When my teenage boys told me they were going to a protest against House Bill 2 after school last Tuesday, I didn’t really imagine it would be quite like it turned out. I told them I would meet them after the protest for dinner in downtown Chapel Hill.
As I arrived at the restaurant on West Franklin Street around 7 p.m., I saw the crowd and police at the Columbia Street intersection. Immediately, my boys texted me, summoning me up to the intersection where they were among nearly 1,000 young people blocking traffic. We stayed for a while, but ultimately left for dinner.
An hour later back at my house, I searched the Internet for a photograph I remembered from John Ehle’s classic Chapel Hill civil rights history “The Free Men.” Soon I found Jim Wallace’s classic photo of what appear to be two UNC students and one N.C. College (now NCCU) student blocking the Franklin and Columbia Intersection – 52 years and 57 days earlier – February 8, 1964.
The contrast in the size of the two protests brought the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to mind – no longer by ones and twos, but in legions of thousands. The courage of those young people in 1964 is moving – to risk their status at their respective schools – to take on the scorn of the Chapel Hill business community – to face arrest and trial for their actions. And all for the right to sit at the same lunch counter with their brothers and sisters. But the size of last Tuesday’s crowd was stunning by contrast!
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The movement I saw part of Tuesday is very different in some ways. The protest in 1964 was against the town of Chapel Hill for failure to adopt a local civil rights ordinance. The protest last Tuesday was against the state government.
I didn’t really participate in Tuesday night’s closure of Franklin and Columbia Streets. I wasn’t sure how to feel with all the buses lined up and down Columbia Street – all sorts of UNC staffers’ commutes utterly disrupted. So I watched and shared on social media – from the curb – as protestors spoke and even danced in the intersection.
I kept thinking: it would have been better to do this down at the Governor’s Mansion. Or in front of the General Assembly. Then it would most inconvenience those who bought us House Bill 2. But that’s not what was happening. And more importantly, the location of the protest was not my call.
Was this the protest as I would like to have seen it organized? No. But I couldn’t help thinking that there may be more to it all than I can immediately see before me. Maybe these students have a plan that I don’t get. I felt like I was witnessing a new type of organizing – one that the participants were very familiar with – one that was pretty much unfamiliar to me because I have only supported Black Lives Matter protests from afar.
It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was looking at a new generation of activists that I won’t ever really be a part of (because I am not part of this generation). But let me be clear: That was an awesome feeling. We aren’t going to solve this world’s problems with entirely the same strategies we used to move civil rights forward or to bring an end to the war in Vietnam. I don’t know what it will take, but it’s going to take more than what we have tried before.
Millennials have already moved the needle on marriage equality and related issues. Obviously there is plenty of work to be done still, but the point is that the change that is happening on LGBTQ issues is a generational change. Anti-LGBTQ voters are aging out and being replaced by college-age voters who are vastly, vastly more open-minded.
Here’s hoping this is the tip of an iceberg.
Mark Chilton is the Orange County Register of Deeds and former mayor of Carrboro.