LUCEDALE, MS (WLOX) - A few conversations, a quick prayer and they were off. An entire community marched down Hwy 26 in Lucedale Saturday afternoon in remembrance of their high school football hero, Billey Joe Johnson, Jr.
"Today is my baby's 18th birthday," said Annette Johnson, Billey Joe's mother. "And even though he's not here to share it with us, we are marching to show him that we love him."
A huge crowd turned out for the march.
"Everybody in the county knows the Johnson family," said Marie Hall. "Everybody knows Billey Joe. He was of course a star football player in the community and everybody looked up to him, as an athlete."
The group filled the highway from start to finish, from the scene of Billey Joe Johnson's death at Benndale Carpets, all the way to the George County Courthouse in the center of Lucedale. Johnson's parents led the way, as the crowd clapped, sang and remembered Johnson.
For many of them, Saturday's march was more than a birthday celebration. Johnson's mysterious traffic stop death back in December caused a deep racial divide in George County. A grand jury decided in February that Johnson accidentally shot himself with his own gun after being pulled over by a Sheriff's Deputy in December. The decision outraged many people, and many of them said their sentiment hasn't faded in past months.
"It just doesn't seem like a person who knows how to use a shotgun would shoot himself," said Ernest Jack, who walked in Saturday's march.
Johnson's family, as well as several other local organizations, have pledged to navigate other parts of the legal system in search of more answers.
"I think there's definitely justice to be served," said Hall.
For them, Saturday's walk was a peaceful demonstration that Billey Joe Johnson, Jr.'s case is still fresh in their minds and heavy on their hearts.
"Nobody's forgotten about it," said Hall. "They may stop talking about it, but they haven't forgotten about it."
Members of state NAACP chapters helped organize the event, including Vernon Mangum, First Vice President of Biloxi's NAACP.
"We're working for justice for everyone," Mangum said. "That's the biggest reason."
Jackson County NAACP President Curley Clark agreed.
"I think that the community is still not in total agreement with the outcome of the grand jury's findings, and they feel like the family needs some additional support," Clark said. "And we're here today to support the efforts of the local George County NAACP in ensuring the family that they don't stand alone in this process."
The Johnson family received the love and support with gratitude.
"I just want to thank each and every one of you for being here and showing your support and your love on the day of my son's birthday," said Annette Johnson to the crowd gathered in front of the George County Courthouse.
The service ended with a candlelight vigil on the Courthouse lawn.