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Photo Gallery: Progress through diversity started, ultimate success still being sought

LAPLACE — Rich in diversity and African American role models, St. John the Baptist Parish is on the right track, according to many, to realizing Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality in a world where there is still much work to be done.

Hundreds proudly marched down Airline Highway in LaPlace and gathered near the Percy Hebert building Monday, celebrating progress and reminding each other it takes love, dedication and “soul force” to ensure lasting change.

St. John Parish Councilman Lennix Madere Jr. said learning to share and love each other is the best way to honor King. He sees the Civil Rights battle of the 1960s echoed in present day headlines of violent shootings and in women still lobbying for equal pay.

“His dream is coming true, but we’re not all the way there yet,” Madere said. “On a local scale, we’re pretty good. You can see this parish is pretty diverse by the elected officials and leaders we have, and we couldn’t have gotten there without voices from black and white, everyone together. But in general, nationwide, a lot more can be done.”

Keynote speaker Bridget A. Dinvaut, St. John Parish district attorney, said 1963 was not the end, but the beginning. She spoke of a resurrection of hatred, division and violence in 2019, intensified by tense politics and government shutdown.

When she thinks of King, Dinvaut recalls sitting in the kitchen of her childhood home in Garyville as her mother read an all-important quote:

“We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

Soul force, according to Dinvaut, is a promise to remain diligent and focused, never distracted by the voice of opposition, and never sinking to hatred in the process.

Dinvaut challenges opposition as the first African American women sworn in as an elected Louisiana district attorney.

She continues to challenge circumstance by promoting the Opportunity Now program to reintegrate nonviolent felony offenders into society and the St. John P.R.O.U.D. program to connect underprivileged youth to employment.

St. John resident Melvin Fenroy said prayer and church activities are another conduit to realizing King’s dream.

“All we can do is pray to walk hand in hand, black and white,” Fenroy said. “It’s happening now, but it happened so slowly. We need to pray on it.”

Elizabeth Perrilloux and Geraldine Dickson want to see love between those who share a community but not a skin tone, and Bernadine Sanders supports outreach to the next generation.

“We have got to read to them, encourage them to read on their own and learn about the activists who have allowed us to come this far and march without retribution,” Sanders said.

Rita Perrilloux, operator of Historic Riverlands in Reserve, offered to record St. John Parish residents’ stories through video, oral interviews and audio recordings to preserve for future generations.

“We’re here today because of one man’s story, which affected so many more lives,” Perrilloux said. “Every time we celebrate black history, we go to the same people. We have noteworthy stories in St. John Parish, but where are they preserved?”

Perrilloux cited Edward Hall’s fight to secure African American voting rights in St. John Parish as an example of a story that often goes unheard.

Monday’s march and rally also included prayer, singing and participation from school groups. King’s nephew, Isaac Farris Jr., was also in attendance.