A few weeks ago, a girl who went to a high school near mine messaged me with a link to a video of a Surry County Board of Commissioners meeting.: “This is fucking terrible,” she wrote.

The May 17 video picks up an hour and a half in, when the commissioners —all white men—start talking about how they don’t want money for the public schools in the district to go toward diversity and equity training. 

“This counter-culture wokeism, left-leaning liberal Marxism and the new America that’s trying to be formed—I’m telling you, folks can’t hide from this,” Commissioner Van Tucker says.

Ten minutes later, Commissioner Eddie Harris proposes that the group create “grassroots change” by removing the 12 Coca-Cola vending machines that operate in county offices to protest the soda company’s statement against a law in Georgia that would make absentee voting harder and prevent folks from handing out water as people wait in line at the polls. 

The board, in a 3-2 vote, decides to remove the machines. Harris acknowledges that they get their products from a local Coca-Cola distributor, who could ultimately bear the weight of this decision, but says “Coca-Cola needs to pay the price.”

Turns out, this piece of political theater did ultimately hurt only the 37 people who work at Surry County’s Coca-Cola bottling plant, and Coca-Cola Consolidated, its parent company in Charlotte. The global soft drink behemoth didn’t even begin to  feel the effects of a boycott in a North Carolina county with a population of less than 72,000.

“We have absolutely no control over their opinions or statements about any issue, and we don’t do any business in the state of Georgia,” Alison Patient, vice president of government affairs of the Charlotte-based bottling company, told the commissioners June 7. “My company, Coca-Cola Consolidated, has a policy to only speak out on public policy issues that directly relate to our business, like this one tonight.”

It took three days for The Mount Airy News to write a story on the commissioners’ decision; a few days later, I got that DM. By June 2, national outlets took notice; Surry County made headlines at The Hill and CBS, as well as conservative outlets like Fox News and New York Post. Commissioner Harris went on Fox and Friends to speak on the group’s decision.

Residents at the June 7 meeting mentioned this during a public forum.

“I just want to ask you what you are really doing to address the needs of the least of these in our community,” Alexius Brown Lipot told the commissioners. “You talk about standing up to the ‘cancel culture,’ yet you become the very same. You talk about representing your constituents, but while you brag on Fox News, some of your constituents are dying, while others are exhausting themselves to help the least of these.”

Multiple speakers mentioned Harris’s own words about the opioid epidemic and its devastating effects on the county. A man asked what it would take for the commissioners to accept that the election was free and fair. All asked the commissioners to focus on what the community actually needs.

“Quite frankly, if you sit on the Board of Commissioners for Surry County and you would refuse any company to bring economic development to our county, you are a moron,” Wes Caudle told the board.

At that meeting, in another 3-2 vote, the commissioners took back their previous declaration. Harris and Tucker dissented.

This isn’t the first time Surry County has made national news for its conservative politics. 

In January 2017, a reporter from The Washington Post  came to town to write about how Donald Trump had won over conservative Christians. In the story, former mayor David Rowe made some remarks that would lead most elected officials to resign.

“When you’re my age and you see an African American boy with pants at their knees, you can’t appreciate them,” he told the Post. “I’m worried about when a person chooses to dress like that, what kind of effect will that person have on society.”

Instead of resigning, Rowe was elected to another term later that year.

In January, a Pilot Mountain couple stormed the U.S. Capitol alongside roughly 800 right-wing rioters. Both have been charged with entering or remaining in a restricted building without lawful authority, as well as with violent entry and disorderly conduct.

And if you’re fine going back a few years and stepping a few miles away, a Ku Klux Klan cross burning in Cana, Virginia, ten minutes from Mount Airy, was the subject of a Supreme Court decision in 2003.

Then, there are smaller things. 

In 2020, board chair Larry Johnson signed onto a statement of understanding from the Surry County NAACP that acknowledged the existence of systemic racism and made a commitment to do better. The mayors of Elkin, Pilot Mountain, and Dobson signed on, too. The other four commissioners opposed Johnson’s decision. 

“This commissioner does not believe that our country is systemically racist,” Harris said at the time.

There’s the Confederate monument, located next to the county courthouse, which was dedicated in 2005—just 140 years after the Civil War ended. Or the reporter covering the Coca-Cola controversy for the Mount Airy News, formerly owned by the right wing Civitas Media group, who compared the murder of two journalists in Roanoke, Virginia, to the Charleston church shooting. And then, the extension of the Barter Theatre, one of the only year-round repertoire theatres still standing, that was scrapped because local officials said it’d be too expensive.

Despite all this, Surry County isn’t as staunchly Republican as people may expect. In the November 3 election, Democrats received around 25 percent of the vote in almost every race (Orange County also had a 75-25 split, with Republicans in the minority). Surry County has more than 4,000 Black residents and almost 8,000 Latinx residents (my family is included in that count, although we are white Latinx). Together, they make up about 15 percent of the population. In Forsyth County, a 45-minute drive and home to the closest Target, almost 41 percent of residents are Black or Latinx.

A Juneteenth festival took place in downtown Mount Airy earlier this month. There was a Black Lives Matter rally last year. These events do not absolve the racism and partisanship of our elected officials—especially as the local newspaper shares commentary from readers telling the public that Black folks have “an excuse for failure”—but they represent glimmers of progress. 

Mount Airy, the biggest town in Surry, was my only home until I moved to the Triangle for school. My parents still live there. Both sets of my grandparents moved there in recent years. I have a tattoo of Pilot Mountain, the first thing I see when I hit the county line, so that I could always take a piece of home with me. 

I don’t know what would make my hometown more tolerant: changing the direction of dying newspapers, or the weak organizational support for rural Democrats in Surry and other small counties, or some act of God. I worry about the conservative feedback loop that only strengthens as people like me move away. 

I also see hope in the children and teens and supportive community members who don’t want to put up with it any longer. In 2017, I wrote about The Washington Post story for a college media group and asked folks to expand their understanding of my hometown, and all other small towns. Four years later, I still wish for that, but I also wish for it to do the work to be the happy, friendly place it claims to be.

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that The Mount Airy News was formerly owned by the right wing Civitas Media group, not the Civitas Institute. 

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