Protests in the rural towns of Western North Carolina for racial justice are growing into a movement.
Molly Haithcock, 24 and Erykah Lasha, 22, didn’t know each other until a few weeks ago even though both went to Franklin High School. Haithcock, who identifies as a black woman, says she was sickened by the killing of George Floyd and wanted to do something - anything:
“I was like, ‘I need to bring this to my hometown.’ It’s unfair that people are saying that it’s not here just because they aren’t living it,” says Haithcock, referring to racism in Macon County.
Haithcock, who grew up in Franklin while Lasha - who wasn’t comfortable sharing her last name - moved to town from Minneapolis, Minnesota during high school. She says that when she saw the video of Geroge Floyd’s death she recognized the street behind him.
“I went to that grocery store every day after school to go get snacks because it’s right down the street from my school,” sats Lasha. ‘It’s just crazy.”
It’s because of experiences like this that the two started the “Solidarity of WNC” Facebook group with Jade Green, 25, who moved to Franklin about two years ago and also wasn’t comfortable sharing her last name.
Soon after starting the Facebook group - which now has over 700 members - demonstrations in Franklin and Sylva were announced.
“Black Lives! Matter! Black Lives! Matter!”
About 260 people marched Friday night in Franklin from town hall to the town square, which sits directly across from the Macon County Courthouse and a monument to Confederate Veterans.
Franklin Mayor Bob Scott, volunteers such as a member of the People’s Liberation Society and local history teacher and activist John deVille spoke at the square. deVille shared the story of a local minister who was the Imperial Chaplin of the KKK in 1925, and recounted the lynching of a black man which took place less than a mile away from where they were standing:
“They took Mitchell Moseley down to the bridge next to the playground and they hung him off that bridge,” explains deVille. He also outlined the political campaign of David Siler which focused on law and order.
There were a few tense moments...
“You could stand for what America could be but you stand for what it is!”
A group of almost 50 people gathered in front of the monument - some held American flags and a few held Confederate memorabilia.
“Hey hey, ho ho, these racist statues got to go.”
Words were exchanged between both sides. Protesters said they felt that local law enforcement did not step in soon enough. Franklin Police Chief Bill Harrell said the event was "just a disagreement.”
Afterwards, Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland explained to a demonstrator that, “We’re here to protect everybody. That’s our job.”
There was also an altercation with Macon County News and Shopping Guide reporter Brittany Lofthouse. The video has since been removed and Lofthouse issued this statement on the Macon County News Facebook page after the protest. She says the statement did not pertain to the confrontation but explained in a Facebook comment that the video “was not reflective of the overall peaceful and meaningful protest.”
Main street in Franklin was not blocked off during the event so cars continue to drive yelling and honking support for both sides.
Republican State Representative Kevin Corbin stood outside his business there: “It’s bothered me to watch these protests - I call them riots - across the nation. That’s not happening here. People are just expressing themselves. Agree or disagree,” says Corbin.
Just hours later on Saturday morning, the group was setting up for day two in Sylva at the Bridge Park.
The Sylva Police Department blocked off all roads intersecting with the protest route for the almost 400 people marching as well as the entire courthouse steps where a monument to Confederate Veterans sits in the middle.
“Say his name! George Floyd! Say her name! Breonna Taylor!Say her name! Breonna Taylor!”
A group of counter protesters gathered at the top of the steps to protect the monument to Confederate Veterans and very few came down to the park.
A number of people volunteered to speak at the event including some of the same folks from Friday’s event in Franklin. Gerald Isaiah Parks of Franklin spoke about his mother Shirley, who was the first black principal in the Macon County School System. He had this to say to any counter protestors: “And for the ‘All Lives Matter’ folks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was peaceful and you killed him too, so quit putting him on your Facebook.”
During a volunteer’s speech about the ability of Christianity to heal racism, Sarah Mwaniki, who identifies as white, couldn’t contain her disagreement.
“We have to forgive each other and just let the past be the past, says a man who introduced himself as Doug. You can hear Mwaniki saying, “What about my black daughter?” and someone else saying, “This is not just about God.”
After some discussion, Mwaniki was invited to the stage to share her perspective.
“As a white woman and a mother of a black child, married to black man and I have a black family. I don’t know that I can completely agree with complete peacefulness,” she explains, adding that she wouldn’t want to destroy the "beautiful businesses of downtown Sylva." Mwaniki says she has been with her husband for 10 years.
Mwaniki was also involved in an altercation with the Sons of Confederate Veterans after the Peace Vigil in Sylva on May 31. She says the group used the N-word. Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton, who was present, says the group "didn't cause any problems" in an interview on June 3.
Michael McIntosh, also volunteered to speak. He says he’s been in Sylva for about 20 years and is originally from Jamaica. He and his son, who is 19, both spoke.
“Thank you guys for coming. The best thing that you can do while you are here is to educate yourselves. There is a lot out there that you can and you should learn,” says McIntosh.
Solidarity of WNC says that this is just the beginning.
The group plans to have more events soon. Right now, the Facebook group is archived as the group plans. Throughout the two days, money was raised for a concert with local black musicians.
A previous version of this story said that Macon County News Repoter Brittany Lofthouse issued an apology after the Franklin protest. She did not.