When the Uprising Comes to Town

How Graham, North Carolina (pop. 15,000) is reckoning with its Confederate monument.

Outside the front steps of the courthouse in the town of Graham, NC, stands a monument of a soldier with an inscription that reads, “To Our Confederate Dead.”

The monument was erected in 1914, and ever since, it has stood almost as a guard of time in Graham—a small town with a population of around 15,000 situated along I-40 almost exactly between Durham and Greensboro.

The monument has withstood every challenge to the legitimacy of Confederate iconography that has cropped up in the last 100 or so years. Graham—a town whose first Black councilman, Wyatt Outlaw, was lynched in 1870—has seemingly wanted it that way. When America went through one of its convulsions about the Confederacy in the wake of Dylann Roof's white supremacist massacre at the Emmanuel AME church in Charleston in 2015, local citizens in Graham and the surrounding Alamance County rallied around the monument in a gathering that drew over a thousand people. And the last several years have seen white supremacist rallies and the presence of a local far-right group, Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC).

Yet even a place like Graham, it would seem, is not permanently immune to the forces of history. That is why I found myself there on June 25, alongside hundreds of other Black Lives Matter protesters, in the town square where the monument still looms. I was there because, in the wake of the uprisings that followed the police killing of George Floyd, Graham has found itself plunged into the same heated disputes over its racist legacy as the rest of America. At one point, the battle in Graham even led to the virtual suspension of First Amendment rights in the entire county. And at the center of everything is that courthouse and that Confederate monument. 

Things had been tense in Graham for a while leading up to June 25. The weeks since Floyd's killing had seen a small yet steady stream of protests in both the town and its surrounding area. Some of these were shut down by local government curfews and at least one was met with violence. In one protest, two men were arrested and charged with assaulting two anti-racist professors at nearby Elon University. 

Following that incident, Alamance County manager Brian Hagood wrote a letter on June 21, asking the Board of Commissioners—all white Republicans—to remove the Confederate monument to “a secure, undisclosed location where it can be safely held until a permanent location for it can be determined." (Discourse Blog emailed Board chair Amy Scott Galey, who is currently running for the state Senate, for comment, but received no response.)

“I have not come to this conclusion lightly, but through the observation of happenings around Alamance County and concern about the dividing passions the Confederate memorial stirs up among our citizens,” Hagood wrote.

But the county commissioners had brushed off the request, so when the protesters arrived in Graham on a warm Thursday evening, the monument was still there.

The protest was really a long stroll, around and around the town square. The vast majority of the protesters were dressed in black shirts and black shorts or pants and cloth masks, silently pounding the sidewalk as the Graham cops watched and a man wearing a tank top stood with his back to the protesters, so that when they passed him, all they caught was the giant print of Donald Trump on his shirt.

Around 7 p.m., the procession was passing a movie theater when the driver of a pickup truck slowed down and yelled, “Go home!” before accelerating away. “Oh, you go home,” came a woman’s thick Piedmont accent behind me. (It’s unclear where “home” was, since the protesters, if not from Alamance County, appeared to come from less than an hour away.) Later, a man on a motorcycle repeated the same thing, and when one protester flipped him off, a few others in the group warned them: “They want a reaction out of you.”

The cops were especially aggressive about enforcing a new traffic law that apparently gives cars the right-of-way over pedestrians in crosswalks, and when my partner and I stood and talked to some friends, a Graham police officer told us to “keep moving.” 

Mayor Jerry Peterman described the protesters as "just as peaceful as can be," but nevertheless, at around 7:45 p.m., the police informed people as they crossed the street that there was a curfew being implemented at 8 p.m. The official order cited “civil unrest” as the reason for the curfew. (A Facebook message to Peterman was not returned.)

We got in our car and made our way back to Raleigh, and all I thought about how remarkably tame the evening had been compared to my expectations. It was not exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to result in the county effectively suspending the First Amendment over, but that is exactly what happened next.

The intensity overtaking Graham might seem surprising, but there have been similar flare-ups all over America in recent weeks. Beyond the longevity, the continuing enthusiasm, and the political and sociological factors that are arguably driving the protests, one of the more interesting aspects of this uprising is that it seems to be grabbing the imagination of all kinds of places, not just cities that have a base of left activism, such as Durham or or Portland or Philadelphia.

In Raleigh, one of the more conservative of the major cities in North Carolina, five Confederate statues and a 75-foot tall, 125-year-old monument (also dedicated “To Our Confederate Dead”) were all pulled down in the aptly-named Union Square over the course of a week—first by demonstrators on Juneteenth, and then by Governor Roy Cooper when he realized the crowds weren’t going to leave until the whole damn thing came down.

Over 50 municipalities in North Carolina saw demonstrations in the first two weeks of the uprising, according to the New York Times, from Charlotte to tiny Bryson City (population 1,450). In Wilmington, where white supremacists massacred the city’s Black residents and overthrew a Fusionist government in 1898 with the support of the state’s media elite, the city discreetly removed two Confederate monuments in the dead of night after firing three cops for fantasizing about murdering Black people in dashcam audio. In Louisburg, a town near Raleigh of about 3,500 which is roughly split between Black and white people, the town board recently voted to move its Confederate monument to a cemetery. The same happened in Oxford, a majority Black town near Durham in Granville County, a few weeks ago

The movement is spreading across the country to even overwhelmingly white and historically right-wing areas such as Couer d’Alene, ID, which has had protests nearly every day for weeks. In Vidor, TX, where in the early 1990s death threats and Klan activity drove out the entirety of the town’s few Black residents at the time (a fact that was celebrated with a white supremacist “victory” march), a Black Lives Matter protest in early June drew as many as 200 people, according to journalist Chris Hooks.

Dr. Patricia Davis, an assistant professor at Northeastern University whose research has examined how Black people chronicled their experiences before, during, and after the Civil War, said the most surprising thing about the ongoing uprising is its “length and intensity.”

“We had movements [in 2015 and 2017], which were not unsuccessful. But those movements did not have the intensity and sustenance this one seems to have,” Davis said. She pointed to two central factors why this could be the case.

“Three-and-a-half years of Donald Trump with the overt racial appeals, explicit attempts to divide the country along the lines of race and ethnicity have opened a lot of eyes that were previously closed as to what the racial divide can be,” she said.  “And the COVID-19 situation unleashed the impact of these inequalities.”

“People in the past who’ve been able to try to turn away are finding it more difficult to turn away,” she added.

Davis grew up in Martinsville, Virginia, where the hometown paper proudly reported after the Charlottesville attack in 2017 that there was virtually no opposition to the town’s Confederate monuments, and then reported on June 1 of this year that around 200 people had gathered to protest for Black Lives Matter seven days after George Floyd’s death. It’s unclear whether there really is a new spark of energy on the left in towns like this, if the local media is just now noticing them, or if it’s a bit of both. 

Obviously, America has not collectively acknowledged the reality of police brutality and racial discrimination overnight. During the first weekend of protests in Philadelphia, a mob of white vigilantes threatened Black Lives Matter demonstrators with baseball bats and clubs, and a small group jumped WHYY radio producer Jon Ehrens and sent him to the hospital. In mid-June, a small anti-racist demonstration numbering fewer than a hundred people in the village of Bethel, Ohio was met by hundreds of armed counter-protesters. In one video, a protester was seen being sucker-punched in the back of the head by what appeared to be a very old child, in front of a cop, who did nothing. 

But by any measure, the energy has touched all corners of the country. Davis laughed at the prospect of her town moving or taking down its Confederate monument, but said she’s been heartened by the small but energetic Black Lives Matter movement there. “I am definitely surprised,” she said of the growing enthusiasm in rural areas. “Past movements [such as in 2015 and 2017] seem to be concentrated in cities. and rural areas seem to be untouched by movements...again, I think that’s because of the current sociopolitical climate.”

The day after the rally I attended, the office of Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, who was sued by the Obama Justice Department for “routinely discriminat[ing] against and targets Latinos for enforcement action racial profiling Latinos (the lawsuit was later settled), issued a short press release on Facebook. 

“This is to advise that effective June 26, 2020, no permits to protest in the city of Graham, NC to include the Alamance County Courthouse have been granted, nor will be granted for the foreseeable future,” the statement read. “Any group(s) attempting to protest without a permit, will be in violation and subject to arrest.” In two sentences, Johnson and Alamance County had announced their intention to arrest anyone who spoke freely in Graham.

The next day, Peterman, the Graham mayor, issued a declaration that reinforced the 8 p.m. curfew and included a provision ordering "a temporary suspension of the issuance of parade and demonstration based on a clear and imminent threat to public safety."

The state chapter of the ACLU immediately got involved, writing a letter to Johnson the same day. “Your threat to arrest people for protesting without a permit, as well as the indefinite blanket refusal to issue permits, violates the most fundamental constitutional rights to assembly, speech, and to be free from unlawful seizures and use of excessive force without due process of law,” they wrote. (On July 3, the ACLU of North Carolina formally sued the town to block the ordinance it used to shut down protest.)

Meanwhile, dozens of Alamance County officials, including mayors, school board members, and the president of Elon University signed onto a letter demanding that the GOP-dominant board comply with Hagood’s request and remove the monument.

 “As the municipalities and counties around us have taken action to remove their monuments, the Alamance County monument draws ever-increasing notoriety and represents an increased potential for violence. Now is the time for decisive action to relocate this monument,” said the letter, which included Burlington mayor Ian Baltutis, the head of the county’s largest city. (Baltutis did not answer an email requesting an interview.) 

The request fell on deaf ears, as the commissioners rejected the request later that day, citing an opinion from the county attorney that state law prevents them from taking the statue down. Given that the law applies to monuments on state property and also includes exemptions for public safety, it’s easy to spot the difference between the county commissioners and their counterparts in Wilmington, Louisburg, and Oxford: Desire.

The commissioners also used the opportunity to publicly blast, well, everyone who asked them to take the statue down, in a manner that was equal parts Donald Trump and aggrieved PTA dad. Hagood “neglected to obtain information about the legality of his opinion before he offered it,” according to the commissioners, while those drafting the open letter were alleged to have told potential signatories not to tell the county commissioners. 

“One may ask, why would the authors of this letter not want the commissioners to know that it was being drafted and circulated?” the commissioners asked. “Why was it done in secret and then unveiled at a press conference? This would lead an observer to believe that this ‘call to action’ is political in nature. Its true purpose would not appear to be to persuade the commissioners, but to ambush them in as public a manner as possible.” (Let no one ever say local politics aren’t just as theatrical and annoying as whatever’s happening in D.C.)

As of now, the statue remains up, but the protests are back on; the city lifted its state of emergency after it received national attention for its brief flirtation with canceling the First Amendment, and today, it lost to the ACLU in federal court.

Last week, dozens of people showed up, shouting out the names of victims of white supremacy from Wyatt Outlaw to George Floyd. In attendance was Dreama Caldwell, a candidate for the county commission who, if elected, would be the first Black person to ever sit on the Alamance County Board of Commissioners. (Caldwell did not respond to an interview request.)

“Knowing what I know about Wyatt Outlaw, he was lynched in a tree that is at the site where the monument is now,” Caldwell told the Triad City Beat. “It’s a reminder that it’s bigger than a statue. It’s evidence that we have work to do with the legacy of white supremacy.”

If the conspicuously large empty space in Raleigh’s Union Square is a good indicator of anything, its counterpart in Graham will fall one day. It may not fall today, or tomorrow, or this year. But it will fall.

Photo: Amanda DeLuise