Our town was ready. By first light, the Nextdoor email group was abuzz with news of the hateful fliers as well as final details about the March for a Hate-Free Hillsborough scheduled for noon that day. The Klan’s protest the week before, replete with white robes and wizard hats, hadn’t come out of the blue. For several years now we’ve been targeted by numerous Confederate-flag-waving protests, challenging the county’s banning of “Rebel” symbols in the schools, the removal of the words “Confederate Memorial" from the history museum, as well as a town decision to limit the size of flags after an enormous and intimidating Confederate flag had been hoisted on nearby U.S. 70.
Two community organizations, Hillsborough Progressives Taking Action and the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, jumped into action, creating a flier for the anti-hate march that was posted on message boards and handed out by the light of day, calling for Hillsboroughians “to organize in bold opposition to this hate, violence, and intimation.” That flier, that message, that determination to resist — these elements form the kernel of decency at the very core of Hillsborough — a diverse town of about 6,500 adjacent to Durham and Chapel Hill — and, I believe, the seeds of victory over hate.
The kickoff spot was the Old Slave Cemetery, across the street from my house, which is usually deserted in early morning. Saturday was different. As my dog and I watched from the front porch, police officers and their canines swarmed the cemetery and its perimeter. They were “doing a sweep for explosives,” as one lieutenant explained to me.
As a journalist, I knew what to do: get out there and report on the unfolding story. But I’m also a local and I felt a mix of fear and pride. Believe me, it was unsettling to watch that sweep, especially since Zoe, my terrier, and I walk that perimeter every day. At the same time I was proud of our community leaders who had organized a rapid-response text network that alerts citizens to anti-hate actions, and this march.
(Hillsborough’s police chief, Duane Hampton, emailed me midweek to say that an “active investigation” of the fliers has been started. When I called the Klan group in Pelham for information, I listened to an outgoing message that included, “If you’re white and proud, join the crowd.” I didn’t receive a call back.)
Just before noon, I watched as neighbors poured into the cemetery from all directions. By the time I walked across the street, a crowd of several hundred had gathered. Singles. Couples. Families of all stripes. Black folk, brown and white folk, too. Mayor Tom Stevens, surveying the crowd, told me: “These are just average citizens, young, old, who have taken recent events very seriously and love this town.”
These “average citizens” carried homemade signs with heartfelt sentiments. One middle-aged woman held up a piece of cardboard with thick white lettering: “Make America Kind Again.” Another gentleman stood at attention, his sign proclaiming, “Our Town Our People.” A schoolboy, probably not older than 10, held a neon green poster board on which he’d sketched a peace sign. An African American couple in “Kamala Harris 2020” T-shirts held a sign between them: “No place in America for white supremacy.”
Determination overlaid the sadness at having to be there. “I was choking back tears the whole time,” said neighbor Tori Reynolds, referring to the opening remarks, song and benediction at the cemetery, which included members of the Meherrin and Occaneechi Indian Nations. “There we were, standing on the bodies of dead slaves. I felt the pain of all those humans who suffered — the torture, the loss of life and dignity.”
I lagged behind to do interviews as the march departed the cemetery, quickly making a turn onto West King Street, one of two main thoroughfares in town. That gave me an amazing vantage point looking down the street as marchers headed to the old courthouse: a sea of friends and neighbors, shoulder to shoulder, placards bobbing up and down, everyone sweating together in the late summer sun.
Hillsborough author Allan Gurganus, who wrote “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” soldiered down West King, relying on both a walking stick and his indignation to power his march. I asked what had brought him here. “I’m out defending home and neighbors against this epidemic of bigotry,” he replied. “ ‘Family values’ were once claimed by the Republicans, but the left must proudly claim the moral high ground.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard the North Carolina native correctly. “Family values?” I asked. “Yes," he replied. “Our new truth and conviction involves championing old home truths. Empathy. Calling out this shameless bigotry.”
By 1:30 p.m. I had arrived at the courthouse, where the rally — a mixture of song and speech — proved to be “a wonderful display of diversity,” T. Anthony Spearman, president of NAACP North Carolina, told the crowd estimated to be 500. Among the groups represented: the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, the Native American Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party, Carolina Jews for Justice, and Smash Racism Raleigh.
Patricia Clayton with Northern Orange County NAACP spoke to the timeliness of the march. “In the year that we are commemorating the first arrival of 20 slaves in Jamestown … we as a nation have to talk, think and reinvigorate ourselves to fight against oppression and say no to white supremacy. Four hundred years of hard labor, of oppression, of suppression. Lynchings, rape and pure hatred have been the story.”
I saw public safety officers lining the main street, gazes vigilant. A police walkie-talkie crackled: “There’s a man with an unconcealed gun in the front seat of his car.” Orders were quickly dispatched — and the officer returned to his watch. (In the KKK march, two of the Klansmen had illegal firearms with them.)
I found myself squeezed next to Laketa Smith, a social worker from nearby Durham, who told me, “I really came out to just add a body in solidarity to the group of people who are taking a stand here today.” She paused to consider her thoughts. “It’s kind of sad that we still have to do this. Really sad. But it makes me feel hopeful.”
Yes, hopeful. Even after the Klan protest and the before-dawn drop of the KKK fliers, I could see lightness in this march. Betty Rider, representing Carolina Jews for Justice, told a rapt audience how all people “should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of whether their philosophical, political or cultural characteristics make them different from us.” Even Klansmen? Yes, even them, she told me, although she acknowledged, “Sometimes that’s really hard to do.”
But not impossible. Of all the photos from these troubling times, the one that stays most with me: an African American man attempting to engage a hooded Klansmen in a civil conversation. Hope.
I also stopped to talk with a family of four, including 7-year-old Virani. “I’m a newspaper reporter, and I am just curious why you’re out here with your mom and her partner,” I said on one knee. Apparently, Virani (whose mother says she is multiracial) had already thought about my question, because she wasted no time in telling me: “We want to support people to be nice to each other — and to help the white people and brown people to be nice together.”
Hope. Solidarity. And average citizens who won’t stand for hate. This is the secret to Hillsborough’s victory.