D’Laun Ball thought maybe 100 people would show up to the march he organized 12 days after George Floyd was killed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
Instead, at least 800 people came to Jones Park and marched down U.S. 90 for nearly an hour through a gray drizzle.
It was one of countless protests in South Mississippi in the weeks and months after George Floyd was killed. From Ocean Springs to Picayune, from Biloxi to Petal, demonstrators gathered to call for an end to police brutality and racism against Black Americans.
For Jonathan Curry, who attended Ball’s June 6 protest and a half-dozen others in 2020, these demonstrations showed more people on the Coast than he had thought were eager to see a more just America.
“I would say that if 2020 hadn’t have happened, I wouldn’t have so much love for my city,” he said.
In 2021, Coast racial justice activists pledge to continue the work that became highly visible in 2020:
- In Gulfport, activists will continue to demand the removal of the Confederate monument from outside the Harrison County Courthouse.
- In Jackson, activists will seek to get prison reform enacted.
- Around the state, they say they’ll work to address community needs through forums and food drives.
“A march does not solve anything,” Ball said. “It is the meeting that is set up because the march brought attention to the problem. We as activists need a better follow up game. This year I would like to see us act on that.”
Here’s a look at what happened in the past year and what activists hope to accomplish next.
Symbols of the Confederacy
2020: To Lea Campbell, founder of the progressive Mississippi Rising Coalition, the highest high of 2020 came on Sunday, June 28, when the state House and Senate voted to to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. She was sitting in the Senate gallery with fellow activists.
“When that final vote was cast, I was really overwhelmed with emotion, knowing not only how much commitment and work that we had put into it, but all of hose who had come before us for years and years and years to make that a reality, that moment,” she said.
The flag was far from the only Confederate symbol to come down in Mississippi. On the Coast, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College campus formerly named Jefferson Davis became the Gulfport campus in July.
In late November, Biloxi’s Jefferson Davis Elementary became Back Bay Elementary.
2021: On Monday, the state House voted 119-1 to ratify the new flag. Gov. Tate Reeves are expected to approve the new design this week.
On Wednesday, the day the state Senate voted for the new flag, an unidentified supporter of President Donald Trump carried a Confederate battle flag into the U.S. Capitol. He was one of dozens of rioters who disrupted Congressional certification of Vice President Joe Biden’s victory in the November presidential election.
Gulfport’s Confederate monument stands
2020: Ten county boards of supervisors have held votes on whether to remove their Confederate monuments. Five, all but one of which is majority-Black, chose to move their monuments. Five, all of which are majority-white, chose to keep their monuments in place.
In December, Harrison County voted to leave its monument in place. The vote was an unusual 2-2 split, because Supervisor Connie Rocko was absent. Neither Rebecca Powers nor Marlin Ladner, who voted to leave it up, said anything at the meeting to explain their thinking.
The Harrison County residents who held two protests at the monument in June and September pledged to keep up the effort to get it taken down.
Jeffrey Hulum III, the Gulfport nonprofit leader and community advocate who organized the protests, said the board’s decision represented “racism at its core.” But he pointed out it was also a victory that the board voted on the issue at all; for months, they had resisted voting on the grounds that they hadn’t yet found “a more suitable location” for the monument, as state law requires.
2021: He plans to keep up the pressure on the board and consider additional paths, like legal action, to seek the monument’s removal.
“We’ll just keep going,” he said.
2020: At the September protest, supporters of the monument as well as members of the white nationalist militia group the Southern Defense Force showed up to face off against the protesters. The militia members surrounded the protesters and even took up a position on the second-floor parking garage, looking down at the monument.
With members of each group carrying guns and no police present, Curry said he wondered, “Am I going to get shot?”
Attendees were frustrated Gulfport police had no presence at the protest. Spokesman Sgt. Jason DuCré said the police department didn’t know it was happening.
2021: With Confederate monuments still standing in communities across Mississippi, and activists determined to protest for their removal, 2021 could bring similar scenes of emotion and potential violence.
Campbell said Mississippi Rising will continue supporting local activists who want to advocate the removal of Confederate monuments, including through protests.
“I would expect that these groups [right-wing militias] would continue to show up to try to protect the monuments,” she said.
Addressing systemic issues
2020: The day before the Legislature’s final vote on the Confederate emblem, a group of college students organized a march through a North Gulfport neighborhood they said has suffered the effects of systemic racism, including inadequate housing, poor access to good jobs, and excessive policing.
Organizer Bobby Hudson, a Gulfport native who is now a sophomore at the University of Mississippi, kept working after that protest. He coordinated a series of dialogues with residents in predominately Black neighborhoods to better understand the issues they faced and how policy change could help.
Two issues stood out, Hudson said: a lack of affordable housing and inadequate resources for education.
2021: He plans to continue those conversations with community members and advocate local leaders for changes.
Hudson said he felt that in 2020 more white Americans than ever before had seen, through high-profile incidents of police brutality and the inequities of the COVID-19 pandemic, that “racism is alive and fighting.”
“I think as a result of all of these protests… people saw it as a time of reconciliation,” he said. “It’s time to start looking at what those core problems are, and tilling that fallow ground and dealing with those issues at its core.”
Voter registration and prison reform
2020: In the fall, local organizers also emphasized voter registration and in-person absentee voting for those eligible. Thanks to their work, Harrison County registered 3,313 new voters in the last month of registration this year, compared to 1,122 in 2016.
2021: Hulum said he plans to continue voter registration efforts with a focus on local races in 2021.
“I reflect upon 2020 as steps in the right direction, and going into 2021, we know where our elected officials are standing, and it’s time for us to vote these people out and put people who are gonna have all people’s interest at the forefront of their minds, just not a select few,” Hulum said.
One policy issue on the agenda in the statehouse this year: prison reform. In July, Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have made 2,000 Mississippi prisoners eligible for parole.
Campbell said progressive activists will be lobbying state legislators to pass reform legislation that will make it past Reeves’ desk.
Mutual aid and community assistance
2020: As activists were marching against racial injustice and police brutality, the coronavirus pandemic was also destroying the health and livelihoods of thousands of Mississippians. In a state with one of the highest rates of uninsured people, some COVID-19 victims put off seeking care because they didn’t couldn’t afford health insurance.
In one of the hungriest states in the country, food insecurity rose further, leaving an estimated 24% of Mississippians unsure where their next meal would come from.
These trends disproportionately affected Black Mississippians, 30.5% of whom are poor, compared to 11.7% of white Mississippians.
In response, activists organized food drives and giveaways in Black neighborhoods. Mississippi Rising launched a mutual aid network that pooled volunteers’ time and resources to distribute supplies and food to people around the state.
One project was a partnership with Dennis Dahmer, who runs a small farm at his family home. His father, civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer, was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan at the home in 1966. In 2020, volunteers harvested Dennis Dahmer’s okra crop and sent it to hungry families and college students.
2021: Campbell said the organization hopes to scale up its mutual aid work in 2021.
Ball is planning an event called Decompression for Depression, to give people a chance to talk about the effects of gun violence and other social issues affecting mental health.
“I look around Gulfport and see a major issue that people aren’t paying much attention to,” Ball said. “Our gun violence numbers over this last year were extremely high. I have buried five of my friends this year. I believe if you were to give people a place to speak and a place where they don’t have to feel as if they’re alone, maybe some of these things can be avoided.”
“I don’t feel social justice stops at a march,” he added.
Reginald Virgil, president of the nonprofit group Black Lives Matter Mississippi, spent Christmas giving away food and toys in a predominately Black neighborhood in Hattiesburg.
“People in Hattiesburg will say, ‘Where’s Black Lives Matter when other Black people do stuff to Black people? Where are y’all then?’ We hear that a lot,” Virgil said.
His response is that his organization is involved in the community and helping to meet people’s basic needs through events like the Christmas giveaway.
“We can sit here all day and all night and protest ‘til we’re blue in the face, and nothing is done because over here in the community… they don’t have enough to eat. They don’t have clothes for their children, especially because of the pandemic,” he said.
“If you supply people with their basic needs hopefully you gain trust, but more importantly you can help them get out of the system that they’re in.”