Carrying signs and chanting slogans such as “We are Mount Airy!” which echoed through the downtown area Saturday, a group of marchers set the tone for a gathering urging local citizens to unite for positive goals.
“We can argue on social media or we can commit to making changes,” said Kim Quinn, a Pilot Mountain town commissioner who was one of numerous speakers for a rally in the Municipal Building’s rear parking lot after the march.
Saturday’s activities, organized by a new group called Citizens Unite for Love and Community, were billed as a way to bring the community together to “stand as one — regardless of race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation or faith.”
The group was formed in the wake of a Washington Post article in early January focusing on how small towns such as Mount Airy contributed to Donald Trump’s election.
That report also explored race relations locally, and included quotes from Mayor David Rowe that African-Americans sometimes bring problems on themselves and he wouldn’t, for example, hire a young black male wearing sagging pants at his construction company.
Organizers of Citizens Unite for Love and Community subsequently called for the resignation of the mayor, who has offered multiple apologies for his remarks and earlier this month announced the formation of a “Hope for the City team” to promote racial harmony.
Citizens Unite leaders since have backed away from the resignation demands and say the group’s purpose is mainly to heal the community and work for social change in addressing racial and other concerns unearthed through the article.
Rowe’s comments were cited in speeches during Saturday’s rally, mostly for the way in which his statements have been a spark for the group’s growth.
“The majority of the people in this city and county do not feel that way,” another rally speaker, Kenny Robinson, an African-American who is from Charlotte but formerly resided in Mount Airy, said of Rowe’s remarks.
Quinn also indicated, when speaking emphatically into a microphone set up at the rally, that the unfortunate situation involving Rowe should not be viewed as something that has been resolved, but a start.
Lynn Ceasar, an organizer for Saturday’s event, said it was important to “dispel the myth” that the Citizens United group was divisive, as she surveyed a crowd that included people of different races, ages and walks of life — mostly regular folks.
“I consider this a success,” Ceasar said of the turnout.
The march and rally seemed to attract about a 50-50 split of whites and African-Americans. Mayor Rowe did not attend, but Jim Armbrister, a member of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, was present.
About 100 people took part in the march portion, which began from the Virginia Street parking lot near Mount Airy Museum of Natural History and proceeded to the Municipal Building. Once there, many other people trickled in to hear speeches and take part in additional activities.
Those attending were encouraged by various speakers to get more involved in the community by registering to vote, or running for office, with a voter-registration station set up in the parking lot to aid that purpose. Sentiments were expressed during the rally that the voices of citizens at large should be heard more in local halls of government.
“We’ve got to change these policies in Mount Airy,” said Art Vaughn Green of Winston-Salem, another speaker. “We’ve got to get the right people on these boards.”
Attendees were encouraged to keep track of dates and times for commissioner meetings so they can attend, and otherwise stay abreast of issues locally.
In addition to the speeches, the rally offered free food and refreshments to attendees such as hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza and cake, and it also included prayer and song and a general atmosphere of fellowship.
Organizers hope the first-ever March for Unity and rally is the start of something good for Mount Airy which will become a regular event that gets bigger and better each time.
National political climate
Although Saturday’s Citizens Unite activities stemmed from a controversy involving the mayor, a backdrop for the rally and march was the present political situation in the U.S. as a whole.
“I’ve seen a lot of really terrible things going on in our community and across the nation,” Autumn Blakemore, of Pilot Mountain, said when asked why she attended.
She held a sign during the gathering stating “Our hearts beat as one.”
The Pilot Mountain resident said she thinks it’s important that everyone’s voices be heard at this point in time on minority rights and other issues.
Solidarity with the immigrant population was expressed during the rally.
Quinn, the Pilot Mountain commissioner, also mentioned the November presidential election during her formal comments and the dissatisfaction she has as a result.
She said her appearance at Saturday’s rally was not because she is a “snowflake” — a term now frequently used to describe people perceived as overly sensitive and fragile, usually mockingly in reference to those who refuse to accept Trump’s victory.
Rather, Quinn added, she was there in response to underlying racism, bigotry and misogyny surfacing recently.
Green, the speaker from Winston-Salem, said there also is a need to consider what’s in store for children.
“These little ones are our future,” he said in reference to young people in the audience and how recent trends should be altered, including the drug and crime culture that is encompassing their lives in some cases.
“We’re losing too many kids to the system — to the courts, to jail and to an early grave.”
Pastor Daniel Harrison of Fancy Gap, Virginia, seemed to capture the inclusive spirit of Saturday’s rally during his remarks to the crowd, which were partly in English and partly in Spanish.
“We have to accept everyone,” Harrison said, “because Jesus accepts everyone.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.