Citizens gathered for the Starkville Stand Up march at Unity Park in downtown Starkville on Saturday morning. Pastor Abdurdal Lee of Peter's Rock Church addressed the crowd, highlighting the vision and mission of the event before leading the crowd in an opening unity prayer.
Following the opening remarks, the gathering began moving through downtown Starkville. A drum beat at the front of the march led the group along their route. The crowd contained people of all ages, genders, races and backgrounds with many holding signs and chanting as they marched.
After arriving at the intended destination, people began filling the space of the amphitheater on Mississippi State University's main campus. The stage was set for speakers, along with some tents set up for voter registration, census information, local organizations and refreshments. Observers and participants were encouraged to wear masks and maintain a safe distance from one another to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Student organizations also attended and worked the event. I.D.E.A.L. Woman was one group that offered refreshments and information about their organization.
Noelani Lewis, a member of I.D.E.A.L. Woman and a senior psychology major at MSU, spoke of the organization and their reason for attending.
"We are a minority-based organization here at MSU. We're student-led and our organization is composed of mainly minority women, but we accept women of all colors. It's really helping us with leadership and professionalism skills and other things like that. One of our goals is community service, so we're out today to show support," Lewis said.
Rosa Dalomba, owner of The Pop Porium and emcee of the march, opened and maintained a presence throughout the event. After the event, Dalomba discussed why she got involved.
"The fact that we just simply need to seek justice for black people—that's what got me started. The end goal of the protests is to end police brutality and systemic racism," Dalomba said.
During the event, MSU President Mark Keenum spoke to the importance of working together against racial injustice and of how proud he is of the MSU community.
"Our mission as a community, as a university, is to do all that we can to make sure that the good in our community, the good on this campus, greatly overshadows the evil in this community, and that it will choke it out. And when we see evil, we act swiftly with justice," Keenum said. "I am proud of this university and what Mississippi State stands for. I am proud of the values that we uphold, of diversity, of inclusion, of tolerance and respect for others. You matter; your lives matter."
Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill also addressed the gathering and pledged her support for fighting racial injustice.
"I am pledging to you, to be an ally, so my door at city hall is always open. My efforts will be to make sure that you feel included, that systemic racism is not something Starkville will stand for. Every one of our city employees understands that. I take that pledge. I do so now, and I will do so until the day I die," Spruill said.
Spruill then spoke about next steps following the day's events, highlighting the importance of public service.
"This is not just for today. This is for tomorrow and the rest of the days. It's got to go past today. If you have not registered to vote, you register to vote. Then, you actually get out and vote. You join committees. You get on boards. You run for election. It isn't easy, but it is the most rewarding thing you can do. Democracy is a participatory sport," Spruill said.
Following the comments from Keenum and Spruill, many other community leaders and citizens spoke about varying topics.
Alexus Milons, head of the voter registration and census committee for Starkville Stand Up, further emphasized the importance of registering to vote and making sure peoples' voices are heard.
"We're not here to tell people who to vote for or who not to vote for. But I can say this, in order for things to change in this world, we need to vote. That really counts. We need to vote this year in November," Milons said.
Starkville's NAACP Chapter President Yulanda Haddix spoke and expressed her desire for all people to work together in harmony and eliminate racism and other divisions between people. Haddix shared an inspiring piece of advice about where to start.
"Look in the mirror and make the change," Haddix said.
Morgan Gray, an MSU student and I.D.E.A.L. Woman chapter president, led the crowd in a demonstration of George Floyd's last minutes on Earth. After asking the crowd to lie face down on their stomachs, Gray read Floyd's last words and the crowd was silent for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Floyd was pinned to the ground before passing.
Madison Perkins, an attendee of the event, remarked afterwards about the emotion felt during the demonstration of Floyd's last words.
"I think all the way through, I was impacted. When I was laying on the ground, I cried. It was intense. But that's what we need, intensity, to learn. I think this was the most powerful thing I have been to, and I hope to continue to fight. All the power to all the people," Perkins said.
Pastor Joseph Horan of Starkville Community Church addressed the crowd and implored people, particularly white people, to start listening and understanding the racial differences in this country.
The Prince Sisters then gave a musical performance, a song titled "Being Born Black," while black men and women of various ages stood onstage wearing black shirts printed with titles like coach and educator. The song can be found on their YouTube channel, StateofShade.
A group of state legislators then individually addressed the crowd and offered concrete policy changes to bring an end to the ongoing injustices faced by black people in America. The policies included changing the state flag, implementing body cameras and ensuring proper usage and civilian review boards for incidents involving police.
Reverend Willie Thomas gave some history about the NAACP and its ongoing fight to end racial injustice, stressing for people to consider a membership with NAACP. Thomas endorsed Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of nonviolence.
As the final speaker of the event and the organizer of Starkville Stand Up, Jala Douglas, an MSU senior, addressed the gathering and started by thanking those who helped make the event happen.
"This would not have happened without our unity and without all of us having the vision, the same vision to end systemic oppression and police brutality against black people across the world," Douglas said. "This would not have happened if we did not all see the same possibility."
Douglas spoke of how she had the idea of creating a march in Starkville, and after reaching out to others and learning no one else had begun planning an event, took on the task herself. By partnering with Pastor Joseph Stone of Second Baptist Church in Starkville, along with a group of MSU students and community members, Douglas made the march a reality.
Leigh Hawkins, an attendee and worker of a voter registration booth, remarked about how she felt following the event.
"I was so impressed by the number of people who showed up and the diversity we had here. It was a beautiful presence, and it was so touching. Like the moment when we all laid on the ground and the length of time, just to realize the agony of what is going on. And it's not just about George Floyd. It's about all of the people," Hawkins said. "We all want to say all lives matter, but black people want to be part of the all."
After the event, Douglas remarked about next steps for those in attendance and for MSU students.
"Right now, the younger voice is who people are looking to, to find the voice of the community. Right now, there's a lot of older people in office. There's a lot of older policies still in place, and it's up to us to make those changes. It's up to us to speak out," Douglas said. "I think this generation is more vocal and more into taking action than any other generation. So I think it's up to us to make those changes."
Douglas continued, speaking of the collaboration across the community and country and of the change it will bring.
"Together with Pastor Stone, Starkville Stand Up and this entire movement, we're going to continue to make changes across the world and across cities," Douglas stated.
Stone began Starkville Stand Up in response to the recent publicized killings of black people by police and systemic racism.
"My idea was that it was time for Starkville to stand up. We want to be a model for other cities, moving forward," Stone said.
Stone knows the work ahead is difficult but key in bringing about meaningful change.
"I knew, going in, the march was going to be the easy part, but now the difficult part starts. Now, we need to do the hard work of creating meaningful and lasting change. One of the first steps is to have a real conversation on race as it relates to creating the atmosphere for police brutality," Stone said.
Stone praised Douglas's hard work and commitment throughout the process of creating the Justice March event.
"Jala Douglas, head of the student movement, is to be commended for the hard work she put into this. She had to learn on the fly a lot of things. She was flexible and remained passionate and resolute to the cause she started," Stone said. "She represents the MSU student body well. I am looking forward to what she's going to do in the future because she is going to be a great leader."
A debriefing event to discuss the Starkville Stand Up event and how to move forward will be held at Second Baptist Church on 5:30 p.m on June 14.