A crowd gathered at Columbia’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park Sunday, many dressed in their Sunday best. More than 2,000 people came to carry on the legacy of the man whose name the park bears, and all the others who have fought for his dream of peace and equality.
The Million Man March of South Carolina was organized by local activists led by Leo “CMetro” Jones. While it shared the name of the 1995 event called by Louis Farrakhan, the leaders of the Columbia edition said theirs had no direct affiliation with the Nation of Islam. On the event Facebook page, they added “We encourage all persons to participate in the spirit of what the Million Man March represents to their respective minds, bodies and soul.”
The crowd marched from the park in Five Points to the State House, a 1.4 mile journey including a steep climb in the heat. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook, and numerous uniformed officers and deputies marched arm in arm with the protesters, with Lott taking a turn carrying a flag at the front of the group. Volunteers designated as “Vision Walkers” kept the group organized along the way.
The speakers at the rally following the march included Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who took note of the dedication of such a large crowd.
“I will tell you at first I doubted. A June march in famously hot Columbia, South Carolina? This march was a little more lit than I expected it to be, as my teenagers would say,” Benjamin said. He also welcomed Christians, Jews and Muslims with greetings traditional to their religions, then joked “For those of you not sure who you follow this Sunday, I just say what’s up?”
The rally included a song and poetry reading from artist Asia Blue and speeches from local activists including Jones, who said his group’s request for dress attire and emphasis on peaceful protest was part of an effort to change the negative perception held by some.
“The problem is, they love our culture but they do not love us,” he said in reference to the way he feels black people are viewed by those of other races. He added that he believes the younger generation is looked down upon and should not be, adding “If this generation doesn’t do anything, it’s strange to me that everybody on this board, that everybody on my team, is under 34.”
The ongoing protests against police brutality were not the only focus of the protest, but were a large part.
“On the subject of police brutality, pardon my language, I’m tired of that s–t,” Jones said. “Crime exists, but what we don’t do is give people in power the right to kill us…We are going to fight for us and for this nation.”
Benjamin also addressed police brutality, holding up George Floyd (killed in Minneapolis by a police officer now charged with murder) as an inspiration to make changes. He compared Floyd to the Biblical prophet Isaiah.
“He was terrified and shaking, but when the Lord asked ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Isaiah stood up and gathered his strength, dusted himself off, and said ‘Here am I. Send me.’ George Floyd wasn’t looking for a fight. He wasn’t looking for a cause. He wasn’t looking for history. History found him. God called him on that dirty, dusty Minneapolis street, and he answered ‘Here am I. Send me,’” Benjamin said. He then called on the crowd to take action.
“This is our moment. This is our time. How do you turn this moment into a movement? The power is in our hands now,” the mayor said. “Eight minutes and 48 seconds. Together we watched the public execution of George Floyd. Will you be willing to give that much time each day to fundamentally change your community? That’s just one hour a week, y’all.”
Benjamin also called on everyone to wear masks and take other precautions against the spread of COVID-19, saying “You are your neighbor’s keeper. We’ve got to fight for our children.”