The Woolworth’s store on South Elm Street marks the start of downtown Greensboro. Its lunch counters, the catalyst of a national wave of sit-ins in 1960, are part of civil rights history that pulses through the city.
Sixty years later, there are new signs in downtown Greensboro that the movement for racial justice is still underway — and unfinished. The words “Black Lives Matter” are everywhere, including South Elm Street, painted onto the asphalt between February One Place and Washington Street.
In North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, which includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point, some voters will be carrying those words to the polls this year. The recently redrawn district is predicted to vote overwhelmingly blue — Kathy Manning, the Democratic candidate, is highly favored — but for some of its Black residents, whose desires are neither monolithic nor zeroed on police, words are not enough. Wary of sweeping campaign commitments, they are seeking material improvements for their communities.
“I feel like nothing’s changed. I feel like it’s just more in the spotlight,” V. R. Baker, who has lived in Greensboro for 23 years, said. But national protests following the police killing of George Floyd have shifted her perspective. “Demonstrating was beautiful because it woke people up. It was like an earthquake that woke people up.”
“When the George Floyd situation came through, it just opened up old wounds,” said Jaye Webb, chair of the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission.
For the Triad area, the wounds are deep and many: the 1979 killings of five residents by the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party during a march supporting Black textile workers where police failed to intervene, the 2018 police killing of Marcus Deon Smith, the 2019 killing of John Neville in Forsyth County Detention Center in Winston-Salem, long-unmet needs for basic community care and investment.
“Politicians, they say a lot of things, but they don’t necessarily act on them,” Ryan Upton, a junior at North Carolina A&T State University, said. “You can say it in front of us, but then when we’re going back to work and living our everyday busy lives, it’s like, okay, who really is doing it?”
The candidates have staked out distinct positions on the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a statement after Floyd’s killing, Manning wrote: “Too often, too many act as if black lives don’t matter. They do.”
Her campaign has neither discussed race further on its website, nor run Facebook or Google ads about race, according to online databases.
During an interview with The 9th Street Journal, Lee Haywood, the Republican candidate, said: “I’m for ‘all lives matter.’ Yes, Black lives are included in there as well, but all lives matter.”
His campaign has not discussed race further on its website, though his first “issue” is public safety. His campaign has run one Facebook ad about the Black Lives Matter movement, which reads: “I belong to the oldest Black Lives Matter group in the nation: the Republican Party!”
The candidates have not made clear what actions they plan to take in office against structural racism and police brutality.
Manning supports a ban on hogtying, the police practice that killed Smith and Neville, and she endorses the Justice in Policing Act, the House Democrats’ police reform bill, which she called “an important first step” in a statement without enumerating subsequent steps.
Haywood does not have a public plan. “The Republican Party, we’re not promising the Black people anything,” he said. “We’re not promising any checks. We’re not promising any freebies. We’re going to leave you alone as much as possible.”
In this moment of racial reckoning, though, Black voters say that they are not asking for “checks” or “freebies,” but for the government to repair systemic problems and tangibly serve communities in need.
“The problem is so deep-rooted. I would say, focus on mental health, expanding public education and the resources that it has, and also trying to secure these families that may not even have a place to live,” said Demetri Banks, a senior at A&T, referencing the low-income neighborhoods surrounding the university. “If we focus on that, everything will trickle down.”
Black voters interviewed by The 9th Street Journal said that when defunding the police is mentioned, it is about a need to realign budget priorities and redistribute funding to properly address social gaps.
“‘Defund the police,’ I feel like, is a stretch because they’re still needed, but I feel like if you’re going to give the money and resources to one emergency field, you should give it to the other,” said Christopher Slade, who has lived in Greensboro for 19 years. “If you have the resources to invest in police, tear gas, rubber bullets, then I feel like you should be able to invest in hospitals and help COVID research.”
Joy Kirk, who has lived near High Point for three years, has worried as much about her children’s interactions with the police as she has about her children’s safety after a recent rash of shootings in Greensboro and High Point.
“If the system wasn’t set up the way it was and designed for us to fail to begin with, there would be less Black-on-Black crime. But that justifies someone else, that’s held to a higher stature, to shoot and kill us?” she said.
In Webb’s work with the advisory commission, community members have urged broader investment in employment opportunities, healthcare, and crime prevention programs such as midnight basketball.
“I don’t think we can allow police to police the police. I think if we don’t make moves on that, we could see the next Minneapolis,” he said.
For Webb and the commission, those moves involve increased transparency: repealing laws that could conceal police misconduct, establishing nationwide police decertification records, and making records about police personnel and correctional facilities widely accessible.
“It’s not in the matter of defunding the police from existence. I think it is reappropriating funds into other opportunities that would allow for communities to have resources,” he said. “Hopefully, our elected officials will understand not only that this is the right time, and that it’s not going away no time soon.”