Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Organizers Face Challenges Creating A Tradition Of Protests In East Texas


George Floyd was laid to rest in his hometown of Houston this week. Houston is the gateway to East Texas, what used to be plantation country during slavery. Now millions of African Americans live in Houston, East Texas and Dallas. The civil rights movement during the 1950s and '60s largely passed East Texas by. There's no tradition of protest, no history or experience of organizing. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, whatever African American organizers build, it's new construction.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: It's 4 PM on Saturday, and it's scorching in Tyler, Texas, Bergfeld Park - 97 with humidity so thick, you're sweating in seconds. Yet, the rally goes on. And every night, there's a march. There's burgers on a large grill with rotating cooks, and the bouncy house is bouncing away, the little kids mimicking their parents.


GOODWYN: In the middle of the park is a large amphitheater, and on stage is the rally organizer who goes by the name Blue. She doesn't want to give her full name for her own security. Blue's wearing a hospital mask, a bulletproof vest that comes to her knees. She's holding a mic in one hand and a megaphone in the other.

BLUE: Can everybody hear me?


BLUE: I'm very excited to be here today. I'm also a little worried, but that's what this fight is about. It's about fighting through the pain, fighting through the fear because I'm done being scared. I'm done seeing my brothers and sisters being scared.

GOODWYN: I discover later that there are rumors of threats against Blue's life, specifically that she'll be shot onstage today at the rally.

BLUE: I have gone through hella (ph) emotions this week. I went from standing up proud, standing in the streets because I know what I believe in. Then I went from, everybody, get off the street; get on the sidewalk. We need to be safe. I've had family members tell me I'm fighting a fight I don't understand. But we understand this. I understand this.


GOODWYN: But it's too much for Blue, with the fear of being shot and her hopes for the future swirling around inside her.

BLUE: Standing up for what you believe in and being black. And people who want to end...

GOODWYN: Blue can't go on. She puts the megaphone down on a table and exits silently to the wings. There's a long history in East Texas of whites murdering black people who dare to raise their hand against segregation. And while it's true Jim Crow is now dead, racial discrimination is alive and well.

AMORI MITCHELL: We are out here basically because it is time for a change. And George Floyd was the last breath felt around the world because enough is truly enough. We have been dealing with various deaths from police brutality to just being targeted just for being black.

GOODWYN: Amori Mitchell (ph) is a nurse with her master's degree. Her voice is calm but shaking with rage.

MITCHELL: I go to school. I get all this education, and my white co-worker makes $10 more an hour than me. I have to do half of her things throughout the shift. No medical experience - you can't start IVs. You can't draw blood. But you're able to get $10 more an hour, and you're able to be in charge of me.

GOODWYN: Multiply Amori Mitchell's story a thousand times then again by 143 years to the end of Reconstruction, and the culture of white supremacy is revealed.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) I can't breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) I can't breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) I can't breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) I can't breathe.

GOODWYN: And so the image from Minnesota of the white man with his knee upon the black man's neck has stirred people to action here in a way unprecedented from Tyler to Jasper, Athens to Sulphur Springs, thousands of blacks, whites and Hispanics are protesting.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Black lives matter.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Black lives matter.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Well, don't you know I'm going to shout.

GOODWYN: At Twin City Church of Christ in Texarkana, cars are parked in rows facing the church like a drive-in movie. On the sidewalk, the choir is under one tent and the pulpit under another.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, lord, it's in my veins.

GOODWYN: Thirty-three-year-old Pastor David Watkins seamlessly blends the word of God and social justice.

DAVID WATKINS: The Pharisees had a history of seeing misery and still passing by. The truth of the matter is that America has a history...

GOODWYN: Watkins says in Texarkana, black churches have, so far, not gotten much involved with the protests.

WATKINS: There's a dichotomy in approach - you know, the difference between the older generation and their perspective of how we should proceed and the younger generation and our perspective of how we should proceed. There is a staunch disconnect between the two.

GOODWYN: Watkins says black pastors and other black leaders here have focused on leveraging their relationships with white politicians and trying to hold them accountable. He says in the black church, COVID-19 is a big threat to older congregations, making them wary of protest crowds.

WATKINS: And so one of the things that, I think, many older people feel like is that this is a movement now for younger people to take a hold of and that we've already done our job; we've already been through this, and nothing has changed.

GOODWYN: Still, black churches in Texarkana have money, while the protesters and their organizers are getting by on chewing gum and baling wire. As I pack up to leave in the church's now-empty parking lot, a sedan approaches from behind the sanctuary. The window rolls down, and it's Reverend Watkins. He tells me he has decided to pull together a meeting of the major African American pastors in Texarkana and get protesters and their organizers some money.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, East Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF KUDASAI'S "ATTACHED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.