Organizers predicted at least a few hundred people would show up for Saturday’s racial justice march and rally in Starkville. The actual turnout topped 2,000.
Protestors, diverse in age and race, gathered at Unity Park at 10 a.m., most of them carrying signs and wearing protective face masks to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. Many signs read “Black Lives Matter” or listed names of black Americans killed by police, while other signs read “Make racism bad again,” “Solidarity creates policy” and “See color, just don’t use it as a weapon.”
“I see diversity, I see and feel love, (I see) people who are genuinely concerned about black lives, but more importantly, where this nation is heading,” said Angel Christian, a black woman carrying a sign that read, “We are all one. Vote for peace.”
“Not that anyone can see my smile with a mask on,” Christian added.
The event and the newly formed activist group that organized it, Starkville Stand Up, aimed to stand against systemic racism and police brutality — the “knee on our necks,” State Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville) said at the rally, in reference to the death of George Floyd on May 25 at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.
All 50 states have seen protests since a video of Floyd’s death went viral and reignited the Black Lives Matter movement. Organizers in Columbus held two protests last week and will hold a third today, in light of the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office dismissal of the manslaughter charge against the white former police officer who shot and killed a black man, Ricky Ball, in Columbus in 2015.
Ashley Swift, a black woman who recently moved to Starkville from Omaha, Nebraska, held a sign that said “Do all lives really matter if you prioritize property over people?” — a reference to some protests across the nation resulting in destruction of property by rioters.
Starkville’s march and rally on Saturday was peaceful.
“I’m glad there’s a variety of people here,” Swift said. “There are people in Greek letters; there are people with children; there are whole families here to support the cause. I’m seeing people that are starting to recognize and understand their privilege and how they can use it to advocate for us, when our voices are continually silenced.”
The marchers headed east on Main Street and University Drive, across Highway 12 into the Mississippi State University campus, past several Greek fraternity houses. They chanted “No justice, no peace,” “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “Get your knee off my neck.”
As the crowd crossed North Montgomery Street, Anne Stelioes-Wills and her 10-year-old daughter, Lucy, held up signs made from pizza boxes as they marched and chanted.
Stelioes-Wills said her 17-year-old son, Leander, convinced their white family of five to participate in the march. Leander told The Dispatch he already held suspicion toward police after hearing stories about them “killing people and basically getting away with it with a slap on the wrist,” but the news of George Floyd’s death hit him particularly hard.
“It kind of awakened something in me and made me realize we’ve just got to do something,” he said. “This is too messed up.”
‘This is about right and wrong’
Tents and socially distanced chairs awaited the crowd on the lawn of the MSU Amphitheatre, where a long lineup of speakers ranging from students to religious leaders took the stage for an hour and a half. Rosa Dalomba, owner of The Pop Porium and one of the event organizers, served as emcee.
“This is a puzzle,” Dalomba said. “I know it’s overwhelming when you think you, individually, have to finish the puzzle because you cannot help it, because we live it every day. But (elected officials) hold the piece of the puzzle that is our voice when we are not in the room to have one.”
MSU student Jala Douglas, who rallied about 180 fellow students to participate in the event, recounted some of her personal experiences as a black woman.
“I’ve been kicked out of rooms because of what I look like, because people find offense to the aggression in my voice,” Douglas said. “I need y’all to understand that I have never changed my voice, and I don’t want y’all to do that either.”
Morgan Gray, another MSU student, read George Floyd’s last words — many of which were “I can’t breathe” — while protesters laid on their stomachs on the ground.
A common refrain from all the speakers was that the event would mark the beginning, not the end, of racial justice advocacy in Starkville and Oktibbeha County.
Mayor Lynn Spruill said she had “never, ever been as proud of Starkville and Mississippi State” as she was at that moment, and she promised to be an ally to Starkville’s black community.
“I was asked to be a force of change, to listen — we are listening; to stand up — I am standing up; to take a knee if I need to, and I’ll take a knee,” Spruill said.
MSU President Mark Keenum also offered a message of solidarity.
“Your lives matter,” Keenum said. “You and us and all of us have the right to live our lives with dignity and respect.”
Rep. Taylor brought with him a contingent of elected state officials representing Lowndes, Monroe and Oktibbeha counties — Democratic District Attorney Scott Colom, Rep. Kabir Karriem (D-Columbus), Rep. Rickey Thompson (D-Shannon) and Rep. Dana McLean (R-Columbus).
McLean, a freshman legislator elected in November, emphasized that racial justice should not be a partisan issue.
“This is about good and evil; this is about right and wrong,” she said. “I couldn’t sit at home. I had to be out here with you because I wanted you to know that I hear you and that you’re my brothers and sisters.”
The rally ended shortly after 12:30 p.m. to choruses of “This Little Light of Mine,” and buses waited to take the protesters back to downtown Starkville.
Nelson Jordan, a black native of Starkville who attends college in Birmingham, Alabama, said he appreciated the diversity of the crowd and the involvement of so many local religious leaders.
“If we keep God first in our lives, we won’t only see that black lives matter, but we’ll see that once black lives matter, all lives will matter,” Jordan said.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.