Nearly 100 attend local 'Black Lives Matter' rally

By CLAY MCFERRIN,

Racism.

Social injustice.

Police brutality.

Those were some of the recurring themes during Friday evening’s Black Lives Matter rally and equality march in Charleston.

Organized by Charlestonians Jasmine Reed and LaNisa Roberson, both in their 20s, the event drew a crowd of almost 100 to the east side of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse for the 6 p.m. start of an outdoor rally.

A formal program with a half-dozen speakers lasted about 24 minutes, followed by a walk of seven-tenths of a mile that began and ended at the courthouse, capping the roughly 45-minute affair.

The crowd of almost 100 were offered complimentary face masks, hand sanitizer and cold bottled water on the humid last day of spring and on a date, June 19, that is also observed across the nation as “Juneteenth.”

The annual observance commemorates the date in 1865 that President Abraham Lincoln’s order to free all American slaves finally reached Galveston, Texas.

Although “happy Juneteenth” was voiced during Friday’s program, participants left no doubt that their focus was on modern issues.

“The sole purpose of this [event] is to shed a light on the value and the importance of Black lives,” Reed said in opening remarks.

Jamal Brock’s opening prayer sought God’s blessings “upon every part” of the program, an infusion of God’s love and peace, and a strengthening spirit of unity.

Charleston Mayor Sedrick Smith, alluding to perhaps the single most unifying incident for the Black Lives Matter movement — the May 25 killing of African American George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota — spoke about efforts to maintain a just police department in Charleston.

“Chief [Justin] Gammage and I have worked diligently to instill a code of conduct in our police department so that we don’t have an issue here in Charleston as they do in the Minnesota area,” said Smith.

He encouraged anyone having a complaint about police to air their grievance at a city board meeting, or  to contact him, the chief or city commissioners directly.

“We’re here to support, we’re here to help,” Smith added. “We don’t want what’s going on in other towns, other cities, to happen here in Charleston.”

— * —

Tallahatchie County Sheriff Jimmy Fly, flanked by several deputies, told the crowd that he and his department “support what’s going on” locally to draw more attention to the fact that law enforcement should treat everyone fairly and with respect.

“I tell all the deputies — everybody — treat other people as you want to be treated,” said Fly.  “That’s the main thing.”

The sheriff then prayed and led the crowd in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

— * —
Kelton Holman, who, like Reed, is a 2016 Charleston High School graduate, spoke to onlookers about racism and the racist behavior of some in law enforcement.

“There’s a generational disease that’s been affecting our community of African Americans, and I’m not talking about sickle cell.  This disease is called racism,” began Holman.  “Being here today doesn’t make me happy at all.  Being here today is proof that a change is in desperate need. 

“Being here is proof that people don’t see my color for good; they see it as a threat,” he continued. “In the past five months, we’ve seen countless unlawful killings of Black people.  We’ve seen people shot while jogging. We’ve seen people cry, ‘I can’t breathe.’  We’ve seen people shot inside their houses, eight times.  I’m tired and my heart hurts. I’m tired as I wonder from day to day, will I be next? Or will one of my loved ones be next?”

Holman named several nationally publicized cases of African Americans who have wrongly died at the hands of law enforcement, and he asked for a moment of silence to respect their memory.

“It may not have happened to our community. It may not have been our family members. But that doesn’t mean that we desensitize ourselves from this issue,” he noted.  “It means ... that we go out and vote and that we go out and march and that we go out and we speak.  It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, it doesn’t matter if you’re white, it doesn’t matter if you’re Latino or who you are. You still have a voice, and you should always be voicing for the voiceless.”

Holman said people of all races are needed to stand up and speak out.

“So, today, if you are a person that is not Black, I want you to use your voice and really speak up for us,” he said.  “We can’t fix this problem that we did not create.  We need your help.”

— * —
Calvin Stewart, a classmate of Holman and Reed who went on to graduate from Harvard, lamented the danger of being a Black person in the United States.

He recounted several widely reported race-related murders — Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Philando Castile in Missouri.

“Whichever of the numerous tragic examples we imagine, the point is this: These events could just as well happen to you, or to me, or to your sister, your brother or your child, or anyone who shares in the collective struggle of being Black in America,” said Stewart.

“Regardless of whether you come from New York City or Charleston, Mississippi, regardless of whether you have a GED or a Ph.D., as a Black person there is nothing that can guarantee you won’t find yourselves as the next person on the news,” he continued. “When you come to this realization for yourself, and the reality of how little the justice system cares for your life really hits you, it can be a painful thing. It can leave you to wonder if you will ever see a day where things will truly change in the way that Martin Luther King envisioned.”

Stewart said “watered-down” accounts of King’s teachings suggest that he thought “everything would be better if only we could stop seeing color and hold hands on a hilltop.”

But Stewart countered, “I don’t want the world to stop seeing my color. I want the world to accept me as the Black man that I am and assign value to my life.”

Stewart said there are numerous ways to combat the way that Black people are treated by police officers who abuse their power.

“Maybe your answer is to spread information about the racism embedded within our legal system, informing others of how Black people systematically receive worse punishments for the same crimes that others commit — whether it be harsher prison sentences or being killed during a traffic stop,” he said.

“Maybe your answer is to organize a local protest, providing a platform for your community to say, ‘We see what is happening and we refuse to remain quiet,’” Stewart continued.  “Maybe your answer is to donate to causes such as the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, which seeks to protect the civil rights of Black people in this country.

“Or maybe your answer is to simply continue to exist as a Black person in this country to find all odds set against you and refusing to let your spirit break,” Stewart added.  “In this way, we can carry on the legacy of activism left behind by the MLKs, the Malcolm Xs, the Angela Davises of previous generations, and we can continue the fight to change this country into one where Black lives truly matter.”

— * —
LaNisa Roberson, a teacher at Charleston Middle School, said she and Reed organized last week’s event to focus on equality.

“We’re here because we want to take a stand, because we want everyone to know we want equality,” she noted.  “We don’t hate anyone else. We don’t hate whites, we don’t hate Latinos, we don’t hate Chinese, we don’t hate anyone.  We just want to be equal ourselves, because our lives matter just as well as anyone else.”

Roberson said peaceful rallies and protest gatherings, such as Friday’s in Charleston and many others in cities and towns throughout the state and around the country, are designed to convey the same message.

“It’s not because we want to just care about Black lives matter and none of the other lives matter, because everybody’s life matters,” she noted.   “But everybody’s life cannot matter if you don’t care about the Black lives that are here today.

“So this is why we’re doing this,” Roberson continued.  “We want everyone, especially in this community, to come together and have a voice, speak for your people, speak for other people that can’t say anything or won’t say anything because they’re too afraid to stand up for themselves.”

— * —
Prior to the start of the march, Reed taught the crowd some chants that they would recite while walking, including some in call-and-response fashion.

 

“When I say ‘black lives,’ you say ‘matter,’” she said.

“Another is ‘2, 4, 6, 8, stop the violence, stop the hate.”

“No justice, no peace” was one more taught by Reed, as was, “When I say ‘Emmett,’ you say ‘Till.’”


IN THE PHOTO: Calvin Stewart carries the thematic “Black Lives Matter” banner during an equality march Friday evening in Charleston. About 60 people walked the seven-tenths of a mile route that began and ended on the east side of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse.  (Photo by Clay McFerrin)