By now it’s become a familiar scene: Marchers fill the streets with placards proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” and chants fill the air as the demonstrators recite the names of those lost.
But there’s something different about some of these protests around the Ohio Valley in the past week. They’re not just happening in the larger cities such as Louisville, Lexington, Columbus and Cincinnati. Smaller college towns such as Athens, Ohio, and Morgantown, West Virginia, have seen marches. Communities in Kentucky farmland and the heart of Appalachian coal country, such as Hazard and Harlan, Kentucky, have seen people protesting against racial injustice and police violence.
“Because prejudice here is as old as our dialect here for some people, and it's inherited,” Bree Carr said. The 18-year-old from Harlan, Kentucky, said she protested to be an ally for people of color so they will know they have support. “There are so many other people behind them that support you, and hear you, and want to see you.”
Bowling Green, Kentucky, has seen consecutive days of protest, drawing up to a thousand people at one event. Civil Rights activist Charles Neblett sang with the Freedom Singers in the 1960s to fight segregation. Neblett said he was thirteen when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi. He told protesters at the Warren County Justice Center that prejudice and injustice have persisted for too long.
“When is it gonna stop? I'm tired. And more people got to step up and do this thing,” he said.
The protests in smaller cities and towns have been overwhelmingly peaceful. But they have not been without confrontation. A protest planned for Charleston, West Virginia, was postponed after organizers said they received threats, although a smaller group went ahead with a demonstration. Carr said she received threats over the demonstrations in Harlan, and in western Kentucky marchers have faced assaults.
A video from a march on June 2 in Murray, Kentucky, showed a white motorist using pepper spray on marchers as he drove by. The man, who was from Paducah, Kentucky, was arrested. Another white man was later arrested for pointing a weapon at demonstrators in Murray.
The marchers in Murray invoked the names of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, both killed by police. But another issue is animating the protests here as well. Demonstrators are calling for the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee next to the Calloway County courthouse, spurred by an open letter issued by a football coach at the local university.
As in other places, the protests here are reviving older debates about statues and memorials dedicated to the Confederacy. Louisville officials on Monday removed the controversial equestrian statue of John B. Castleman, a Confederate officer, something city leaders had proposed years ago.
It remains to be seen if the same will happen in small towns like Murray. On Monday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear called for Murray’s statue to come down after being asked a question about it during a press conference.
The calls to remove Confederate memorials in rural communities are also part of a larger theme of confronting a history and stigma of racism in some smaller towns.
In Marshall County, Kentucky, where the population is nearly 98 percent white, more than a hundred people marched on Friday around the courthouse square. Only a few months earlier the county’s judge-executive had allowed a confederate battle flag to fly at the courthouse before a backlash forced its removal.
Malique Humphries, a 23-year-old black man from neighboring county, says he was afraid to protest in Marshall County after being in other protests because of the county’s perceived racist reputation.
“I have a six-year-old daughter,” he said, “and I felt uncomfortable to come here, you understand that?”
Yet he came anyway to join other Marshall County residents to start a larger conversion about racial injustice, police accountability, and loving one another.
“We should feel comfortable anywhere we want to go, we should be allowed to go anywhere we want to go, it shouldn’t matter if the majority is white or not, we should feel comfortable anywhere on this earth.”
Humphries said he hopes protests like these will start to bring change where it is needed, at the local level.