother of a Black son. I want to believe that the city that I was born in, I had lived in, and I have also loved, loves me and my community. The thought that there is anybody on this council that thinks [Juneteenth] should even be a question is disheartening. It shows a lack of solidarity, it shows a lack of inclusion.”

NAACP member and community activist Sally Riddle continued to express the disappointment. She said that some councilmembers stated several weeks ago that they wanted a Veterans Day holiday.

“So why wasn’t it on the agenda?” Riddle said. “You could have done that. Why not make a motion to change, amend tonight’s resolution and add Veterans Day to it? You could have done that. Instead, you vote down one thing and just talk about Veterans Day.”

Attorney Gerald Griggs, the first vice president of the Atlanta NAACP, said he has personal ties to Cobb County and that he is ashamed of Marietta.

“You guys are talking about Veterans Day,” Griggs said. “I am the grandson of a World War II veteran, I am the son of a Vietnam veteran … don’t talk to me about veterans. I love veterans, I’m the son of a veteran. But I’m also the great great great grandson of a slave.”

Griggs said that the city must come together and recognize the legacy of white supremacy in Marietta. 

He also said activists and advocates will be at future city council meetings.

“I ask you to reconsider your veto, to reconsider the fact that some of y’all didn’t override that veto, and to realize that history was made — the wrong side of history was made — today,” Griggs said. “We are taking names. So I’ll see you guys again.”

After the meeting ended, Grimes said that she had a chance to speak with Tumlin Tuesday and he brought up Veterans Day, to which she again said the council had years to pass.

“We talk about equity and diversity — those are the buzzwords of today,” Grimes said. “But white America is still not ready to deal with the wrongs of history. This is a prime example of it.”

When asked what happens next, Grimes said, “we continue the advocacy.”

Griggs posted an update on his Twitter page Thursday afternoon from the Cobb NAACP asking people to contact the Marietta City Council office and demand Tumlin reevaluate his veto.

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.