A crowd of 500 people gathered under an expansive blue sky at the base of a rusty bridge that crosses the Intracoastal Waterway in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, on June 12.
Most wore black T-shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” and carried signs echoing the words and names of Black Americans whose deaths have prompted protests nationwide: George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.
Marva Trufant, 74, was determined to walk across the bridge despite the 90-degree heat.
Her family was worried about her. She had not felt comfortable going out to walk a mile a day as she had done before the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone indoors in late March.
She was nervous about being around a large crowd of people for the first time in months.
“But I had to push that aside. We were there for something bigger, something more important. I was at least going to walk that bridge,” said Trufant, who has worked as a civil rights activist in Plaquemines Parish since the early 1980s.
June 12 marked the first time Belle Chasse, a city of about 13,000, ever organized a large protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to organizers. The march came in the wake of continuous nationwide protests that erupted in the aftermath of the death of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
While the national lens has been largely trained on bigger cities, protests in small towns and cities across the South have stirred up long-silenced conversations on racial justice in these communities.
The U.S. South, the heart of where the civil rights movement began, is home to the largest population of Black Americans in the country. People who identify as Black make up about 55% of the population, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. A total of 105 Southern counties have a Black population of 50% or higher.
As protests in support of Black Lives Matter spread from vast metropolitan areas to smaller cities and towns, communities across this region have been forced to face their past and debate the best steps forward for all residents.
It has stoked fear among some members of these communities, including those who threatened to disrupt protests in Belle Chasse and Chalmette, Louisiana. It has compelled longtime activists like Trufant in Belle Chasse and Lorraine Bates, 70, in Petal, Mississippi, to march once again.
A new generation of organizers, some just teenagers and others well into adulthood, has been inspired to march and organize for the first time. Names like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor being called out like a mantra across America are echoed in these communities — but other names are recited as well.
Marc Davis, who died after he was shot by a police officer in Petal, Mississippi, in 2017.
Nimali Henry, who died after she was denied medication for a blood disorder while she was in custody at the St. Bernard Parish Jail in 2014 in southeast Louisiana.
In a matter of weeks, the protests have already yielded change in rural corners of the South.
One needs to look no further than St. Landry Parish, just north of Lafayette, Louisiana, where 42% of the 82,000 residents are Black. In early June, a St. Landry Parish sheriff’s deputy was fired after posting an offensive meme on Facebook about Minneapolis protesters. St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said the post violated the department’s social media policy.
“Conversations are being had that people refused to have,” Belle Chasse resident Candice Dinet said as she marched June 12 with about 500 neighbors and family members. “It’s all coming up to the surface, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”
Belle Chasse, La.: ‘Protests have woken a lot of folks up’
“There are people in Belle Chasse that believe everything is fine here,” said Abby Taylor, a Belle Chasse resident and one of the organizers of the June 12 march.
“I was getting word from police, and they thought we wouldn’t bring even 25 people to the march. They think there isn’t a problem here,” Taylor said. “Well, there are at least 400 to 500 problems in our community, because everyone there had a story to share.”
The crowd of mostly Black residents marched over the bridge and back toward the city through a tunnel that crosses under the waterway that separates Plaquemines Parish from neighboring Jefferson Parish. Police barricades were set up along a 2-mile stretch of commercial corridor. Some businesses by the bridge boarded up windows with plywood ahead of the march.
The barricades were symbolic for Taylor.
“It felt like we were being confined,” she said. “Sheriff’s deputies were walking all around us through the march like we were prisoners. In my mind that was a subliminal message: ‘We are still in control of you.’ “
Longtime activist Trufant’s goal was to walk the bridge. More commonly known as the Belle Chasse bridge, it was officially named after Leander Perez, the staunch segregationist who ran the parish from 1919 until his death in 1969. Trufant remembers having to walk to school as a child because school buses weren’t provided for Black children in the parish at the time. Under Perez’s leadership, schools were not desegregated until 1967.
“I want the name of that bridge changed. Let it be the Belle Chasse bridge,” Trufant said. “Once I got up there, I was angry. I had a weird feeling. I felt like I was walking on him.”
Prattville, Ala.: ‘We need to take care of one another’
Earnest prayers for forgiveness and unity and trust and love echoed through downtown Prattville, Alabama, the morning of June 5.
About 200 people gathered by City Hall as pastors from nine local churches and others offered prayers amid widespread civil unrest gripping the nation.
Mayor Bill Gillespie Jr. announced the vigil a few nights before at a city council meeting.
“We need prayer, and we need to take care of one another,” he said then. “The only way we are going to get through this is by taking care of one another.”
Prattville is a city of about 40,000, just 10 minutes north of the capital city of Montgomery. Census figures show it is about 76% white and 19% Black. It is the county seat of Autauga County, a conservative bastion, where 73% of the vote went to President Donald Trump in 2016.
Ministers who took part were evenly split, representing predominantly white and Black churches. There were pastors from high steeple churches with congregations in the thousands and ministers from smaller churches.
The gathering quickly took on the spirit of a church service, complete with hand-held paper fans. Some went to their knees on the lawn of City Hall.
After the vigil ended, dozens of people lingered. Social distancing was put on hold as hugs were given and cheeks were kissed.
“We needed this,” Bree Carter said. “Prattville always comes together when things get tough.”
Petal, Miss.: Mayor faces calls for his resignation
Lorraine Bates, 70, doesn’t have a vehicle.
Since May 28, she has walked a daily slow mile from her home to call for the resignation of Petal Mayor Hal Marx.
Protests began in Petal, Mississippi, last month after Marx made comments on social media about Floyd’s death.
Bates is not new to activism. She began when she was 13 during the civil rights movement. She has become iconic locally, showing up to protests wearing chains around her hands, a noose around her neck and a white cloak with the words “Black Lives Matter” and “Mama I Can’t Breathe” written on the billowing cloth.
She brought a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a 1968 copy of a Life magazine cover of Coretta Scott King with her to a City Hall meeting.
“I needed them today,” she said.
Protests in the wake of Floyd’s death have rippled this quiet town, known locally as the “Friendly City” as well as the “safest city in Mississippi,” according to several online polls.
It’s the type of place where family picnics and spring baseball games are the norm. It’s a small city, made up of about 11,000 residents, of whom about 85% identify as white, according to U.S. census data from 2010.
Petal is home to former Mississippi White Knights Imperial Wizard Richard Greene and is located in Forrest County, which was named after Confederate Army Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The protests in Petal have been relatively peaceful. While no public opposition to the protests has been voiced, some community members have been outspoken about their feelings, offering support for the beleaguered mayor. Members of the Citizens Militia of Mississippi recently attended at least one rally in Petal but did not interfere with the protests. Some of the group’s members were armed with guns and batons, but the weapons were never drawn.
Citizens Militia of Mississippi members declined to comment, but said they came to the rally only to observe.
The protest, and others that followed, continued peacefully and without further incident.
Protesters also called out Marx for taking no action on the death of 34-year-old Marc Davis of LaPlace, Louisiana, who was shot to death by Petal police officer Aaron Jernigan in June 2017.
Davis had been involved in a car wreck and was filing a report with Jernigan when an altercation allegedly broke out between the two men.
An investigation led by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation determined there was no wrongdoing involved in Davis’ death.
Davis’ mother, Catherine Davis, attended protests in Petal and Jackson to raise awareness of her son’s death and ask Attorney General Lynn Fitch to reopen the case.
“I feel like I have to humanize my child,” she said. “I’m going to tell you how real my child was. How he mattered. Marc was a family man, a Black man. Marc had the biggest laugh, the biggest smile.”
Chalmette, La.: ‘An everybody versus racism thing’
A demonstration against police brutality and racial injustice in Chalmette, Louisiana, on June 6 was the first of its kind, drawing support and opposition ahead of it, according to organizers.
Ahead of the rally Leandre “Lax” Shaw, 22, had seen rumors of looters and antifa invading Chalmette spreading through social media. It was enough to keep some from participating.
“There is a lot of racial tension in St. Bernard Parish. The type of response we got from the community was that it was a Black versus white thing, and I had to say it was an everybody versus racism thing,” Shaw said.
The threats weren’t enough to keep more than 300 people from gathering at the Sidney D. Torres Memorial Park in Chalmette, a small city of about 17,000 residents. Although still home to a predominantly white population, St. Bernard Parish has quickly become more diverse in recent years with a growing Hispanic and Black population.
Chris Dier, a history teacher at Chalmette High School, marched with his father.
Dier noticed that the group was also marching right past a spot where the KKK once frequently held its rallies.
His father once told him about riding his bike past the civic center in 1977 and seeing white hoods and burning crosses outside.
“It felt like poetic justice that they picked this spot to hold the first Black Lives Matter rally,” Dier said. “… I think it’s incredibly powerful to have that space actually be reclaimed for a more noble cause.”
He grew up in St. Bernard Parish, a community east of New Orleans surrounded by water and home to about 47,000 people. It was the site of the 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre where between 35 and 130 freed black people were killed by white residents ahead of a presidential election.
Dier wrote a book about the massacre.
“I grew up here and had never heard about it until I started researching the history of the parish,” he said. “When I came across it, I was astounded that this was not common knowledge for people in the parish or Louisiana or the United States.”
Middle and West Tennessee: ‘Change begins right here’
It was a tale of two protests on June 14 in Ashland City, a town of about 4,500 in Middle Tennessee, where dozens gathered to be heard.
In front of the county courthouse, the first group carried signs with messages including: “Hillbilly’s for Black Lives,” “Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie,” and “The system isn’t broken, it was built that way.”
Jim Brooks, donning a mask amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and holding onto a “Black Lives Matter” sign, said he was there to “stand up for what is right” and join others in expressing concerns.
“I hate to see (this) level of anger,” he added.
Some of that anger was across the street, where a second group countered with “All Lives Matter,” while waving American and Confederate flags.
In nearby Dickson, a city of 15,500, leaders with the city, police, NAACP and chamber of commerce worked together to organize a peace rally on June 7.
Brandon Williams, who grew up nearby and helped organize the rally, said change required stepping out of comfort zones.
“I think it comes down to cultural differences. It comes down to experiencing new people, experiencing new things,” Williams said.
Williams asked everyone in attendance to say hello to a person they’ve never met. Watching as members of the crowd turned to one another, smiling and talking, Williams said that moment was maybe the most impressive of the rally.
“Seeing everyone talking with each other. Seeing everyone putting aside their differences. That’s what we need now,” Williams said.
Protests reached some of the smallest of cities, including Humboldt, population 8,200, in West Tennessee.
Dozens of people gathered in the town’s Viking Park for a rally titled “Enough is Enough: Let Us Breathe.”
Fort Smith, Ark.: ‘We may be small, but we’re mighty’
Isaac Haynes led a candlelit vigil in Fort Smith, Arkansas, last month, reading out the ages of Black men killed by police in the United States.
“46. 12. 17. 26. 22. 32.”
The vigil held in the aftermath of Floyd’s death drew scores of community members, public officials and police officers. It was the first of several actions that took place in the city starting May 29.
Fort Smith police have generally been well received at recent Black Lives Matter protests throughout the city since Floyd’s death.
Police at the protests have ensured the demonstrations take “a peaceful course” of action while also providing safety for demonstrators.
But while local officials showed their support of the vigil and released public statements condemning the actions that led to Floyd’s death, several community members spoke out about their wariness of police in general.
Deondre Phillips said he has concerns “every day” about his and other Black residents’ interactions with police officers.
“I trust the people in Fort Smith. I feel like it’s a very safe place, but you still have to look over your shoulder every now and then,” he said.
“This is a very sad time because I have young Black men as sons,” said Larry Bedell.
However, Haynes said he was “sadly” thankful the Floyd video surfaced. Bedell agreed.
“What’s so beautiful about it is it didn’t make me mad, it made everybody mad. We’ve got every color out here right now,” he said. “We may be small, but we’re mighty.”
USA TODAY Network reporters Maria Clark, Marty Roney, Lici Beveridge, Andrew Yawn, Todd A. Price, Ashley White, Cam Bonelli, Max Bryan, Kelly Fisher, Lasherica Thornton and Chris Gadd contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on The American South: Black Lives Matter protests prompt Southern towns to face their pasts