A rally for peace and justice in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, which has a population of 1,000, on June 13. (Twitter/Emily Best)

In small towns like mine, a rally for racial justice is a sign of big change

Armed counter-protesters failed to deter an unprecedented gathering for Black Lives Matter in my rural Pennsylvania town.
A rally for peace and justice in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania, which has a population of 1,000, on June 13. (Twitter/Emily Best)

This is a story I’d like to share with you about a rally for peace and justice that was held recently in McConnellsburg, a small town in rural south central Pennsylvania. In this small town, nestled in a valley of the Appalachian mountains, racial diversity is all but non-existent. In fact, when I was a young girl growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s, all of the black residents lived west of town at the base of the mountain, segregated from the community. While many people in the community held deep prejudices, I refused to conform to their hateful way of thinking.

Not much has changed over the years. Though derogatory jokes about blacks are still being told there, many residents fiercely believe that racism does not exist in their ideal of America. The only business in the town where I have seen black people in the workplace is the grocery store — which is the only place they worked in this town in the 1970s. There are no black teachers or business owners. There have been a few black nurses and doctors who work at the hospital, but it seems that few have stayed long, and you’ll find none of their families living in houses in the nicer sections of town.

While recently browsing Facebook, a notice caught my eye. The local AME church was promoting a rally for peace and justice and to remember George Floyd. It was scheduled to be held at the courthouse on June 13. I had to go! There has never been such a rally in our area — not even during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

When I entered the town from the north end on the day of the rally, I parked in a shady spot on the street that runs parallel to the courthouse. I pulled in front of a truck heavily decorated with both patriotic and misogynistic symbols. I was a little uneasy parking so close to this truck, but I had seen such displays as this in the town before. As I was entering the square from the opposite side of the rally, I was shocked to discover that I was among a group of people, mostly men, standing in the square across from the courthouse — and they were holding rifles.

Armed counter-protesters in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania on June 13. (Twitter/Emily Best)

I was very relieved at the next moment to see that there were about six State Police officers on the other side with the group that had begun to assemble for the rally. Judging from their immediate glances, I think the opposing group was under the impression that I had come to support them. They were looking at me as though they were trying to figure out whose sister or mother had come in among them. My first instinct was to retreat, but instead I managed to smile at them. Carrying my protest sign tucked under my arm, I walked through their assembly and then across the street to the rally.

There were some shouts back and forth between the protesters and the group with guns before the rally started, but the rally’s organizer, Rev. Diane Jefferson, urged the people attending the rally not to respond to their violence with violence. I learned later that there were many rumors in town that bus-loads of protesters from large Pennsylvania cities were coming in, and that they planned to riot. I’m not making any excuses for the men’s behavior and the guns they were toting, but I am guessing that their actions were driven in part by fear.

The black community is small in this little town, but they are determined to bring big changes.

During the rally, there were lots of cars and motorcycles driving by, revving their engines, people shouting terrible things like “White power!” They were attempting to drown out the voices of the speakers and intimidate the people who had come to show their support. A fire engine sped by blaring a loud warning siren. At that point, I even wondered if it was a legitimate response to a fire call or just another interruption.

The rally was really great despite all this. There were about 150 people in attendance, which is a large crowd for this small town. Several female pastors from local churches spoke, as well as a chaplain from a university in a neighboring town. A male elder from the governing body of the AME traveled from the state capital to lend his support too. A few young people from the community shared their experiences, along with a few retired teachers who shared their messages of support. Attendees were encouraged to vote in the upcoming election. There were songs sung and prayers given. Rev. Jefferson said that there were plans to form a coalition, and said she’d be in touch with us for future events. It was a great day, despite the behavior of those who opposed the rally. The black community is small in this little town, but they are determined to bring big changes.

As I was leaving the rally, the opposing group was still standing on the square holding their guns. I walked back the way I had come, refusing to show any sign of fear or doubt. Again, I smiled politely as I walked by and no one said a word to me. I hope that this group now understands that the rally was a call for reconciliation, and not a show of violence. Perhaps they are telling others that their guns kept the peace that day, but deep in their hearts they have to know the truth.

I am very thankful for the nonviolence training I received from Veronica Pelicaric and Pace e Bene. I know that the skills and knowledge I obtained through the Engaging Nonviolence training helped me to face my fear and understand my mission. I learned that even though I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere, I can still work to make a real difference in our world. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is up to each of us to do what we can to create a more just world.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.