Story and photos by Laura Brummett
More than a dozen speakers stood in front of a crowd of about 100 mask-clad people outside of Fair Promise Church Saturday afternoon in downtown Sanford. They shared anger, they shared pain, and they shared hope. They shared Bible verses, personal poems and ideas for change in the community.
Shortly after, a separate group of about 50 people marched from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park down Horner Boulevard all the way to Depot Park. They held signs reading “End Police Brutality” and “Unity and Love.” They played music and cheered as cars drove by and honked in support.
The next morning, the peaceful protesters awoke to learn the Martin Luther King Jr. monument they had previously gathered in front of had been defaced. The words “All Lives Matter” had been added to the bricks in white spray paint.
At the rally on Saturday, even before the monument had been vandalized, Fair Promise Pastor Joseph Robbins had an answer to the spray-painted words.
“Yes, black lives do matter,” he said to the crowd. “And to those of you that have the retort ‘all lives matter,’ can I tell you, all lives cannot matter until black lives matter.”
The gathering at Fair Promise was in response to the killing of George Floyd, which happened about two weeks ago when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck while three other officers watched and helped hold him down. Since then, protests have taken place across the globe, asking for justice and equality for black people and those harmed by police brutality.
At the rally, Sanford native Kathreen Stringfellow said she came out to see a time of unity and change in the community.
“Hopefully we can get a change in not just our community, but through the United States of America,” she said. “Starting all the way from the White House, trickling down to people and government officials.”
Sanford resident Ciera Dixon was brought to the rally for similar reasons.
“I’m out here because I’m an African American woman, mother, sister and wife,” she said. “I think that all lives matter, but right now, the focus is black lives.”
With Dixon stood Autumn Oldham, who is an educator in Durham.
“I am a loud and proud member of the allies for the BIPOC community,” she said. “I 100-percent believe if you are going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.”
Julian Martin was at the rally looking for justice and change, and said she wants to make sure that what happened in Minneapolis won’t happen in Sanford.
“We’re only as good as our weakest link,” he said.
The Rally’s Speakers
Robbins addressed the crowd by saying the country was not at a turning point, but a breaking point.
“This is 400 years of pent-up oppression,” he said. “This is 400 years of dehumanization. This is 400 years of discrimination.”
He led chants of “No justice, no peace,” among the crowd.
Sanford Mayor Chet Mann, a Democrat, was the first speaker, and led off by denouncing Floyd’s killing.
He announced that he’s signed onto a letter, along with about 100 other North Carolina mayors, promising to work with police leadership, asking for a full and fair trial of the Minneapolis police officers and giving their support to those peacefully protesting.
Mann mentioned several initiatives going on in the area to promote education, including Lee County Promise, which offers free tuition at Central Carolina Community College to high school graduates.
“Education defeats ignorance and intolerance every time,” he said.
Mann then said the Sanford Police Department would be implementing the 8 Can’t Wait initiative, which was created by former President Barack Obama to reform departments and better train officers. The Sanford Police Department is also on its way to becoming CALEA certified, he said.
Sanford City Councilman Byron Buckels, a Democrat, was one of several speakers to reference the Bible.
“I share your pain,” he said. “In fact, I know your pain, and I want you to know that your pain and your voice is being heard very loud and very clear.”
Democrat Robert Reives II, a Sanford native who represents Chatham and part of Durham County in the North Carolina House, took the stage after Buckels, and said he was mad at himself for still being angry, but continued that each time he thinks about what happened he gets more angry.
“Mr. Floyd wasn’t murdered just last week, Mr. Floyd was murdered years ago,” Reives said. “He got murdered when we let this country change right under us. He got murdered when we let George Wallace win.”
George Wallace was the governor of Alabama for 16 years, and was known for being a segregationist. He held office until 1987.
Reives continued that he’s had a lot of people reach out to him to say they were thinking about him or that they loved him.
“Well if you love me, show me,” he said. “Telling people and then going back to your bad ways does nothing.”
The officers now charged with killing Floyd came up in a police department culture which was pushed along by their chief, Reives said.
“Their chief was hired by their city council, you know who hires your city council?” Reives said. “You.”
He then asked the crowd to stop tolerating racist attitudes.
“If you are serious then you stop tolerating it,” Reives said. “When it’s your brother, when it’s your mother, when it’s your kids, when it’s your coworkers. If they start this racist, hateful, bigoted, divisive talk, you tell them that’s not welcome where you are.”
Sanford resident Crystal McIver was next to speak, and said she was there to celebrate the fact that Sanford is a community that can get it right. She told the crowd to be willing to be uncomfortable.
“When you listen you gain knowledge, it’s going to take knowledge,” she said. “We want to be happy. That’s all.”
After McIver was Pam Glover, who addressed the crowd by saying that her ancestors died fighting the same racial injustice that is still being faced in 2020.
Glover used to work at Bragg Street Academy, and went to their graduation celebration recently. There, she ran into one of her former students who was now a graduate, she said.
“He looked at me and said ‘Ms. Glover, I told you I was gonna do it,’” she said. “I looked him in his eyes and I held his face and I said ‘promise me you’ll stay alive.’”
Glover told the crowd that if they wanted to talk about generational freedom, they had to talk about it all, including black on black violence.
“I am so sad and so tired of going to view bodies and going to funerals and grieving families and supporting them because the person that took their loved ones life is the same color as them,” she said.
Isaiah Withers, a representative of the National Black Worker Center Project, spoke.
“At the age of 24 I see that George Floyd is just two bullets away from hitting me,” he said. “Breonna Taylor is two bullets away from hititng my mother.”
Withers told the people to march to the polls and to city council meetings.
“The change starts in the barbershops where we get our fresh fades with the part on the side,” he said. “The change starts in the salons where you get your perms and lace fronts. The change starts in the community. The future starts now.”
William Johnson, part of the Failure Not an Option organization, began by saying when he saw what happened to George Floyd, he could see the knee on his neck.
Johnson then read out a poem he wrote called “Reality Check.”
“I feel the spirit of George Floyd and I too can’t breathe,” he read. “You see, I feel mighty black today with someone shouting and screaming ‘Show me your hands!’”
Shawn Williams, pastor of God’s Promise Church, spoke next, and told the crowd that he was retired law enforcement.
“You can wear the badge, but you can’t do murder,” he said.
He asked the crowd if this was going to be a moment or a movement, and encouraged people to vote, which was a common theme for the speakers.
“Search the issue, don’t vote just because they’re black or white, Democrat or Republican. Find out who they are,” Williams said. “It’s about what they stand for that’s going to make a difference.”
Ari Wright-Thompson, a 2019 graduate from Southern Lee High School and current Morehouse College student, was up next. He encouraged people to not only vote, but to hold their local officials accountable.
“We have a president in office right now who is using military force to tell people to stop using their freedom of speech,” he said. “You can’t silence my voice. You won’t silence my voice. You will not silence our voice. That is not how this country works.”
Jason Cain, who is running for a position in the state house and is a United States Army veteran, rounded out the speakers. He started by welcoming the 82nd Airborne division of the U.S. Army home to Fort Bragg after they had been deployed to Washington D.C.
Cain was saddened by the president’s choice to call up the 82nd Airborne to “protect himself from us, from the people.”
The only other time the 82nd Airborne has been called by the president to serve against the American people was during the Little Rock Nine, he said. The soldiers were there to protect the nine black students who were trying to enter their newly desegregated school.
Phillip Leak, one of the organizers of Saturday’s march, said people came out to let their voices be heard, their strength be heard and their feelings be heard.
“We’re here to fight against the systematic racism that goes on not only in our county, but in the counties next to us, and the states next to us, and across this world,” he said.
Leak said he’s seen the certain look in some people’s eyes he gets as a black man in America.
“If it takes us doing this every single day and making radical decisions like we did today when we took Horner Boulevard,” he said. “We’ll do it every day, if that’s what it takes for us to be heard.”
Leak said he wants love to be shown to everyone.
“No, everybody might not be racist,” he said. “But the more that they show unity with us, their neighbors, the officers, whoever will feel more comfortable around crowds of African American people.”
A group of people had already removed the spray painted words on the MLK monument away early Sunday morning, leaving no trace of the vandalism, according to posts on Facebook and elsewhere.
Among them were Ciera Dixon, who attended the rally at Fair Promise on Saturday.
Additionally, multiple city officials, including Mann and Sanford City Councilman Chas Post took to Facebook to denounce the act.