Teens organize, lead Melissa rally to help raise awareness

Joshua Baethge,
The Anna-Melissa Tribune
High school student Ashton Mitchell-Johnson helped organized  and lead a Black Lives Matter rally July 18 in Melissa with the support of his mother Pam Mitchell.

MELISSA - On July 18, siblings Ashton Mitchell-Johnson and Gracyn Mitchell-Johnson led a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Melissa.

The high school juniors said it was their way to raise awareness of issues that have made national headlines, but still hit close to home.

According to Ashton, the goal was to educate people and show that some of the negative perceptions they may have about the Black Lives Matter movement are incorrect.

As he sees it, the entire community is akin to a family. When one family member is knocked down, the others back them up and help.

The same should be true of race relations, the teen said. When one race is being mistreated, everyone should support and defend them.

“All of our lives do matter, but as of right now, all of our lives are not being treated the same,” he said. “Right now, it’s the Black lives we all need to rally support around.”

The teens’ mother, Pam Johnson, said the cause is extremely personal to her family. She and her wife have 11 children. Five of their kids who live at home are biracial.

Last month, Gracyn and Ashton asked if they could march in the Anna Black Lives Matter rally. Pam went with them and thought it was an amazing event. Afterward, they discussed the possibility of holding a similar rally in Melissa.

Pam said there have been times when her kids experienced racism. Racial slurs have been thrown at them on occasion. There was also an incident when another parent told their daughter that she shouldn’t date Ashton because people might think less of her.

“My wife and I use these as opportunities to teach how the world can be and how the world should be,” she said. “I asked Ashton if he wanted to see a Black Lives rally in Melissa, and when he said yes, I told him he should do it.”

Ashton reached out to a few local leaders including Melissa High School Assistant Principal Duke Sparks and Melissa Police Chief Duane Smith. The teen said he received tremendous support from officials with both the city and the school district.

Among those who joined Ashton in speaking at the protest were Smith, Sparks and Melissa High School football coach Matt Nally.

It seems that no event these days can avoid the effects of the coronavirus. The original rally date had to be pushed back due to rising COVID-19 numbers.

After the speeches from community leaders, the rescheduled march transformed into a parade of cars whose occupants waved signs of support. This was done to ensure proper social distancing.

Some members of the community expressed anger over a protest in Melissa. However, according to Gracyn, there were more people in favor of the event than opposed.

At the end of the day, she said, if those opposed had taken the time to listen, they may have understood that the underlying message was simply one of raising awareness and bringing the community together.

“We got tons of support,” she said. “We’re so happy with how many people showed up. It honestly could not have gone any better.”

Ashton Mitchell-Johnson, left, who organized and led a Black Lives Matter rally in Melissa on July 18, listens as Melissa Police Chief Duane Smith addresses the crowd during the event. [Celso Martinez/Municipal Voice]