In September 1923, a white woman in Mitchell County, in the mountains of western North Carolina, reported that she had been raped by a black man.
Within hours, a white mob began rounding up black residents. Drinking whiskey and carrying guns, the mob marched their hostages to the local train depot, stopped a southbound train, and loaded them onto the railcars.
Nearly a century after the ethnic cleansing, Mitchell County remains one of the whitest counties in the state. It’s also one of the most conservative—close to 80 percent of voters there supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The county is represented in Congress by Mark Meadows, the head of the House Freedom Caucus.
All of which makes it more striking that Mitchell County and its neighbor, Yancey County, are home to a large, thriving branch of the NAACP. Formed in 2013, the Yancey/Mitchell County NAACP branch has around 140 members. Virtually all of them are white. The branch has organized rallies, taken busloads of protesters to large events in Asheville and Raleigh, hosted public meetings, and, on occasion, stepped into local controversies.
The branch’s success speaks to the potential for progressive organizing in Appalachia, and to the promise—and challenges—of building diverse coalitions in the 21st-century South.
Traditionally, North Carolina state politics has had a progressive streak—the state is known for its higher-education system, among other large public-spending projects, and in the 1920s North Carolina was nicknamed “the Wisconsin of the South.” But in 2012, voters elected a Republican governor, Pat McCrory, and large Republican majorities in the state legislature—which almost immediately began cutting popular social programs.
Drawing on a wave of progressive anger, the North Carolina NAACP, under the leadership of its president, Reverend William Barber II, launched the Moral Monday movement—a series of mass protests and acts of civil disobedience targeting McCrory and the North Carolina state legislature.
Major rallies in Raleigh and Asheville attracted thousands of protesters. By the end of 2013, around 1,000 people had been arrested and released for acts of civil disobedience.
People in western North Carolina were also disgruntled with the state leadership, and not just in the liberal strongholds of Boone and Asheville. “There was a great frustration about what we could do, because the legislature had gone crazy, everything was going backwards, and we couldn’t win elections because of this moral religious right,” said Wanda Woodby, a founder and the first president of the Yancey/Mitchell NAACP branch.