Tony Carter held the mic in his hand as he stood in front of a crowd of several hundred gathered in a pavilion at Navarre Park for a peace march Sunday evening.
He paused a few times as he told his story. He fought back tears and the raw emotion that was evident in each word about an event that still haunts him today.
Now the well-respected running backs coach and head track coach at Navarre, Carter was 16 the night he helped lead his high school football team in South Carolina to a district title. He and a couple of his friends drove over to the gas station to get gas after the game.
As soon as they pulled out of the parking lot, they were pulled over.
The officers asked Carter and his friends to drive to a less busy dirt road. It was then, he said, that four cops got out, guns drawn and forced all three to the ground.
Face down in the dirt, the guns pressed against their heads, a night that should have been reserved for celebration now had Carter and two of his friends on the brink of this being the last night of their lives.
One of the officers radioed in the stop, and the police chief on the other end said to let them go, specifically naming Carter in the conversation.
“He said let him go, he’s a good boy, and he scored two touchdowns tonight,” Carter recalls. “Did two touchdowns save my life?”
It is because of that moment that Carter said he still sees his face on every black person that dies unjustly at the hands of law enforcement. It’s why he was at the peace march Sunday, hoping to promote change.
Several in the crowd were in tears as they listened to Carter’s story amid the backdrop of on and off rain and wind from Tropical Storm Cristobal.
Carter’s oldest son, Dwayne, a former high school and college football player, organized the event. He said it was time to hold one in his hometown after leading a protest in Pensacola.
“It got real when they gave me a mic there,” Dwayne said. “And then I was like ‘oh my goodness’ if there was ever a sign to do one here that was it.”
Protests and marches have gone on across the country in the days since May 25 in Minneapolis when George Floyd was detained by an officer. The officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd died as a result.
But Dwayne wanted to make sure this was more than just about Floyd or others like him.
His goal was to ensure peace and understanding took center stage.
“In certain places, people are pointing fingers and saying what the problems are, but they aren’t coming up with solutions,” Dwayne said. “We all want to find answers.”
Music played, people held signs and chanted, and several speakers talked about not only their encounters with racial injustice but about how
positive change can come from protests.
Among them was Jake Lawler, a former University of North Carolina football player and teammate of former Navarre standout Michael Carter, who currently plays for the Tar Heels.
Lawler drove from Charlotte to take part in the march.
“Racism is a threat to any community that harbors goodwill and good people, and events like this are necessary to facilitate change,” Lawler said. “There are people who want to do something but don’t know where to start, and we can be the bridge for that.”
Though the tropical storm created a less than ideal day for any outdoor event, it didn’t wash away the desire for those involved to come together for a common cause.
“Some look at a protest and really don’t know what it really is and what it’s about. We want to teach them,” Dwayne said. “The important thing is to bring awareness and for this to be a learning experience for people. We want to explain the problems, but at the same, we want to find solutions.”
A prayer at the beginning of the three-hour event was led by University of West Florida head football coach Pete Shinnick, who stayed for the march that took place in the parking lot of the park. He asked during that prayer that God give people the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Midway through the event, the march began with chants of “No Justice, No Peace” booming through the crowd.
The rain began to fall harder as the march unfolded, but those in it pushed forward despite the weather.
Several cars honked their horns as they drove past the park along Highway 98.
Near the end of the march, Tony had everyone come together in solidarity for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time the police officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck.
UWF quarterback Austin Reed has come to know the Carter family well and thinks it’s great that they are using their platform for something positive.
“Having events like this and having people speak out, it brings a lot of the problems to light,” Reed said. “Racism is still prevalent in this country, and it should be a zero-tolerance thing. There shouldn’t be any more of it, and there should have never been any of it.”
Lawler added that action needs to be taken, that this can’t end with people just using social media and retweeting things. During his speech, he encouraged those in attendance to vote on Election Day and hopes to see funding rerouted so that money can be spent on programs that can benefit communities.
Dwayne agrees those are all important points and notes the importance of creating more awareness and inspiring change. He hopes this peace march gave people something to think about going forward.
“I feel like if we can try to come up with solutions, that’s a step forward,” he said. “It’s something that can be monumental.”