The crowd, while overwhelmingly White, included some African Americans, reflecting their small number in the heart of Appalachia. “There are 65,000 people in the state willing to admit they’re Black,” as one speaker, the Rev. Matthew Watts, would later put it.
They carried signs demanding that Manchin get behind the For the People Act, an election reform bill. They sang hymns. “Somebody’s hurtin’ our country . . . and we won’t be silent anymore.” They chanted. “Which side are you on?” It was the rallying cry of organized mine workers demanding higher wages from their bosses during early-20th-century labor battles.
The plan was to walk, two by two, to Manchin’s local office in downtown Charleston and nail their grievances to his door, Martin Luther style.
At a rally before the march, the Rev. David Fryson strolled up to the microphone. He was decked out in all black, a cross dangling from a silver chain around his neck, a tight salt-and-pepper Afro atop his head.
“I hear over and over again that Manchin is in no peril because there are no African Americans here,” he said, comparing Manchin’s 3.3-percentage-point reelection win in 2018 to the percentage of West Virginians who are Black — 3.6 percent.
“We stand together, Black and White, in West Virginia,” he said. “Can you say ‘Amen?’ ”
Fryson’s affirmation repeated the theme of that evening’s assembly: that even though Black people would be disproportionately hurt by Republican voting laws, other groups, including poor Whites, would find it more cumbersome to exercise their franchise as well. In the words of the Rev. William J. Barber II, whose Poor People’s Campaign organized the march, it would take a coalition of people “from the hood to the hollers” to get their agenda enacted.
As the crowd marched toward Manchin’s office along the Elk River chanting, “Where’s Joe?,” cars drove by and honked their support.
When the marchers reached their destination, they were greeted not by Manchin but by representatives from his staff, who handed out complaint cards, as if the marchers were hotel guests leaving feedback for management about the stiffness of the bathroom towels.
With the Senate in session, Manchin was back in D.C. that day.
“His staff greeted marchers outside to visit with them and listen to their concerns,” according to a statement from Sam Runyon, Manchin’s communications director. “In a large group situation, comment cards ensure everyone has the opportunity to thoroughly express their thoughts,” she added. “As always, his staff shared the concerns of the marchers with Senator Manchin.”
Fryson, at least, was underwhelmed by the gesture. “I thought it was a little contrived,” he later said. It was as if the staffers were trying diminish “the passion and the power that we had.”
Black West Virginians feel dismissed and written off. They are well aware of how their fellow Americans view them: unsophisticated, uneducated residents of a Trump-country backwater. They believe they’ve been forgotten by Democrats in their state, forgotten by the national party and ignored by the political media, which typically sees West Virginia as a bunch of White conservatives.
Manchin’s recent notoriety as the dithering Democrat of the 50-50 Senate has put a spotlight on his constituents. And Black West Virginians are hoping that spotlight means some people might actually see them, for once — Manchin most of all.
One fall afternoon, in 1910, thousands of people gathered at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston to celebrate a new bronze statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. The Daughters of the Confederacy rode in carriages while veterans of the "Lost Cause" performed drills and marched in a parade.
That sculpture still stands at the Capitol building, and every time Bishop Wayne Crozier walks by it, he is disgusted. “As a lifelong West Virginian, it is honestly humiliating to walk on the steps of the state Capitol and see a statue of a man, Stonewall Jackson, who made his reputation trying to enslave my ancestors,” says Crozier, the pastor of Abundant Life Ministries in Charleston. “And in 2021, it’s a form of mild terrorism.”
It’s not the only symbol of its kind. Confederate flags dot the roadsides of long highways that twist around gorgeous mountains in the southern part of the state — ironic, since West Virginia was admitted to the United States in 1863 after seceding from Virginia because it didn’t want to fight for the Confederacy or the rich planters trying to protect slavery.
It was coal that shaped political life in West Virginia. The state became a stronghold of labor politics, with Black and White workers eventually banding together against the industrial capitalists who ran the mines. But automation, drop in demand for coal, anti-union crackdowns and labor defeats in the 1980s and 1990s left most of the coal mines in West Virginia de-unionized, according to historian Charles B. Keeney, whose great-grandfather Frank Keeney led the United Mine Workers in the state during the bloody and harrowing Mine Wars. After a while, the causes of the industrial working class were eclipsed by the divisive abstractions of the culture war, and by the time Barack Obama came around, they dominated.
Obama was never popular in the state, even among Democrats. In 2008, Hillary Clinton swept every county in her matchup against Obama in the Democratic primary. That year, about 20 percent of White Democrats in West Virginia said that race was a factor in the primary (second only to Mississippi). Not even an endorsement from Sen. Robert Byrd — a political giant in West Virginia who had spent a good chunk of his 51-year Senate career repenting for being a former Ku Klux Klan leader and filibustering against the 1964 Civil Rights bill — seemed to help. Obama was so unpopular that in 2012, when he ran for reelection in a pro forma primary, 41 percent of the vote went to a White man who was, at the time, in prison serving a 17½-year sentence for extortion.
The powerful distaste for the first Black president of the United States made some Black West Virginians look askance at their White friends. Black clergymen were disappointed at what they saw as the refusal of White evangelicals to confront racism. Lamar Bady, a church elder at Abundant Life Ministries, says he had to cut several associates and colleagues out of his life after viewing their social media posts. He was particularly disturbed by a colleague’s post about Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot and killed in February 2020 while jogging through a neighborhood near Brunswick, Ga.
“I had a colleague that posted, ‘Hey if he was running through my neighborhood, I would have shot him, too,’ ” Bady says. He shakes his head. “Come on, now.”
During the Obama presidency, Manchin, then the governor, was trying to persuade West Virginians to elect him to Byrd’s former seat in the U.S. Senate. In 2010, Manchin released an infamous ad in which he vowed to “take on Washington, and this administration, to get the federal government off our backs and out of our pockets,” before firing a rifle bullet into the Democrats’ proposed climate bill.
A year earlier Manchin had pushed through his own renewable-energy law, derided by state Republicans as “cap and trade,” that required West Virginia power plants to adopt increasing amounts of alternative fuels in an effort to lower emissions. But Manchin and many West Virginians believed Obama’s version would be bad for the coal industry. He even sued Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency over its efforts to curb the controversial mining practice known as mountaintop removal.
“Over the past year and a half, we have been fighting President Obama’s administration’s attempts to destroy our coal industry and way of life in West Virginia,” he said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.
The Rev. Ron English, a Manchin ally who has known the senator since his time as governor, remembers mentioning offhandedly to Manchin that at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral he’d delivered a prayer that had been entered into the congressional record; later Manchin sent him a reprint of the speech from the record. English, who is Black, chalked Manchin’s anti-Obama rhetoric up to politics. “We’re in West Virginia,” says English — the “most Southern of northern states.”
Political realities notwithstanding, the ad, and Manchin’s rhetoric regarding Obama, rubbed some Black voters the wrong way.
“The way that he blamed Obama for the demise of industries in West Virginia, I mean it was just ridiculous,” Fryson says. “And even the lack of respect that he paid him.”
Fryson held a great deal of admiration for the senator’s uncle, Antonio James Manchin, a charismatic, “larger-than-life” politician who nurtured relationships with Black voters. In 1949, the freshman West Virginia state representative, who went by James, introduced a public accommodations bill that would have granted African Americans equal access to public spaces. The bill didn’t pass, and James Manchin lost reelection. “This guy’s standing for us at a time when it’s not politically astute to do that,” Fryson says of the elder Manchin.
The pastor says he believes Joe Manchin’s association with his uncle James earned him the benefit of the doubt with Black voters, because “that name then became synonymous with, ‘Well, he’s with us.’ ” And during his time as governor, in the 2000s, he seemed to live up to those family expectations by developing close relationships with his Black constituents, according to Fryson.
But things have changed.
Manchin has said repeatedly that he does not support scrapping the filibuster, a Senate procedure that effectively requires a 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation, even if it’s standing in the way of a voting rights bill. The filibuster is well known for being a tool of segregationists trying to block various civil rights bills in the 1950s and 1960s. But it has been used by both parties to thwart their opponents’ agendas, and Manchin has defended the filibuster on the more general basis of protecting the power of whichever party is in the minority — as the Democrats were, not long ago. “Do we really want to live in an America where one party can dictate and demand everything and anything it wants, whenever it wants?” he wrote in a June op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Manchin also opposes the For the People Act, the bill designed to combat restrictive voting laws passed by GOP-led state legislatures after President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of a stolen election. He says an election bill that doesn’t have any Republican support would further divide the country. (Manchin has proposed a narrower framework for protecting the franchise that would curtail the automatic voter registration provision of the more expansive bill and would include GOP priorities such as mandatory voter identification. In any case, it’s difficult to imagine a voting rights bill being passed as long as the filibuster remains in its current form.)
The senator’s attempts at protecting the rights of the Senate’s legislative minority have not struck everyone as virtuous — especially when it comes to protecting the rights of vulnerable demographic minorities.
“In the time that I’ve been here in West Virginia, this is the angriest that I felt the energy around him, and the fact that, ‘You know what, I didn’t even like voting for you,’ ” says Jennifer Wells, an activist who leads the state’s branch of Community Change Action, a national group that aims to empower low-income people of color. “That’s just what I’ve heard on the street.”
Watts, who spoke at the June march, says that he considers Manchin a friend but that the senator’s unwillingness to break with the Republican line on voting rights has been disappointing. “I think this idea of bipartisanship can cause one to get trapped in a paralysis of analysis and not see clearly the issue that is at stake,” he says.
“I think that many times we didn’t vet him the way that we should have,” Fryson says. “As you look back now over the course of his public life, you realize that he kind of leans towards giving the African American community the glad hand, but at the same time, with a wink and a nod, be willing to facilitate things that are against us.”
Outside of Tray's barbershop, in the shadow of the state Capitol dome near downtown Charleston, patrons looking for a fresh cut file into the building out of the hot sun. One of those is Michael, a Black former Republican. For Michael, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, the Obama and Trump years have been "clarifying," he says. He's lost White "brothers" who he thought understood him. He's been turned off by their obsequiousness to Trump, their hand-waving of racism, white nationalism and the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.
He says he’s been trying to educate some of those friends on the need to address white supremacy and the importance of protecting voting rights. But it isn’t going great. “They don’t even know who John Lewis is!” he says, referring to the late congressman and civil rights icon.
Michael has a biracial daughter with a White woman from a pro-Trump family with whom he’s no longer involved. After Trump supporters besieged the Capitol in D.C. with the goal of essentially denying the will of most Black voters in swing-state cities, he says he asked his daughter, who is middle school age, what she thought of the attack.
“Fake news,” he remembers her replying.
(He later presented her with evidence including footage of the day’s events and she eventually came around to his view that it was a serious attack.)
One could make the argument that Black voters understand the precariousness of American democracy better than their White fellow citizens. Though enshrined in the country’s 15th Amendment of 1870, full Black enfranchisement was realized only through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Put another way: Black people have been able to exercise this constitutional right less than a quarter of this nation’s existence.
Put yet another way: John Lewis had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers in pursuit of the vote, and Michael’s White friends don’t even know who John Lewis was.
The current fight over voting rights is centered elsewhere — in states such as Georgia, where Black voter turnout helped defeat Trump and send Raphael G. Warnock to Washington as the state’s first Black senator. But Manchin’s role in the fight to protect and expand voting rights at the national level has prompted some organizers to reach out to offer financial assistance and reinforcements in West Virginia, says Wells, the activist for Community Change Action.
Wells, a New Orleans native, came to West Virginia after Manchin, as governor, offered refuge to those fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Wells thought she’d return to New Orleans, but West Virginia residents were so welcoming that she decided to stay. The Mountain State, she learned, had a history of producing civil rights and Black resistance leaders such as Memphis Tennessee Garrison, a woman from the southern coal fields who organized Black teachers during the Jim Crow era, and Leon Sullivan, a minister who got his start in West Virginia before gaining renown as an advocate of Black advancement through job training, and who later tried to get companies to divest from apartheid South Africa.
Wells was, however, frustrated by what she saw as too much accommodation among Black activists; she thought they would get better results if they were willing to be more confrontational in their advocacy. There was a sense that Black West Virginians were just not taken seriously as a political force. “I would walk into rooms, rooms with Black people from other parts of the country, and they’d ask who you are and where you’re from, and I would say West Virginia and people would start laughing,” Wells says. “And they’re like, ‘Oh, you must be one of the two people that live in the state.’ ”
What kind of political power can Black West Virginians hope to exercise?
Manchin does have a high regard for his independence, but he is movable, according to English. After a meeting with several leaders from West Virginia NAACP branches to discuss the For the People Act, Manchin stood fast in his opposition to filibuster reform but did offer his voting rights framework afterward.
In a state like this, trying to move people like Manchin, even just a little bit at a time, might be the best option for Black voters. “By no means do I think that the Black folks in Appalachia, the Black folks in West Virginia, are going to be able to win everything they want just by themselves,” Wells says. “It has to be multiracial, but each part of the coalition has to feel their voice and their power. And I think that’s what’s been missing.”
Black people have always been an American minority, and every single one of their major policy victories — from emancipation to desegregation — has been won by convincing White liberals and moderates that protecting the rights of Black fellow citizens is in their best interests. True power, Wells says, begins with “understanding that you can demand more.”