When I moved to North Carolina from San Francisco in 2004, a friend teasingly asked, “Why are you moving to Appalachia?" In fact, I’d moved to Chapel Hill, and as I assured my friend, Chapel Hill is “not only home to the University of North Carolina, but boasts a Whole Foods Market, an Aveda salon and a James Beard-nominated restaurant just down the road in Hillsborough.” Then I quipped, “It’s just like the Bay Area — without the views.”
Actually, I kind of believed that.
Not so fast. Last week, roughly 20 members of the Ku Klux Klan — yes, complete with white robes and pointed hoods — drove down from near the Virginia border to stage a protest on the steps of our historic courthouse in Hillsborough, where I now live. Like Alice in Wonderland, I felt I’d tumbled through the looking glass, where time had been reversed. As in those haunting black-and-white photos from the last century, the Klansmen waved Confederate flags while two held high a banner that read: “Loyal White Knights. Yesterday, Today, Forever! Ku Klux Klan.” Right below its website address (yes, the Klan has moved into the digital age) was this now familiar line: “Help make America great again” with a suggestion on how to do that: “Join the Loyal White Knights,” reportedly the largest active Klan group and one that participated in the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
We’d had no advance warning — the Klan protesters didn’t apply for a permit — but their rally was really no surprise to many of us. “Rebel” flags had made sporadic appearances for several years, but the tide really turned in 2015 after Hillsborough decided to remove two words — “Confederate Memorial” — from the local history museum. Soon after, hundreds descended on our town to protest that change, many of them waving Confederate flags. They gave “heritage not hate” as their raison d’etre, but that claim was undermined afterward, when two rainbow flags outside the United Church of Christ were torched.
In the past month, Confederate flag-wavers have been back in town, this time focused on our adorable Willy Wonka-style chocolate shop, whose proprietor — Matthew Shepherd — is gay. “They’re blocking people from crossing. They’re calling people names,” Shepherd told the ABC TV affiliate about the protesters. The chocolatier tried to take it in stride, with a tongue-in-cheek blackboard message that invited customers to “Burn a Rebel Flag . . . Get a Free Chocolate!” Three Confederate flag-bearers had their picture taken with it and posted it online, where it went viral. Once again, the “rebels” claimed no hate in their hearts, but Shepherd started to receive death threats.
Our Nextdoor online community — usually the place to find a pet-sitter or a handyman — was consumed with the topic. One neighbor posted: “We all know what the flag stands for.”
Yes, we do. That’s why I took heart a few weeks ago when my friends and neighbors staged a counterprotest in support of our Willy Wonka. And, by day’s end, the shelves were bare; his entire supply of homemade chocolate, including the almond bark, nonpareils and my favorite, the Buddha truffles, had been bought.
At that point, I figured it was only a matter of time before the Loyal White Knights would drive the 44 miles from their town to ours. Indeed, Klansmen (and women) came out from under their rocks, where they’d been all along. “Now that we have someone in high office who delights in lifting up those rocks,” a neighbor emailed the other day, “the monsters with hard, little hearts are springing forth.” “Monsters” with MAGA-inspired banners, no less.
For now, there’s a brighter chapter to this dark tale. Last week when the Klan showed up, Hillsborough stepped up. Community organizers activated a recently created text-messaging network for mobilizing a rapid response to white supremacist and Confederate rallies. Supporters rushed downtown, quickly outnumbering the KKK contingent — “maybe 10 to 1,” Mayor Tom Stevens told a reporter. “People dropped what they were doing — neighbors, shopkeepers, parents — just stopped and went to the courthouse to stand and be present and let the world know that the KKK, neo-Confederate, white supremacist message is just not going to be welcome here and it’s not part of our community.”
A local therapist described the town’s response on Facebook: “Family and friends [were] trying to engage in dialogue with these cowards in hoods, trying to understand and maybe, inspire some love for our fellow humans. That is the silver lining that I have been trying to hold onto.”
She ended her post with a warning: “If you do not live in a place where hate is waved and shouted so blatantly, do not be fooled. It is happening.” Yes, it’s happening — not in faded black-and-white photos from the 1960s, but here and now, in living color. Yes, in 2019.
The Klan has announced plans to return to Hillsborough this weekend. Our rapid response network is ready to be deployed, again, and town folk have planned a march against racism on Saturday. We are ready to stand together for what we believe in as a community: Hate has no home here.