ROWLAND, N.C. – They put down their pompoms and lined up along the football field behind their tiny high school in their tiny town.
Their classmates marched the American flag onto the field. “The Star-Spangled Banner” began, and six teenage girls with blue bows in their hair each dropped to one knee.
They had for days been quietly planning this protest, against discrimination and police brutality, but also against the nation’s ratcheting racial tensions, against those white supremacists they’d seen on television with torches in a city not so far away. They had agreed in the moments before that they were ready to accept the consequences, and braced for the response.
No one booed. No one applauded them, either. No television cameras zoomed in for a close-up. As the anthem ended, some of them wondered if anyone had noticed at all. They got to their feet and launched their first cheer.
By morning, however, the culture wars splintering the nation would land here in miniature – in the most racially diverse rural county in America, a community so small a sign welcomes visitors to the “town of 1,000 friends.”
A parent from the away team had snapped a photo. Out it went onto social media. In poured calls for the girls to be punished, their principal fired.
Many lined up along ideological and racial divides, and some saw people they’d known all their lives on the other side. Those who gazed into the gulf in between were left with the same unsettling sense – something is souring in America’s soul.
HHHAajah Washington is a shy girl, merely 14, unaccustomed to conflict. She likes to cheer and sing and dreams of becoming a nurse. She grew up here in Rowland in Robeson County – where the population is split among whites, blacks and Native Americans, and many often remark at how well they’ve overcome the scars of slavery and segregation to get along, side by side.
She awoke the Saturday after the game, opened Facebook, and found that people had deemed her and her friends a disgrace. “Pure sick to my stomach,” one wrote. Another opined that they must have intellectual deficiencies. One woman offered that she’d break her child’s knees if she’d done the same thing.
Aajah hadn’t told her mother what she and her fellow cheerleaders had planned to do. And so when they talked that Saturday, Tiona Washington asked her daughter if she’d had her reasons. The girl did.
The only president Aajah had ever really known was African-American, like her. Then her county, which voted twice for Barack Obama, joined with the nation to elect Donald Trump, whose comments about Muslims and minorities seemed to only further divide Americans between “us” and “them.”
Aajah saw her new president say there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He called on NFL team owners to fire any “son of a bitch” player who continued kneeling to protest police brutality. He suggested in a speech to law enforcement officers that maybe they weren’t being rough enough.
“I watch TV every day and that’s all we see, police brutality or the KKK is coming out,” says Aajah. She’d never before felt the sting of racism, at least nothing obvious, but the ferocity of America’s divisions frightens her. She and her friends tallied up their worries as they debated whether their protest would be worth it.
“It just seems like the world is changing, where everything from back then is coming back now,” she says. “It feels like it’s slowly approaching.”
One of Aajah’s mother’s earliest memories, from kindergarten in the early 1980s, is riding in a car just across the state line in South Carolina. She saw men in white with torches lining the streets. The Washingtons are a Christian family, church every Sunday, so young Tiona equated white and flames with godliness, and assumed she was seeing something holy. But Tiona’s mother was trembling, because she knew exactly what sort of people hid under those hoods. So she shouted for her daughter to get low and told her: “If you see those people, you have to fear them.”
Tiona Washington reflects on that moment as a crumbling of childhood innocence, a sudden awareness that some of her fellow Americans hated her because of the color of her skin. Her own mother learned the same when she became one of the first black students at Rowland’s newly integrated high school in the class of 1971. Edith Washington still remembers teachers making a big show of scrubbing their hands after they touched the black students’ papers, children screaming racial slurs as she walked through the white neighborhood on her way to school.
The older women had hoped times had changed enough that Aajah would never confront anything similar.
“This is the most lost I’ve felt racially in my entire life,” Tiona Washington says, acknowledging that she, too, almost voted for Trump until the racial undercurrent of the campaign became too strong. “We are seeing things that happened in eras we thought we were past.”
In Rowland, reminders of that darker time remain. Railroad tracks separate two sides of town, and people still refer to them as “the white folks’ section” and “the black folks’ section.” And despite the halting road to progress, black people in this impoverished county are still twice as likely to be poor as whites.
Washington believes real change will only come one person, one small statement, at a time. And so, on that Saturday morning after the game, she told her daughter she was proud of her.
“We’re back at a crossroads,” Washington says. “The question is: Where do we want to go from here?”
HHHThe football field at South Robeson High has a sign at the gate for the “Vonta Leach Strength Complex,” named for a hometown kid made good – a man who pulled his family out of poverty by playing in the NFL. Days before the girls staged their protest there, a local newspaper reporter called Leach to get his response to the president’s fiery derision of protesting NFL players.
When the paper landed on doorsteps the headline read: “I would have kneeled.”
The keyboard thugs, as Leach has come to call them, pounced. People he’d considered friends told him: Get out of the United States. Go back where you came from.
He was raised in Rowland; his single mother supported him and his brother by working in the tobacco fields. He moved back to the county a few years ago because he wanted his children to grow up here. Now he sponsors a free football camp for young people, buys uniforms and helmets for his old high school, and runs a fitness program for local athletes. A church building bears his name. A sign into town declares “Home of Vonta Leach.” So he wondered where his critics might want him to go. Africa?
“Some of the comments were, ‘He ain’t nothing but an ‘N.’”
He’s sitting at an Outback Steakhouse he goes to so often the bartender starts making his drink before he orders. Farmers and factory workers pass by, clap him on the back and ask what he thought of a game last weekend. Leach doesn’t look at his neighbors with any more suspicion or wariness now, but Trump’s election, the empowerment of white nationalists since and the back-and-forth rhetoric over some sports stars taking a knee have brought him fresh clarity about race relations in America.
“I have money. I’m well-off. But at the end of the day, I’m still black, and to some people I’m still a you-know-what,” he says. “So I do understand that now. I see that now.”
Comments rolled in at The Robesonian, too. Editor Donnie Douglas has worked at the paper for decades, and was in the office in 1988 when two armed Native Americans held the staff hostage for 10 hours to call attention to racism and local corruption. Three decades later, Douglas sees flashes of racism from time to time but thought people here had generally pulled together. It seems to him now that the country is cleaving apart profoundly, and the consequences are spreading to communities like his.
He points to the other story that ran on the same front page as the interview with Leach. It detailed the defacement of a monument that has stood two-stories tall outside the courthouse for 110 years with little notice until now: a marble obelisk topped with a statue of a Confederate soldier.
“If you’re offended by the knee, then you ought to be able to understand why people are offended by that Confederate soldier up there,” he says. “And if you’re offended by that Confederate soldier, you ought to be able to understand why people might be offended by taking the knee. But everybody’s talking, nobody’s listening. There’s no empathy left in this country.”
When Douglas heard about the girls’ protest, he passed on assigning a story. He was short-staffed anyway, and he saw little value in helping dig those trenches deeper.
HHH“Did you hear?” Cary Lewis asks his buddies as they settle in for their weekly Thursday dinner of ham hocks and deer steaks at a friend’s house near Lumberton, the Robeson County seat. Sometimes, the men watch Fox News and talk politics. These days, they turn on football and bemoan the national anthem protests that, to them, represent an unraveling of American values of tradition, patriotism and honor.
“At South Robeson High School,” Lewis tells the group, “they done the exact same thing.”
“It’s nothing but follow-the-leader,” one says.
“Follow-the-leader,” Lewis agrees.
He first caught wind of the incident on Facebook. Shocked that students at a school in his county would disrespect the flag, he reposted the news. Comments piled up. Lewis deleted the nastiest – the ones with foul language – and he saw some of the cheerleaders chime in. Word spread.
In a small engine repair shop, Billy Hunt’s phone started ringing. Hunt, a Native American and a Marine in the school’s booster club, answered call after call from those who had heard about the cheerleaders’ protest and were no longer willing to support an upcoming fundraising raffle.
Hunt was hurt, because he thinks the girls failed to consider people like him, those who served their country and see the flag as a symbol of that service, of loved ones and limbs lost to war. It seemed to him that they’d chosen a side, without imagining life on the other one.
“I’d like to see it back to people start feeling for each other again,” Hunt says, “instead of: ‘Well, it’s my idea, it’s great. If it’s your idea, it sucks.’”
Lewis, who is white and a retired state trooper, also came to view the back-and-forth as evidence of a nation losing its way.
“People in this country ... they’re already losing respect in a lot of areas. It’s the national anthem and the flag now. What’s going to be next?” he asked his friends that Thursday night. “Think of ... China or Korea. What if they did not respect their country like these people are not respecting ours? Just think what they would do to them. I’m not saying we should do that to our people. ... But they teach their people respect.”
Lewis was a registered Democrat all his life. He eats breakfast at the same diner every day, and one morning last year as the primaries drew near, he and a handful of others got up from their tables, marched down to the elections office, and asked to change their registrations. They wanted to vote for Trump, because he talked like them and promised to restore the values they hold dear.
Lewis thinks complaints of racism are overblown and Trump is being unfairly condemned, but he says he would be interested in hearing what the cheerleaders have to say because he figures they must have some reason for doing what they did. He might have listened, he adds, if they’d expressed their grievances in a different way – maybe by taking their problems to elected officials or to church, maybe by kneeling in prayer and not defiance.
HHHAlmost three weeks after the protest on his field, South Robeson High School Principal Christopher Clark was still sorting through how he and his school had gotten so caught up in the tug-of-war over racial equality and nationalism.
“We’ve got a cultural battle going on for the heart and soul of America,” he says. “We’ve heard, ‘We’re taking this country back.’ Well, where do you want to take it?”
He understands that to some, that might harken back to the wholesome world of Ozzie and Harriet. But that was also a time when Clark, a Native American, had to go to the pharmacy through the back door.
Clark’s school is in the poorest pocket of one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. The student body is almost entirely minority, split approximately evenly between African-Americans and Native Americans. Some of his students have never left the county. During a fieldtrip to Fayetteville, he discovered kids who’d never seen an escalator. When “life is so different depending on where your zip code is,” he says, he doesn’t know how anyone can believe that inequality no longer exists, even if he’s not happy about how his cheerleaders chose to demonstrate against it.
A preacher’s son and a devout Christian, Clark would never have knelt had he been a kid on the field that night, and he wouldn’t have allowed his own children to, either. But he doesn’t believe he gets to make those choices for everybody else. Nor did the local school district. In the wake of the NFL protests, the superintendent had sent out a memo reminding administrators of students’ constitutional right to protest, stating they could not be forced to stand during the anthem or punished for declining to.
Clark tried to explain all of this when the ugly messages arrived. “You don’t have the guts to lead,” read one note from a friend. One after the other, the notes kept coming. Public outrage is not the rule of law, the principal tried to remind folks, but it seemed that many would rather it were.
“When we start down the road of ‘the other’ – the other is wrong, the other is un-American, the other, the other, the other – where will we stop?” he wonders. “There will be a day when we look back on this and think: What in the world happened to us?”
And so on a Wednesday afternoon before the next home football game, Clark couldn’t help but worry that the cheerleaders practicing down the hall would choose to kneel again and start this heartache all over.
The girls had their own worries: that their message was lost amid the anger and condemnation.
At the first game after the protest, homecoming, they decided to stay in the locker room as the national anthem played.
Then they discussed again what to do at the next. Kneel, and relaunch their mini-culture war? Stay inside, and let it pass?
So they marched out onto the field that next Friday night.
They stood along the sidelines and just held hands, a sign of unity, they hoped, each one of them up on both feet.
No one booed. No one applauded them, either.
The girls turned around, picked up their pompoms and launched their first cheer.
Multimedia journalist Martha Irvine and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report.