Marching down Main Street, R.J. Matthews pulled off his blue cloth mask and held up his left hand in the air.
“We pray, God, use this moment to give us justice, to give us change,” Matthews, lead pastor at Kingdom Vision International Church, prayed through a megaphone.
“Justice for all,” he repeatedly chanted, his voice higher and higher, veins pumping through his skin. And behind him, hundreds of demonstrators marched, prayed and chanted along.
The crowd of roughly 200 walked from Columbus Police Department to Lowndes County Courthouse as part of the “Jesus and Justice Rally” Sunday afternoon, with many holding up “Black Lives Matter” signs to protest against racial injustice.
The rally, conducted peacefully, was the latest of many in Columbus and Starkville in the wake of national outcry sparked by the death of black man George Floyd in Minneapolis after white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. More than 2,000 attended a rally in Starkville on Saturday.
For Columbus residents, the Sunday march also was a response to Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s decision March 29 to drop the manslaughter charge against Canyon Boykin, a white former police officer who shot and killed black man Ricky Ball in 2015 after Ball ran a traffic stop.
District Attorney Scott Colom, who is among the many protesters and local leaders calling for the public release of evidence in Ball’s case, said Sunday his office has received the case file and plans to release it online. The release, he said, was a result of multiple protests from the community, including one on Friday led by Columbus native David Horton in Jackson outside Fitch’s office.
“Yesterday — I’m proud to say — that she gave me the case file for the case of Ricky Ball,” Colom said Sunday. “What we are going to find out is the truth. We are going to put it on my website, we are going to let every person that wants a look at it be the all judge and jury.”
Like Colom, many city and state officials attended the Sunday march, including Mayor Robert Smith, Police Chief Fred Shelton, Lowndes County District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, State Rep. Kabir Karriem (D-Columbus) and Councilmen Joseph Mickens, Pierre Beard and Stephen Jones of Wards 2, 4 and 5 respectively. Many of them spoke out during the rally against systemic racism and pledged effort toward better policies.
“Regardless of what happened, we will still follow the process and we will seek the truth,” Shelton told The Dispatch. “What I would like to see for this department is an effective, efficient and cooperative police department.”
The protest, themed around prayers and proclamations of the Gospel, aims to appeal for racial justice and draw wisdom from God’s word, Matthews told The Dispatch.
“Let’s connect and unite around the heart of Jesus for justice,” he said. “It’s not Jesus or justice; it’s Jesus and justice, because Jesus is for justice.”
Finding strength in faith
Stephanie Williams said she brought her two sons to the march to educate them about racism. Her 12-year-old son, Jayden Williams, was holding up a sign that read “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” at the rally.
“I feel mad,” Jayden said, “because they are doing things wrong by killing, by arresting for no reason and by not giving them the respect that we need.”
“You think our ancestors fought for an equal (society), and seeing the way it’s going now is heartbreaking, it’s scary,” Stephanie said. “All we want is justice and for all of this to stop.”
To protest peacefully, Stephanie said, is something she wants her sons to learn from.
“I hate that they are seeing (the violence), and I want them to be beyond this, I want them to grow from this,” she said. “Jesus doesn’t stand with violence. He was peaceful.”
Michael Carr, of West Point, said he turns to God for strength whenever he is hurt by racism in society. Lining up at the head of the marching crowd, he carried a wooden cross almost twice his height.
“It hurts to the heart, it’s painful, hard to see,” Carr said of the recent violence against blacks. “It just made me feel more and more focused on God.”
The rally was spurred by the pain felt within the black community for hundreds of years, said Orlando Richmond, lead pastor at Northside Christian Church in West Point.
“For just over 400 years, we have been in this situation in America, and make no mistake about it — it emanated from slavery,” Richmond said. “This is a longstanding problem and the time to end it is right now.”
Referencing the story of Nehemiah in the Bible and his efforts to repair the broken walls of Jerusalem, Richmond urged sustained actions against racism and called for systemic changes from the leadership.
“We will not come down off that wall,” he said. “I suspect that there will be training initiatives, policies put in place. This is not simply about a police chokehold. Hearts and minds must change.”
Leadership speaks up
Colom, Smith and Karriem, all of whom have publicly condemned the timing and method of Fitch’s decision to dismiss the Ball case, all participated in the rally. Following in Colom’s footsteps, Smith and Karriem both criticized Fitch on their social media last week for dropping the charges days after Floyd’s death and urged for an explanation for the dismissal.
Calling for community involvement, Colom encouraged citizens to participate in a town hall meeting surrounding the use of police force at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, which can be accessed online at facebook.com/CityofColumbusMS/.
“We can’t allow people to be young and black, and that’s all it takes to be a threat, not anymore,” he said. “We are going to let you all be a part of the conversation.”
Mickens, who marched at the head of the crowd, also compared Ball’s death to that of George Floyd.
“Floyd’s death was a wake-up for the country. His murder was a tragedy,” he said. “Ricky Ball happened on my watch. We pray that we will have no more cases like this.”
Smith, who voiced support for peaceful protests while speaking at Sunday’s event, encouraged more such protests to follow in the next month.
“Let’s keep it going,” Smith said. “I encourage all our pastors and leaders, black and white, for the next month, let’s continue to have rallies and protests for unity in the city of Columbus, Mississippi.”
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.