DONALDSONVILLE — Organizers, current and former state legislators, and others called for improved economic and housing opportunities and greater equality and justice for Black residents as around 50 to 60 people marched peacefully through the city's downtown and listened to forceful speakers at Bicentennial Jazz Plaza.

Marchers walked Saturday evening from the baseball field off Church Street onto Marchand Street, down Railroad Avenue past City Hall to the rally point at the jazz plaza next-door to the River Road African-American Museum.

Some of the group's speakers pointed out the economic troubles in the onetime state capital that had the nation's first elected Black mayor in 1868, offering a critique of the current city leadership that did not show up for the event. 

Kurt Mitchell, one of the members of the recently formed the Donaldsonville Community Care Committee that put on the march and rally, raised the high poverty rate, at nearly 40%, in the city of 8,440 people, and urged listeners to become more involved in local government.

Mitchell, 48, a Donaldsonville native, compared the community to a herd of wildebeest that can take on challenges from threatening animals more easily as a group, so long as that one animal in the herd is willing to take the first step.

Taking stock of the current moment with the Black Lives Matter movement and recalling those who protested during the Civil Rights era a few generations ago, Mitchell urged listeners to be that first step this time, saying the committee could be their go-between with city leadership.

"It's our moment in history to do something," he said. 

Mitchell and at least one other organizer, Donaldsonville businesswoman Shentelle Daigle, also pointed out that city officials had been invited to speak at the Saturday rally but didn't show up. 

The rally comes just months before City Council and mayoral elections this fall and followed a special meeting the day before, in which organizers initially refused to tell city officials the route of the march for a city permit, though they later did, according to a recording.

Reached Monday, Mayor Leroy Sullivan said the disrespectful tenor of that meeting and subsequent innuendo on social media in the lead-up to the event that he said falsely portrayed city leadership led him not to attend the rally.

"If you want me to respect you, then you respect me," he said.

Sullivan and the council recently announced the formation of their own volunteer Committee on Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice. That group is also aimed at addressing social justice and had been in formation for months, he said. 

Though many marchers carried signs and wore shirts referencing "Black Lives Matter" and speakers used the term in repeated call-and-response with the crowd, several organizers said the march wasn't aimed at local law enforcement in particular.

Instead, it was focused on economic problems and broader issues of systemic racism and inequality. The term, for them, had less to do with the Black Lives Matter organization and all its political aims regarding police brutality and more as a general statement about the value of the lives of Black people.

Still, state Sen. Ed Price, D-Gonzales, offered a sharp call to action about long-standing inequality faced by Black people, referencing those who had recently died at the hands of law enforcement in other communities around the nation, including George Floyd in Minnesota in late May.

"It's gone on for too long. Somebody actually say, 'Why you think this is happening?' Let me tell you something, 'It's always been happening.' They just didn't have the video like we have today," he said.

Among the many other issues, marchers also decried the disproportionate impact of the novel coronavirus on the 75% of Donaldsonville residents who are Black.

Marchers wore masks, even young children, though many walked and stood at the subsequent rally in proximity to one another.

The march had come hours after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that residents, starting on Monday, would be required to wear face coverings outside in public and inside buildings to slow the sharp rise of the novel coronavirus in recent weeks.

Donaldsonville, in particular, has been hit hard with the virus. The Ascension Parish city has been a leader in the state for cases, based on state census tract data. Through July 6, the portion of Donaldsonville where the march was held, including City Hall, had the fifth most cases of the virus since the outbreak began, at 197. 

Leo McKinney, 44, one of the founders of the Donaldsonville Community Care Committee, said organizers had masks and hand sanitizer for everyone who wanted to march.

Nationally, some critics of recent protests have argued they would become sources of viral spread. While officials in some cities, like Los Angeles, have begun to acknowledge protests had contributed to at least some spread, officials in New Orleans and in state government have said they have been unable to trace an outbreak to local protests.

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