‘Coming out of the woodwork’: Black Lives Matter in small-town America

By Campel Robertson

Nikki Wilkerson was used to thinking of herself as the “small brown girl” growing up in rural Pennsylvania.

She has been eyed skeptically while out shopping and questioned by police for no clear reason at all. But she had resigned herself to keeping quiet about racism, which her white friends never seemed to notice even when it happened right in front of them. Nobody around here ever talked about any of this. It’s just what it was.

And yet there one afternoon in early June, right in the middle of the county seat, she happened upon it: a crowd of white people demanding justice for Black lives. They would be joined by Black high school students, children of Latino farmworkers, “gays, lesbians, queer, transgender, whatever,” Wilkerson, 34, said. “This was not the Chambersburg I grew up in. I had no idea. All of these people are just coming out of the woodwork.”

The sight was inspiring, she said. But also frustrating. “Why weren’t we doing this a long time ago?”

Black Lives Matter could be responsible for the largest protest movement in U.S. history, springing up in countless cities and small towns after George Floyd was killed by police in May. While the street protests have tapered off in most places, newly minted activists in small towns are still discussing plans for new events or standing in the back of otherwise empty City Council meetings to make their demands for police reform.

But beyond any policy changes, which could be slow in coming, a significant consequence of recent weeks could be the realization for many Americans in small towns that their neighbors are more multiracial and less willing to be quiet about things than most anyone had assumed.

Across the state in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, a town that is 95% white, Montreo Thompson, 26, pulled a lawn chair into his driveway in early June and held up a Black Lives Matter poster.

Within days he was helping lead marches in towns all over the region and also protesting alongside Black people he had never seen before — some of whom lived down the street.

“They were literally walking distance from our house and I never knew they were there,” Thompson said.

Small-town America has never been racially and politically monolithic. After the 2016 election and especially in places where President Donald Trump romped, thousands of women who were aghast at the result became politically active for the first time, meeting in library basements and organizing small but regular rallies. Still, that movement, powered chiefly by middle-aged, middle-class women in the suburbs and exurbs, was in many ways just a preamble to the mass wave of protests following Floyd’s death.

For weeks, protesters in Chambersburg gathered on the sidewalk in front of Central Presbyterian Church, a bronze-steepled landmark dedicated in 1871, just seven years after the town was burned to the ground by Confederate soldiers. The Rev. Scott Bowerman, who has been pastor of the church for eight years, called Trump’s election “an apocalyptic moment.” It was a deliberate word choice, he said, based in the root meaning of apocalypse: a revelation.

The 2016 election, Bowerman said, revealed that Franklin County, where Chambersburg sits, was not only conservative but enamored of a brand of America-first politics that truly electrified many of the white voters, who unfurled flags for Trump in a way they never had for any another candidate. Trump won the county by more than 45 points, 71% to 25%.

But the election also revealed a silent minority, long quiet about their politics. Many already knew one another (“the usual suspects,” Bowerman said), but they began forming overtly liberal groups — Franklin County Coalition for Progress, Community Uniting, Concerned Citizens of Franklin County — planning events to celebrate Pride month, for instance, and digging into issues like redistricting reform. A new organization called Racial Reconciliation began holding discussion groups at the Presbyterian church, with mostly white attendees.

But then the George Floyd demonstrations began. These protesters were not the Trump faithful, nor were they members of the so-called resistance. At first, nobody recognized them at all.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Linda Thomas Worthy, a founder of Racial Reconciliation and one of the county’s most outspoken figures on racial issues.

She would drive through downtown during the first week of the protests to try to understand who all of the people coming out to decry racism were.

“I wanted to see how this unfolds,” she said. The protesters were mostly white but not exclusively so, not in a town where more than a third of the students in the local schools are minorities. Lexi Leydig, 23, who is mixed race and was raised by a Guatemalan stepfather, was there, as was Maricruz Cabrera, 26, a Mexican American who waits tables down the street at Falafel Shack.

Protests followed in nearly every town in Franklin County: Shippensburg up the road, little Greencastle and Mercersburg, and Waynesboro, where a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan showed up to jeer.

The politics of the protesters were deeply eclectic. Many of those at the demonstrations in Chambersburg were avowedly apolitical, with little faith in either major party or electoral politics at all. In Shippensburg, a young Black nursing assistant who announced the rally there was joined by a Republican, a libertarian, a Democrat and a young man who described himself as a “radical Christian,” all committed to defunding the police.

The most unexpected champion, perhaps, has been the Franklin County district attorney, Matt Fogal, a Republican. For weeks he had been stewing, unhappy about how partisan the pandemic response had become and about the president’s provocations. Then one afternoon he heard the protest out of his office window.

“I’m listening to them out there and just people honking in support, absolutely peaceful, a contrast to some of the images that we had been seeing,” he said. He sent a statement to local media. “Black lives matter. Period,” it said, going on to urge people to put country over party in November. The former chairman of the local Republican Party called the statement “thoroughly disgusting.”

Few involved in the protests believe that the politics of the county had somehow been transformed overnight. Trump flags still hang from front porches all over the county, and on local Facebook pages, many commenters mock the protesters as ignorant and wasting their time. Many of the young people doubt much will come of this at all.

“Once everything slows down,” said Leydig, “people will just go back to their ways.”

Still, there are some developments. The district attorney is forming an advisory group on racial matters. The meetings of Racial Reconciliation, which held a large demonstration in late June, are markedly bigger than they were. The liberal groups have begun letter-writing campaigns to downtown businesses, urging them to publicly support Black Lives Matter.