Demonstrators Gather Near Confederate Statue in Graham

Jul 13, 2020

There were tense moments in Graham over the weekend, as Black Lives Matter demonstrators came face-to-face with Confederate sympathizers.

Graham Mayor Jerry Peterman had canceled all protest permits, but a court overruled him. Peterman then declared a state of emergency ahead of Saturday's events. The area around a Confederate statue was barricaded and police backup was called in from Charlotte.  

Reverend Greg Drumwright led the march and demonstration.

"So this was activism,” Drumwright said. “We're going to continue this fight by advocacy, the people here have all begun to rise up and put pressure on this municipality."

Drumwright and other demonstrators want the statue in front of the old county courthouse removed. They want to vote out Sheriff Terry Johnson, and to gain more representation in all levels of local government.

The protesters marched 1.5 miles from Burlington into downtown Graham, where the century-old statue of a soldier is located, WXII-TV reported. The monument is in front of the Alamance County Historic Courthouse.

The protest featured speeches calling for an end to racial oppression. Many demonstrators held signs and at one point chanted, "Racism, we are going to tear your kingdom down."

Law enforcement officers guarded the monument as part of a state of emergency declared Friday by the mayor of Graham, located 55 miles northwest of Raleigh. The monument has been the target of protests for several years, and calls to bring it down have intensified since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked national demonstrations.

Mayor Peterman's declaration said there is an "imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, loss of life" and created a restricted area that includes the square with the Confederate statue. It is in effect until further notice.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles on Monday blocked a city ordinance that requires permits for protests and limits activities of demonstrators. Eagles issued a temporary restraining order halting enforcement for two weeks, pending a hearing on a request for a longer injunction.

The plaintiffs, including the NAACP's Alamance County chapter, contend the ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution because it burdens their rights to protest and assemble in Graham. The ordinance requires protesters to apply in writing for a protest permit at least 24 hours in advance. The ordinance also illegally restricts the size and conduct of permitted protests, the lawsuit states.

Eagles wrote she would issue the order in part because the plaintiffs were likely to win on constitutional grounds.

The lawsuit also challenges a May 31 order by Peterman that prohibited people from gathering or demonstrating on any public street, sidewalk or public property between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Sylvester Allen Jr., who marched Saturday, was born and raised in Alamance County. As a Black man, he said he never felt fully comfortable in downtown Graham, in part because of the Confederate statue that sits in front of the old county courthouse.

"When I look up that statue, I don't see a preservation of history, I see a preservation of pride,” Allen said. “And that's what statues are built to do."