The voices of more than 1,000 singing “We Shall Overcome” rose up in front of the Graham courthouse on Election night as a peaceful group of marchers met a group of counter-protesters bearing confederate flags. 

The event was a replay of a march to the polls held on Saturday, at which Alamance County Sheriff’s officers deployed pepper spray on a group of voters that including children and the elderly, causing some to become sick. The family of George Floyd had also been in attendance. Fifteen people were arrested.

Tuesday’s march to the polls began at 4:00 p.m., as a line of marchers two-to-three people wide wound through neighborhoods in a route that retraced its steps, with stops at a polling site and Saturday’s intended early voting site. 

It was a quiet hour, almost eerily so: A flyer distributed among the crowd earlier had instructed participants to “be seen and not necessarily heard,” and organizers were adamant about making sure the group stayed off the roads. 

On the sidelines, people were watching. In downtown Graham, people had put down camping chairs in the doorways of stores, as trucks with large confederate and Trump flags lined the streets. In the neighborhoods, families—mostly Black—came out of their houses to raise their fists, clap, and cheer. 

Cheryl Harvey has lived in Alamance County for 20 years. She couldn’t make it to the march this weekend, but said she had a “gut feeling” that things would take a turn. 

“We have a racist sheriff and councilmen—all the way back,” Harvey says.

Beside her, Harvey’s husband Arnold held up a sign with blue-and-red block lettering, with cheerful pictures of multi-racial masked faces: “Make Alamance Great 4 All!”

The crowd Tuesday was more than five times the size of this weekend’s demonstration, according to Reverend Gregory Drumwright, a pastor in neighboring Greensboro. Alamance County, a semi-rural Republican stronghold in the state, has a track record of racism and hostile treatment of protesters. In 2015, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson—who has been in office 18 years—was sued by the Justice Department for racial profiling.

Over the summer, Graham has become a pressure cooker for tensions between protesters, counter-protesters, and police.

On November 2, the ACLU announced that it was suing the Alamance County Sheriff and Graham Chief of Police on behalf of the voters that were pepper sprayed. 

“Law enforcement officers in Graham violently interfered with voters’ march to the polls on Saturday and suppressed a peaceful and lawful assembly,” Chantal Stevens, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said in a press release. “We know that voters, particularly Black and Brown voters, have repeatedly refused to let acts of intimidation silence their voices or deprive them of the right to vote, and we hope that’s the case during this election.”   

The Tuesday march reached Court Square at sundown, as counter-protesters waited near the confederate monument. One man stood by clock on the square, waving a large confederate flag. Another man was seen jumping up and down on a Black Lives Matter flag. 

“Black lives matter don’t matter,” one counter-protester shouted, “All lives matter!” 

John Bell, a resident of Orange County, was quietly standing in the grass by the courthouse holding a cardboard sign in memory of John Lewis. He said he’d met the Civil Rights activist in Atlanta in the early nineties, and had never forgotten the encounter. 

“I want my children to know how important I think this is,” Bell said. “When you’re an old, privileged white man, it’s important to stand in solidarity with those put at risk.” 

The singing was louder than the heckling come across the street. And though there was an electric tension in the air, there were no confrontations between the two groups. 

“We’re done dying, Graham. The whole world is watching,” Drumwright said a little before 7 p.m. Shortly afterward, the march dispersed, and voters and supporters went home. Counter-protesters stayed huddled in Court Square, for awhile; one man murmured to a companion that he was looking for a fight. 

At 7:30 p.m., all over country, polls closed. 


Follow Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Sarah Edwards on Twitter or send an email to sedwards@indyweek.com

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.