No one mentioned David Duke’s name on April 18, but the memory of his February anti-immigration rally was still fresh for the crowd gathered on the steps of the city hall in Siler City to “celebrate the many different peoples” who live there.
Gloria Maldonado, a native of Mexico and member of St. Julia Catholic Church, a Siler City congregation with a large Latino population, said her community supoorted the rally “because we want people together in this city.” St. Julia’s church van and sign were vandalized the day Duke came to town. Letters on the church’s marquee were rearranged to spell “White Power.”
Returning to city hall, the same place Duke had been, was important, said Lenore Yarger, organizer of the Unity Walk and rally. “People felt like it was very important to reclaim that space and give it a positive image again.”
The Holy Week event, which included representatives from the Latino, white and African-American communities, was held as part of the annual Pilgrimage for Peace and Justice sponsored by the Raleigh-based Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America (CITCA). The pilgrimage began on Palm Sunday in Greensboro and made stops in Burlington, Siler City, Pittsboro, Chapel Hill and Durham, ending in Raleigh on Good Friday. CITCA has sponsored Holy Week Pilgrimages–which have embraced a wide range of progressive issues–for the last 16 years. This year’s pilgrimage focused on Jubilee, “a time to recall and practice the belief that all things come from God,” CITCA Director Gail Phares said at the rally. “Traditionally, Jubilee has been a time for correcting social imbalance, forgiving debts and freeing slaves. Jubilee is a time to work to reverse the gap between the poor and the rich.”
While the Good Friday finale drew the largest crowd, the Siler City gathering was more than 100 strong and the most diverse. “In light of the recent anti-immigrant rally in Siler City, local residents feel called to express appreciation for the many gifts that emerge from the city’s diverse population,” Yarger said. Besides affirming “all peoples,” the gathering focused on the city’s lack of affordable housing, general economic hardship, workplace exploitation and “discrimination by local institutions”–a reference to racial profiling by local police.
Local activists and church leaders painted a different picture of life in this growing Chatham County community than the one Duke presented. The Rev. Barry R. Gray, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church and a Siler City native, said African Americans weren’t fooled by Duke and his anti-immigrant supporters, who hope to drive a wedge between blacks and Latinos.
“I saw [Duke’s message] as propaganda,” Gray said. “Everybody knows what David Duke and his people stand for.” To bolster anti-immigration sentiment, African Americans and Latinos have been inaccurately portrayed to each other. Latinos have been told to fear blacks. Blacks have been told that Latinos are “going to take away your jobs and uproot you,” Gray said. “That’s just not true. You have to look and see who’s in control. Siler City’s been historically a chicken community. Because of low wages and no benefits, [poultry-business owners] had to turn to Hispanics. For the most part, we had left these places anyway. Look who’s in control. White America’s in control, so they’re doing the manipulating.”
A few decades ago, people like Duke were staunch segregationists, Gray said. “Now they’re asking us to be unified with whites against Hispanics. That’s ludicrous. [Duke] had the gall to say, ‘We’re on your side. Let’s fight against these people. Join forces with us to run these people out of town.’”
Like most immigrants who have come to the United States, Latinos are searching for a better life for their families, Gray said. “These people are just like we are. It’s just a different language spoken. We’re all human beings made by the same creator. We can all live together in harmony and peace.”
African Americans understand what Latinos are going through, Gray said. “I sympathize with you. I understand your struggle and your fight.” By attempting to separate blacks and Latinos, David Duke has shown people how important it is to unify, Gray said. Anti-immigration forces will see their efforts backfire.
In politics, “numbers mean a lot,” Gray continued. If Latinos get registered to vote and join forces with African Americans, “there’d be a lot of dramatic changes under way in Siler City. Once we unify we can make a difference in how government is run.”