A work day planned for Greensboro on Saturday thankfully fell through, so I told my wife instead I would lunch at Weaver Street, then wander up to the Town Barn for the Confederate flag rally, and... would she honor me her company? She was shocked. Shocked! But, I reminded her what a gorgeous day it was, we needed lunch anyway, and wouldn't she rather meet and talk with folks she wanted to hate, to find out if they really were as loathsome as she believed? As for me, I was going to go with her or without because, as a photographer, I wouldn't miss it unless I had no other choice.
For reference, here is a link to a few of the pics I took. Nothing earth shattering, but many of the events I mention here have a corresponding picture. https://flic.kr/s/aHskhSFa8D
So we went. We took separate cars because she had an appointment in Durham at 2pm. Lunch on the WSM patio was nice and not as crowded as I expected. Next to us the Town Manager and a couple of other Town employees were finishing their lunches and we exchanged hellos. After lunch we walked up Churton street, stopping in at Micheal's for a bite of Chocolate. We noted there were two harley's parked on Churton street just outside of John Loftin's law office, with big rebel flags hanging on fishing poles affixed to their frames. My wife frowned at me and asked "seriously?" I just smiled. Finishing our chocolate fix on the sidewalk, we bumped into mayor Tom and said hello. He was clearly on his way somewhere, so we didn't keep him. Just another day in sunny Hillsborough.
I was happy to see dozens of hand made lawn signs up and down Churton street offering views to contrast with the flag wavers. "My Southern History Is: Fighting For Freedom". "My Southern Legacy: Multiracial Justice". Nice touch.
As we closed in on the Town Hall complex we noticed it was cordoned off with bright orange construction netting, and there were police. Lots of police. We were early, tho, and very few other folks were there. We walked onto the lawn where the event was to be and watched a few folks set up the PA system. As we watched, a meager but steady procession of folks carrying confederate flags entered the event grounds. Soon there were a couple of hundred people there, milling around, talking to each other, and generally smiling and enjoying the wonderful weather. As the PA system was tested, the first sound to come out after the obligatory "test, test, test..." was a recording of a fiddle playing Dixie. My wife buried her head in my shoulder so nobody would see that she was convulsed in laughter.
A middle-aged black man walked in from the Orange street entrance and walked up the stairs and sidewalk with a rebel flag t-shirt and proudly carrying a medium sized confederate flag on a wooden pole. He was smiling broadly, and happily gregarious. In the span of about 30 minutes he worked the crowd and hugged [em]everyone[/em] there, including me and my wife. He glanced at me - 6'1", 225#, probably 50 pounds heavier than him and 3 inches taller - then looked at my wife and said "I would gladly take a whuppin to get a hug from a beautiful redhead like you." We all chuckled and hugged.
As the crowd grew larger I walked onto the porch of the building to get a photo looking out at the crowd. The organizer was there, a young man in the late 20s I guessed. He eyed me suspiciously as I invaded his stage and asked "you aren't one of those thats against us, are you?" Before I could respond he smiled broadly and said "Just kidding" and reached out to shake my hand. I introduced myself and told him I wasn't with or against anybody, really, I was just there to take pictures. But, that I agreed 100% with folks gathering on public property to talk about what they thought was important and that, generally, more folks should be doing it. He smiled and agreed. I took a few pictures and moved on.
When I left the porch/stage I walked into the crowd, but could not find my wife. It was near time for her to leave so I thought maybe she had lost sight of me and decided to to leave without goodbye. I wandered down through teh trees to Churton street to see a handful of counter-protestors setting up. Across the street a group was setting up a large US flag and several 5 gallon buckets that I later learned would be used as drums. On the event side of the street, within the confines of the construction netting, a handful of college-aged kids had encamped with handmade signs. They were cheerful and laughing, in contrast to the folks across the street who seemed somewhat agitated.
As I walked back up through the trees to the main event area I saw my wife again. She said she had met a woman and had a nice long conversation with her and that she seemed like a very pleasant, typical woman "of a particular age". There was some angst, though, when this woman had to use the port-o-potty and would my wife please hold her flag? Oh, what I would give to have been there to capture that moment on camera! I'd have blackmail material for years!
My wife and I parted ways as the protestors across the street begin to bang on their makeshift drums. Up in the event area, everyone crowds around to hear some inspirational words from the serial hugger we met earlier. I can't get close enough to hear what he says, but everyone voices agreement. I find a better vantage as another man talks. Paraphrasing, his message was "Since this whole thing started people have been talking about hate. They've been pouring hate on us constantly. They say we're racists, they say we're ignorant, they call us names. Don't be like them! Don't give the hate back to them that they heap on you, we're not about hate". With that, the crowd slowly dispersed, to regroup 50 yards away at Churton street where the protestors were. I walked around the crowd down to street level for what I knew was going to be a good photo angle.
Down at street level the few kids within the orange construction netting stand and hold their signs over head. The flag wavers flock around them, not menacingly, but nicely - smiling and nodding. One young man in shorts and T-shirt and a small backpack has black tape over his mouth and he stands in silence mimicking the famous medal ceremony at the '68 Olympics. I wonder how many get the reference. He stands in this position the entirely of my time there - at least an hour. That feat alone gets my respect. One of the pro-flag group approaches him, thanks him for being there, and offers to shake his hand. He does not budge, doesn't even blink. He just stands as a statue.
With the flag wavers now in full view to Churton street, the protestors on the other side of the street get more aggressive with their drumming. Twice I see one man among the drummers flip off the flag wavers. Actually, I don't know if it was the flag wavers in general, or a specific person among them. I followed his gaze each time, but did not notice anyone among the flag wavers acting in kind or even noticing. As cars drive by, some honk and yell for the protestors, some honk and yell for the protestors. Those thus voting for the protestors seemed to outnumber those voting for the flag wavers, but those voting for the flag wavers were generally louder.
I walked back up towards the porch/stage sensing they were ready to start the event. The young man I met earlier starting talking through the PA, and asked those that could hear him to shout loudly to those still down at the road to come on up. Everyone obliged at once and the flag wavers down at the road were startled out of their conversations and quickly moved back up to the event grounds. Once folks were settled on the lawn in front of him, the young man talked for a five minutes or so about starting the group, what its meant to see it grow, and how he was sure with all the positive energy they could change peoples minds - persuade them that honoring their Southern ancestors was not wrong, not racist, and not hateful. I appreciated most of what he had to say until, near the end, he referred to the protestors down at the street as "crybabies and liberals". I remembered my fathers wise words years before, telling me that once they ignore your argument and attack you by calling you names, they've lost.
When he was done, the young man handed the mic to a young woman charged with singing the National Anthem. My expectations were... low. But, she absolutely nailed it. She sang unaccompanied, and without all the ridiculous vocal flares people seem to add these days. She sang loud, proud, on key and hit all the high notes with ease. That was worth the price of admission.
Next came another young woman who talked about the history of the Confederate Memorial Library in Hillsborough. She did a reasonably good job of it, but I didn't hear the entire talk as a woman sitting near me engaged me in discussion about my camera. I left soon after, not caring to stick around for what looked to be shaping up to be a few prayers and a dismissal. I'd seen this church service before.
Walking back down Churton street I was close behind a black man who angrily yelled at a car heading North on Churton street with a confederate flag. I responded that, while I agreed, the yelling surely didn't change the driver's mind. The man was agitated, and said "I need to get to my car before I get thrown in jail for fighting". I agreed. A steady stream of folks with "Black Lives Matter" and similar T-shirts was heading North towards the event as we headed South towards our cars. Interspersed among them was the occasional flag waver and my new walking companion made rude and snide remarks to each of them, all but daring them to respond in kind and start an argument. I again suggested he needed to calm down and not be so aggressively negative, lest he help cement in those folk's minds the idea that their opponents are raging loonies. Eventually, he met some friends and I walked on alone.
Back in the main block of downtown I saw in front of me the first hopeful sign I'd seen all day. Twenty yards in front of me was a man and woman holding a confederate flag on display near where my wife and I had seen the motorcycles earlier. With them were three women wearing "Black Lives Matter" t-shirts. The five of them were engaged in deep conversation. Not yelling past each other, but each taking turns talking, and each actively listening. I was almost moved to tears. right here, in the midst of all this demonstrating and counter-protesting and profiling by both sides, were five people with supposedly polar opposite viewpoints engaged in real discussion.
This, I told myself, is the Real Hillsborough.