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Prayer, Poetry And Protest: Hundreds Turn Out For Bryson City Black Lives Matter Rally

The latest Black Live Matters rally in a small rural town in Western North Carolina brought out hundreds in Bryson City.  


A makeshift stage and speakers stood in front of the Swain County Heritage Museum on Monday night. 


“So let me be clear today is a peaceful time. Today will be a nonviolent direct action.” 


That’s Jeff Helpman. 


“Like Dr. King said, ‘We will use this nonviolent direct action to cause tension so great that everyone in this community will be forced to confront the issue.” 


 He’s pastor at The Grove Church in Bryson City and director of nonprofit Love Bryson who organized the event with the community. His wife, Jodie who also works at both places explains what Love Bryson is: “We created it several years ago to do outreaches like this and get involved in the needs of the community and serve the community.”


She explains there was some backlash as they were organizing the rally. 


“Rumors were spread that we were busing people in from Atlanta. That we were going to do damage to the store fronts. Obviously that is not our intent at all. I mean - our kids are out there,” says Helpman. 


The event featured local musicians, poetry readings and pastors.

Credit Lilly Knoepp / Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Public Radio
Two members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians: 17-year-old Raylan Bark and 20-year-old Noland Arkansas (pictured) did a land acknowledgement at the event.

One musical group was Frank and Allie Lee. You can hear some of their music. 

Among the first speakers were two members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians: 17-year-old Raylan Bark and 20-year-old Nolan Arkansas.  They did a land acknowledgement which asks the crowd to reflect on the fact that the land where the demonstration occurred was stolen from the Eastern Band. 


Bark explained to the crowd that Kituwah, known as the Mother Town of the Eastern Band is less than 3 miles from Bryson City. 


“We feel like that is a necessary part of United States History that we have to recognize if we want to move foward with racial justice and liberate black and indeginous people,” says Arkansas. 


They weren’t the only young people to speak. Local high school students as well as the Helpman’s daughter also spoke. Here’s Jade Henry, a rising junior at Swain County High School.


“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism,” says Henry.   


Teacher and poet Ben Cutler read poetry by black authors such as this Tracy K. Smith poem called ‘Wade in the Water’...

“ I love you in the water were they pretended to wade. Singing that old blood deep song that dragged us to those banks and cast us in…” 


Local pastors from different denominations all focused on different parts of a Bible verse, Michah 6:8.

After about 2 hours, the crowd walked through the town silently past groups guarding local monuments to veterans. 


Dr. Dana Murray Patterson is Chair of the Community Coordination Committee for the Jackson County NAACP  which also covers Swain County. The group participated in the event and passed out water throughout. She explains why these small town protests are important: 


“Well because I live in these small towns too. I think, for me it means everything. It feels safer. It feels like there is a sense of solidarity. It feels like I live among people who care,” says Murray Patterson, who is African American. 


She’s also the director of Intercultural Affairs at Western Carolina University.  


“I think it’s time for change,” says Murray Patterson. “People are asking, ‘If not me then, who?’ and ‘If not now then, when?’” 


The protest ended with prayer and a candlelight vigil while the names of those killed by police brutality were read: “...Michael Lorenzo Dean, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd...”


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.