Why Rural America Is Joining the Movement for Black Lives

18-year-old Savannah Manning organized a Black Lives Matter rally in rural St. Helens, Ore. Photo via Stateline

By April Simpson

The list is long: Bethel, Alaska; Garden City, Kan.; Hailey, Idaho; Meridian, Miss.; Kanab, Utah; Dubois, Wyo.

In the weeks since a Minneapolis police officer pushed his knee into George Floyd’s neck and squeezed the life out of his body, residents of dozens of small towns across the country have held demonstrations to oppose police brutality and declare that Black lives matter.

“There’s a few of us that still deny what we all saw on the television, but for most people, that visual was just too much,” said Veronica Womack, executive director of Georgia College and State University’s Rural Studies Institute in Milledgeville.

In St. Helens, Ore., protesters demonstrated against a sometimes vocal and armed opposition, according to several attendees. In East Texas, a Black Lives Matter rally in a small town that was once a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan came as such a surprise that some called it a setup.

At a protest organized by an 18-year-old in eastern Kentucky, “I can’t breathe” signs aligned the larger racial justice movement with the struggles of Appalachian coal miners suffering from black lung disease, according to the observations of a local reporter.

Those who study or live in rural America know that residents’ lives are intertwined across races. Families may have lived among each other for generations. In some tight-knit communities, it doesn’t matter how many years someone has lived in the town, they’ll never be fully considered a local if not born there.

Unlike their urban counterparts, members of the local police force are often neighbors. People may know where the sheriff likes to grab lunch. Some have his cellphone number in their phones. Locals know which officers they can build a relationship with and which to avoid.

Close relationships among local law enforcement, public officials and one another make the rural response to Floyd’s killing uniquely personal. “The closeness that happens in rural America often is a mitigating force, if you will, where the work of racial justice can find some fertile ground,” said the Rev. Alvin Herring, executive director of Faith in Action, a national network of faith-based community organizations.

Rural demonstrations aren’t drawing many outsiders, experts said. In that sense, people are protesting on their own terms without outside influence, said Womack, who described the rural demonstrations as a “civic engagement awakening.”

That awakening comes in part because rural populations are becoming more diverse and because white residents’ attitudes about racial discrimination and police tactics are changing. Still, demonstrations in some rural areas have drawn backlash, and many experts question whether they will result in change at the ballot box come November.

Rural demographics

Americans’ surprise at the small-town protests may reflect old visions of what rural areas look like.

“If we look at rural communities and we wonder why they’re protesting, a lot of times it’s because the people we think live there are not actually the people who live there,” said Patricia Strach, a political science professor at the University at Albany. She is also the director for policy and research at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy think tank for the State University of New York system.

About 21% of rural America is nonwhite, according to the Pew Research Center. In some rural counties, people of color are the majority, such as Blacks in the Southeast, Latinos in the Southwest and Native Americans in the Great Plains.

Black residents in many of the industrial towns of the Midwest settled there during the Great Migration of the early 1900s. They face many of the same issues facing African Americans in big cities, from Kankakee, Ill., to Lima, Ohio, said Jonathan Rodden, a professor of political science at Stanford University. Residents in both towns held demonstrations.

Some rural parts of the country have growing populations of people of color. In the rural West, 203 of 278 counties have grown in population since 1980. All the population growth in 39 of the 203 growing counties was from minorities.

And many residents of small towns, especially college towns, lean left politically.

“While it may seem surprising to see white protesters on Main Street in a small town, these are often rather solidly Democratic places, especially if there is an institution of higher education in town,” Rodden said in an email. “And racial justice has become more central to the platform of the Democratic Party in recent years.”

In many smaller cities and towns — especially the county seat, where there is a courthouse and a concentration of public sector employees — precinct-level data shows that most downtowns lean Democratic, even in solid Republican counties, said Rodden, author of “Why Cities Lose: The Deep Roots of the Urban-Rural Political Divide.”

Although rural people overall are more aligned with Republicans, 38% of rural registered voters are Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline.)

Changing white attitudes

Most Americans — including those in rural and suburban communities — sympathize with the nationwide demonstrations over Floyd’s death and disapprove of President Trump’s response, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released June 2. The poll found that just over half of rural residents are sympathetic to the protesters, compared with 7 in 10 suburban residents.

Almost half of white Americans say police are more likely to use excessive force against a Black person, which is nearly double the 25% who said the same in 2016, according to a separate poll released June 2 by Monmouth University.

The figures indicate that white Americans are realizing the risks black Americans face, even if they don’t agree with some of the recent protests, according to the university’s Polling Institute.

There is some evidence that since the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., after a policeman shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man, white Democrats have become more racially progressive, Rodden said.

Compared with 2014, white Democrats are more likely now to attribute racial differences to discrimination and poor education rather than a lack of motivation among blacks, according to a 2019 report from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Since 2014, the share of white Democrats who say the government invests too little on boosting the conditions of blacks increased from 36% to 65%. It also rose among white Republicans, from 14% to 33%.

Democratic and Republican views on Black Lives Matter also have become more positive since the white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., three years ago, according to online polling and analytics company Civiqs.

It’s personal

Still, some rural protests have drawn backlash.

Two weeks ago, a couple of high school boys in rural St. Helens, Ore., wanted to organize a Black Lives Matter protest. Just before going to bed, they posted an event to the town’s popular Facebook group, Concerned Citizens of Columbia County.

By the time they woke late the following morning, locals had threatened via Facebook to run protesters over, shoot them or throw them in the Columbia River. The boys didn’t want anyone to get hurt so they canceled the protest. Another high school student, Savannah Manning, joined with a local organizer to revive the event.

“As a person of color, I felt greatly disappointed that the community could come together to end a protest that would’ve brought us together in the first place,” said 18-year-old Manning, who describes herself as Black, Native American and white.

Hundreds of protesters showed up, nearly all white, reflecting the racial demographics of St. Helens. Meanwhile, white men with large guns lined the streets, and others were “protesting [the] protest,” Manning said. Some anti-protesters screamed racial slurs. Overall, attendees described the demonstration as peaceful.

“We thought it was really important, as a white community in particular, to stand in solidarity,” said Shana Cavanaugh, the local organizer who teamed up with Manning. “The police brutality and racism issue in general is a white problem, and it’s our responsibility to address it or take steps to fix it.”

Cavanaugh said she wasn’t aware of local police brutality. But she said it was important to push for transparency and accountability within the department because St. Helens lacks a sizeable population of people of color and gets little media coverage.

“It’s a lot easier for these things to come to light when they’re in large cities and there are people around to video it and put it out there and get the attention of news sources, but we don’t have that,” Cavanaugh said. “It could be insidious, but we don’t know.”

Lives intertwined

With the close personal relationships in small communities, codes of silence can be formidable.

Take the case of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man gunned down in a small southeastern Georgia community while jogging in February. Arbery’s killing received widespread attention after a video surfaced of armed white men in pursuit of him.

It took months before officials made any arrests. One alleged assailant is a retired county police officer and investigator with the local district attorney’s office.

“If you were to speak to rural residents as we do, they will tell you that incidents like that are not uncommon in the history of the community where they reside,” Herring said.

“These protests are designed to call attention to a systemic problem in this country.”

Many of the relationships between the police and the community are dictated by the local sheriff, according to experts.

“I would tell you that in those small towns the most powerful person is not the mayor; it’s not even the governor,” Herring said. “The most powerful person is the local sheriff … [who] has the power to not only determine who gets arrested but who gets bail and who doesn’t get bail.”

Residents of rural and small or midsize counties make up 45% of the U.S. population, yet those counties account for 51% of nationwide arrests and 57% of jail admissions, according to research from the Vera Institute of Justice. Small and midsize counties have the highest arrest rates (3,487 per 100,000 residents), closely followed by rural areas.

In many rural communities across the country, a portion of the local sheriff’s budget is established through the per diem he receives from the state for the daily census of incarcerated people, Herring said, adding that sheriffs have a lot of discretion in how that money is spent.

“This is particularly true in the Southeast where the sheriff essentially has an interest in having his jails filled,” Herring said. “So, stories of racial injustice at the hands of law enforcement in rural communities are just as numerous as they are from the lives of folks who live in urban communities. I think one distinction is that often things go unreported, and things are swept under the rug.”

Voting shift?

On whether the changes will affect the rural vote in November, experts are split.

Womack of the Georgia Rural Studies Institute predicts the protests will increase voter turnout in local and state elections.

Strach of the University of Albany said, “Political candidates are watching this. They know this is not good for the status quo. The usual message isn’t going to work.”

But it’s often local issues that drive elections, said Lisa Parshall, a professor of political science at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y. Race is likely to play a factor in areas that have wrestled with police brutality, but voters may be less attuned to the ways race has shaped the structure of their communities, she said.

“I think there’s a willingness of people in some small communities who emphasize local control to say, ‘Oh yeah, we recognize there’s racism,’” Parshall said. “But they aren’t as willing to be aware of it, that things like local zoning rules also contribute to systemic racism.”

Dan Myers, a political scientist with the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, also doubts there will be any big changes this election cycle.

“I think if you’re a Republican state legislator outside the metropolitan area and outside of Duluth and Morehead, Minn., you probably still have a strong majority of your constituents who feel negatively toward these protests and find ways to rationalize the police violence,” Myers said.

But it’s hard to tell how much of a cultural shift is happening when you’re in it, said Kimberly Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University in Sacramento.

“This moment feels like we’re having a major cultural shift that will reach every corner of the country,” Nalder said.

For example, people will be more attuned to seeing future police interactions through the lens of social justice and civil rights, Nalder said.

There’s probably little chance that somebody with close personal relationships with local officials will change their vote, said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif.

“But a lot more folks are going to vote who are not the sheriff’s friend,” Michelson said. “And that’s entire plausible to me as a result of the passionate activism that I’m seeing from young people in my community.”

Stateline is an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.