More than a hundred protesters marched around the Marshall County courthouse Friday evening in response to recent killings of unarmed black people across the country including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
Despite protest organizers receiving threatening messages leading up to the planned protest and the county sheriff’s concerns over 2nd Amendment advocates clashing with marchers, the protest was overwhelmingly peaceful.
Protesters, some from Marshall County and others from neighboring west Kentucky counties, chanted the names of those recently killed and held signs with phrases including, “Marshall County, it’s past time for racism to end.”
“We expected a small turnout, but nothing near what we got. I mean, we’re really blessed with the amount of people that came,” said Dwaylon Davis, a black man living in Benton who organized the protest with his wife. “To show support and show their love and are willing to be open-minded."
Davis said one of the main goals of the protest was to bring law enforcement and protesters together to create more dialogue between the groups about law enforcement accountability and systemic racism.
County deputies and Benton city officers had a significant presence throughout the evening, blocking off roads into the courthouse square to allow protesters to march around the courthouse.
Benton Police Chief Stephen Sanderson said law enforcement asked a group of 2nd Amendment advocates, who had planned to attend the protest out of fears local businesses would get looted, to set up a couple blocks away from the protest. Those advocates were mostly out of view from the protest on the courthouse square.
“We’d just really love to start that dialogue with everybody to let them know that police are not the bad guys. Nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop,” Sanderson said. “If we can let people know we’re humans, we support their cause, that’s kind of the goal.”
Some at the protest were wearing masks, but many people attending the protest were not. Isaac York of Fairdealing said he came to the protest to have his voice heard after seeing multiple videos online of police brutality at other protests across the country, while also handing out masks to other protesters.
He also said he wanted to send a message that he’s more than a stigma of racism that follows the county.
“We definitely have a stereotype of we’re kind of racist, and I mean, when you have stuff like Tater Day doesn’t really help that stereotype. But I want to come out here and say I’m different,” York said. “Marshall County has a lot of problems, but I definitely want it to be better.”
Tater Day is an annual multi-day festival in the spring bringing tens of thousands of people to Benton, while also having a reputation for people brandishing Confederate flags and other related memorabilia.
In April, county Judge-Executive Kevin Neal took down a Confederate flag flying on county courthouse grounds after local and national backlash. Neal and a county commissioner pushed for the display without a vote from the county’s fiscal court, using taxpayer funds to erect a pole for the flag.
Other protesters in speeches to the gathered crowd touched on a perceived reputation of racism following Marshall County and how it related to their protest message.
33-year-old Quinton Taylor, a black man who grew up in Mayfield, said he grew up going to Tater Day every year with his family including his mother, a Marshall County native. Even though he and his family would get “eye-balled” by others, his parents still encouraged them to go each year.
“Nobody is like this around here like me. But I still made it, right? My family still kept me there, still kept pushing me, saying, ‘We’re still going. I don’t care if they look at us weird,’” said Taylor. “I’ve also heard ‘Man, why are you going to [Marshall County]? They don’t like your kind there. You’re not welcome there’...I’m here. And I’ve been here. And I’ve kept coming here.”
Another black protester in a separate speech also said despite having protested in Paducah, Mayfield, and Murray in the past week, he was afraid of coming to Marshall County in part because of a perceived negative stigma against people of color.
“I have a six-month-old daughter and I feel uncomfortable to come up here,” said 23-year-old Malique Humphries from Mayfield. “We should be comfortable going anywhere we want to go. It shouldn’t matter if the majority is white or not. We should feel comfortable anywhere on this earth.”
For some Marshall County residents, they were driven by their faith to join Friday evening’s protest and show support for people of color. A local baptist pastor gave a prayer before the march began, and another woman offered to wash protesters’ feet along the lines of Christian tradition and start up a conversation.
“I believe in the cause that black lives matter right now, and we as Christians don’t like to see our world like it is,” said Keith Steele. “We want to feel like everyone is made in the image of God, and we believe that.”
The protest in Marshall County following other west Kentucky protests in Murray, Paducah, Mayfield, Hopkinsville, and Bowling Green. Organizer Dwaylon Davis said he hopes to be able to organize another similar protest in the near future.