ROCKY MOUNT — Henry Turnage returned Friday to the site of his one-man protest, waving an American flag, followed by young marchers holding a Black Lives Matter banner.
He stepped up onto the pedestal supporting a statue of a Confederate soldier that stands outside the Franklin County Courthouse, the same statue he walked laps around for several days running in June.
This time he was surrounded by at least 90 members of Franklin County’s first official Black Lives Matter protest.
Though many of the speeches given in front of the courthouse touched on the statue, which protesters want to see moved from county property to a museum or similar facility, the leader of the march, Bridgette Craighead, 30, said the purpose was to honor the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“We wanted to bring history here to us,” she said. The issues of oppression and racism that King spoke out against in 1963, “we’re dealing with it here.”
The May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, inspired Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality throughout the nation and led to demands for the removal of Confederate monuments throughout the South.
Craighead organized the first protest in Rocky Mount on June 3, a peaceful affair that included a brief address from Franklin County Sheriff Billy Overton. A Washington Post report on protests she’s organized since documented responses like shouted curse words and obscene hand gestures from passersby.
Friday afternoon’s march, with Rocky Mount police officers accompanying the protesters and guiding traffic along the route from Mary Elizabeth Park to the courthouse and then to the shelter at the Farmer’s Market, suffered no hostile disruptions.
The Rev. James Holland of Lovely Valley Baptist Church began the march with a prayer. “We hope that this means that we will be able to come together and grow together,” he said.
In front of the courthouse, the speakers included Franklin County NAACP President Walter Lawson, Roanoke NAACP President Brenda Hale, and Martinsville Vice Mayor Chad Martin, who thanked the police officers present and made an appeal to white supporters: “Don’t be silent and don’t ever stop saying Black Lives Mater.”
A state law that took effect July 1 allows local governments to take steps to remove, relocate, contextualize or cover up war memorials, including Confederate monuments, under their jurisdiction. Franklin County supervisors chose to hold a referendum so that county voters could weigh in on whether or not the statue stays at the courthouse. The board will not be bound by the referendum’s results.
Supporters of moving the statue have criticized the board for putting the matter to a referendum, emphasizing that Black residents comprise only about 8% of the county’s population.
Franklin County School Board member-at-large Penny Blue, whose efforts starting in October ultimately led to a change in the school dress code banning images of the Confederate flag, offered a challenge to one of the tenets cited repeatedly by county residents who want the statue to stay put.
Though Franklin County native and Black education pioneer Booker T. Washington wrote a letter expressing interest in the construction of the original version of the statue, dedicated in 1910, there is no evidence he ever donated any money to it, she asserted.
Turnage, whose June protest inspired the calls to the county board of supervisors to have the statue moved, called his son Xavier, 8, to the podium.
“This is the reason I’m here,” Henry Turnage said, gesturing to the statue. “My son cannot come in here and receive justice the way a white person’s son can.”
A military spouse whose wife has retired from the U.S. Air Force, Turnage said he never intended to be the leader of anything. “I’m just a Black father in America.”
At the farmers market, Doni Williams, 58, a white father from Smith Mountain Lake, sought to speak with volunteers manning a voter registration table. He was there in support with his daughter, Kristin Turner. “I’m paying attention,” he said. “We have to listen.”