Part I, In Which We Meet the Flaggers
What sort of people are these - these great-grandsons and daughters of the Red String region of North Carolina? To begin to answer this question I harvested one hundred names of supporters and participants from Orange County Taking Back Orange County's (OCTBOC's) Facebook page
, and identified their matching voter registration records in the North Carolina State Board of Elections' publicly accessible voter database. From there it is possible to glean considerable insight from the wealth of information which that database provides. For example:
- The flaggers are, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly white (94%), with the remainder specifying "Other" on their voter registration records. None are black. (The OCTBOC organizers did, however, pay $400 to H.K. Edgerton, former president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP and current supporter of Confederate heritage, to attend the Hillsborough event)
- Only a minority - 29% - actually live in Orange (an overwhelmingly Democratic and progressive county). The vast majority are from surrounding red rural counties
- The majority (62%) are women
- On average, OCTBOC supporters who are registered to vote (67% of them) are significantly younger than white North Carolina voters generally (42 versus 50 years of age)
- Among the 74% who specify a party affiliation on their voter registration records, Democrats and Republicans are about equally represented (35% and 38%, respectively) - a heritage of the state's racist Blue Dog Democrat past which gave the world the likes of Jesse Helms
- The average poverty rate of their home zip codes (17.6%) does not differ significantly from that of the state as a whole (17.5%)
One difference between these 'Southern heritage' supporters and other North Carolina voters - a difference which fairly leaps off the page - is their relative disengagement from the electoral process, except when motivated by racial politics. As the two graphs below illustrate, from 2000 through 2014 their turnout at the polls in Presidential and mid-term elections was routinely well below that of white North Carolina voters overall, with the notable exceptions of 2008 and 2012, the two cycles in which a black man stood for the office of President:
Voter turnout, by election year, for OCTBOC supporters (red) and all North Carolina white voters (green). From 2000 through 2014, identified members of the 'Southern heritage' group, Orange County Taking Back Orange County' (OCTBOC) routinely underperformed North Carolina white voters as a whole in turnout at the polls (percentage of registered voters casting ballots), except in the two cycles when Barack Obama stood for election.
Part II, In Which the Flaggers Meet the True South, and Are Schooled in its True History
White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and KKK sympathizers were well represented at the rally.
It is six-tenths of a mile, uphill, along Churton Street from Hillsborough's green and charming Riverwalk along the Eno River, where most of the arriving demonstrators would park, and the manicured grounds of the old Town Hall, where they would congregate with their flags to listen to renditions of Dixie
and share stories of the re-imagined lives of their ancestors. The way passes through the heart of Hillsborough's tidy business district, past organic food stores, sidewalk cafes crowded with locals enjoying Saturday morning fellowship under the Carolina blue sky, shops and book stores and the fire department.
As the demonstrators began to arrive in town (having set out in a caravan of dented pickups and loud Harleys from Burlington, twenty miles to the west in Alamance County), mayor Tom Stevens sat on a shady sidewalk bench commanding a good view up and down his beloved Churton Street, looking friendly and unconcerned. "I fully support the First Amendment rights of the people here today," he told me, "for the people to speak what they believe. I know enough about this group to know that their message is wrong on the facts. It's a distorted view of history, at best insensitive to racism and at worst flagrantly intimidating to men of reason. I was really appreciative of NAACP holding their press conference for historical accuracy here last Thursday" (previously reported in this diary).
Stevens had every reason to look unconcerned as he surveyed the straggling invaders wheezing up Churton Street shouldering their flags. A total of seven law enforcement agencies from around the region were here in force today, including bomb-sniffing dogs from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lt. Davis Trimmer, the Hillsborough Police Department's public information officer on site, estimated there were a total of fifty officers on duty - about one for every ten demonstrators (the preceding NC-NAACP rally, of roughly equal size, had been secured with just five Hillborough PD officers). But more significantly, Mayor Stevens knew his townfolk: the demonstrators would be welcomed with as much Southern hospitality as men and women of goodwill could possibly muster in the face of insult. There would prove to be no incidents and no arrests today.
Still, though, there would also be no silence today in the face of the fiction of "heritage, not hate."
The demonstrators climbed their way up Churton Street, like the remnants of a whipped army of dreams in retreat from reality. "Please, how much further is it to the Town Hall?" one red-faced woman, struggling under the burden of her absurdly large flag, asked me - seemingly oblivious to the red string on my right wrist. "Only about three blocks" I assured her with a sympathetic smile and, then, to her receding back: "and 150 years...."
It is likely that the demonstrators - unschooled in actual history - little noted nor long remembered the hundreds of lengths of red yarn knotted on every pole and stanchion for the length of Churton Street. But for the Hillsborough community itself, these strands of red were a powerful, silent voice of unity, and a constant reminder of the true and deeply nuanced history of our much-loved patch of the South. Easier, perhaps, for the demonstrators to understand were the dozens upon dozens of hand-lettered yard signs greeting them all along their route.
But not all the messages this day were mute. Up and down Churton Street, and just outside the Town Hall rally site, a cadre of young people wearing Black Lives Matter tee shirts were reaching out to engage individual rebels in quiet conversations, inquiring and respectfully challenging, employing methods developed and taught by Southerners On New Ground
(SONG), an organization which describes itself as
a regional Queer Liberation organization made up of people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural and small town, LGBTQ people in the South. SONG builds a beloved community of LGBTQ people in the South who are ready and willing to do our part to challenge oppression in order to bring about liberation for ALL people.
Yesterday evening, with the rally past and the time for reflection at hand, I sat down with several of these conversationalists - white Southern natives all - to learn more about their remarkable and deeply heartening work. Aiden, a native of the Sandhills region of North Carolina, is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate and environmental organizer, increasingly involved in organizing around housing rights issues. Noah grew up in Durham, NC. He is a baker and chef, and a community organizer "as my life's work, to organize with other white folks for justice." Rachel, a graduate of Oberlin College, grew up just outside of Hillsborough and is now a Ph.D. candidate in Geography at UNC Chapel Hill, focusing on "the equity issues involved in rural gentrification," who is "happy and honored to be doing this work, particularly organizing white folk for racial justice." Jen's roots are in Kannapolis, an old community outside of Charlotte. She is yet another UNC Chapel Hill graduate and works for Democracy North Carolina
. Like her comrades, "I've just been feeling really pulled to doing more organizing with white folks around anti-racism, around what it means to be a white Southerner at this particular moment, in the context of Black Lives Matter."
I refer to Aiden, Noah, Rachel, Jen, and their comrades as 'conversationalists' rather than by a group name because they are not an organized group; just a collection of young progressives who know each other and collectively decided to work Churton Street in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement.
In their own words:
Aiden: "My impression is that across the country people don't really have a sense of this pro-Confederate movement and the way that it's rising up and spreading like wildfire. It's right-wing populism; I think it's a result of the Klan history."
Noah: "What really concerns me about this pro-Confederacy right-wing movement is the white supremacy that's inherent in it. It has risen up, I think particularly, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and especially following the massacre in Charleston. Being out there and hearing some of the stuff that folks were saying yesterday, it's really clear to me that their movement is a white supremacist movement."
Rachel: "I feel that it's important to note that in addition to the outright bigotry that absolutely is present in this movement there's also a lot of white supremacy that's couched in the language of 'color-blindness'. One of the most moving and disturbing things for me yesterday was the number of times that people shouted at me "all lives matter" in a very aggressive way. It's really interesting to see the way these people have turned that phrase...it's really disturbing."
Jen: "In the conversations that I had, I got the sense from people that I talked to that when they were saying "all lives matter" they really meant 'my life matters.' I had the sense that they're low-wealth, low-income folk, who feel like they don't matter. Their perspective is that the federal government is trying to erase their history, erase them, and take over their lives. We can talk about the ways that that's true and not true, but that's what they're feeling."
"It's important to contextualize all of this. The real southern heritage is both things: it's support for the Confederacy and for white supremacy - that was very up-front and out in the open - and it's resistance to white supremacy, and to a power structure that was dominated by wealthy people at the expense of poor people. The most successful conversations I had yesterday were the ones where I was able to hold that tension and acknowledge it with the people I was talking to. I think the mainstream media really set up this false dichotomy: either keep the Confederate memorials or get rid of them, get rid of Confederate history. And that sets up a dynamic where those of us who disagree about what these symbols mean are just, as the media said, yelling at each other from opposite sides of the street."
"That's not what I want. I feel, as a white Southerner, a responsibility to engage people in meaningful conversation, and to really listen to what people are saying. And what I heard, which really resonated with me, was this debate about Confederate symbols lacks historical context. They feel like there's a misunderstanding of Southern history and heritage, and I feel like there's a misunderstanding of Southern history and heritage, so we were able to acknowledge that we each felt that way, and that we had learned different things about Southern history and heritage. Where I grew up, in Gaston County, I also learned that the Civil War was not about slavery. I learned that in an AP U.S. History class. That is what I learned as a white Southerner in public school. It was only later that I started to question that, that I had the will to learn the real history. I think if that desire is not there then it's really hard to have these conversations."
"I think there's a range of understanding and belief about Southern history and heritage. When people said 'this isn't about hate, it's about heritage,' and I asked 'what do you mean when you say heritage? What does Southern heritage mean to you?' the initial responses I got were very vague: 'well, it means our history, it means our Southern way of life.' And when I asked 'can you describe to me what you mean by Southern way of life?' many people had a hard time answering that. It was like they felt the phrase 'Southern heritage' should need no explanation, that I should know that if I'm really a white person from the South. So I had the opportunity to say, when I think about my Southern heritage I think that part of it includes the evil of slavery, the evil of white supremacy, that impacted people of color then and still impacts them today. And some people responded 'yes, slavery was bad, but we have to get over it.' What I tried to say to them was 'well, we can't get over it if we don't acknowledge how the legacy of that is still playing out today.'"
I asked Jen whether some of her audience's awkwardness at defining 'Southern heritage' might be due to their understanding that it's a dog whistle, and their discomfort with saying the words.
Jen: "I think it's more complicated than that. Growing up white in the United States, and certainly in the South, we don't talk about what white culture is. We don't talk about what that means. We just assume everything is white culture. We believe that our experience is the universal experience."
"One guy I talked to, I was engaging him about why it's important to say that black lives matter. At first he was saying a lot of superficial things, but eventually he started getting frustrated with me...this was the least successful conversation I had yesterday...and finally he said, 'look, I worked in the prison for ten years. I know what black people are like. They're lazy, they don't want to work, they're bad fathers, and they rape white women.' And when he said that, I was like, OK, this conversation is over. It took him 30 minutes of conversation to get to that point. He said, 'look, people don't change. When you wear that shirt that says black lives matter, that's what's making things worse, that's why we're out here, that's why we got our flags out.' His racism came out in full force."
In wrapping up our discussion, I challenged the conversationalists with a question I was pretty sure someone would challenge me with in the comment section of this diary: how likely was it that, at the end of the day, their effort on Churton Street was merely a feel-good activity...hey, look at me, I'm doing something!...or how likely was it, on the other hand, that they were planting at least a few seeds which, with time, might grow?
Aiden replied: "The conversations I had were really varied. One gentleman I talked to - really a lot longer than I wanted to, because he just continued to engage me - he was spewing just straight-up hate speech. He patiently explained to me that the KKK was not a racist organization, was not a hate group. These are people who are feeling that their lives don't matter because they're at the bottom of the economic spectrum, they're really confused about race."
"Rachel and I were engaged in a long conversation with a woman from Efland, and she genuinely wanted to know why we were there, what were we aiming for, and we had a substantive conversation that I feel really demonstrated that seed being planted, that we can change some folks minds."
Jen: "I would say that for me it is about planting seeds. Maybe I'm an optimist, but I feel like even though I'm never going to change that guy's mind about how he feels about race, what I took away from that conversation is that no one had ever before confronted him about his racial beliefs. Later on, when I saw him in passing, he stopped and said 'you know, really for me it's just about respect; if people respect me then I'll respect them.' I hope that at some level that's true, and that he felt some respect for me even though I was wearing that shirt. That's small, but I think that's really important, too."
The demonstrators left - as demonstrators do - and little Hillsborough (established 1754) goes on, at the site where the pre-Contact Great Trading Path, or Occaneechi Trail, forded the Eno River.
OCTBOC has announced that, next weekend, it will be joining "people coming in from all over Dixie" for "A Ride to Fort Sumter".
Confederate riders and supporters from all over the state will be meeting in towns and cities and flying their flags in convoys all the way to Charleston, SC. Once in Charleston, our boys and girls will dismount and proudly display our flags along the Battery in Charleston, within view of Fort Sumter, the Confederate monument, and the people of Charleston.
May they meet many more red strings and unartfully lettered yet passionate messages all along their way. But, especially, may they meet many, many more good folk like Aiden, Noah, Rachel and Jen.
Questions? Comments? Death threats? Reach me at DocDawg666 [at] gmail [dot] com