Clarification: This story was updated after the county board of election assigned final precinct totals in January 2021. Absentee by mail votes overwhelmingly favored Biden, and helped him flip a few precincts in south Charlotte with the new totals. Trump improved on his overall vote total from 2016 in those precincts, and fared better there than he did in the rest of the county.
At 9 a.m. on the Friday after the election, church bells rang out all around Myers Park, as usual, and the Reverend Benjamin Boswell was outside talking about racial justice, as usual.
“You can put a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard and still be racist,” Boswell, the pastor at Myers Park Baptist, said to me.
It’d been five months since Boswell joined more than a thousand people in what many believe to be the first racial justice protest to come through Myers Park, the most prestigious neighborhood in Charlotte, and maybe the most prestigious in North Carolina.
It’d also been three days since that same neighborhood was one of the few in Charlotte to turn out for Donald Trump.
“They’re just protecting their interests,” Boswell said that quiet Friday morning. “Their money and their power.”
The protest was held on June 1, one week after George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota, and the protests had gone mainstream to the point of arriving on Queens Road West, the willow-oak lined boulevard that one local writer once called Charlotte’s “Champs-Élysées.”
In the lawns that led to the front doors of mansions, many people along the route chanted, handed out water bottles, and held up supportive signs.
“I love you! Spread the word!” one Black protester shouted to the people in the lawns.
For some, like Boswell, the walk was just the latest step in a long process.
The protests after the 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott caused several churches and nonprofit organizations and government agencies to reckon with inequality in Charlotte. They caused the city to grip the fact that for all the wealth along the march’s route — Queens Road to Selwyn Avenue to Wellesley — there was an equal and opposite reality along strips like Beatties Ford and West Boulevard in west Charlotte.
For four years, organizations of all stripes held talk-about-it sessions and bridge-the-gap dinners. They raised thousands — millions in some cases — to help with affordable housing and other initiatives. Boswell even started an anti-racism training program titled, “What Does It Mean to Be White?”
Now it was 2020, a presidential election year, and underlining the June protest was a not-so-subtle message: If you were marching that day, if you were chanting Black Lives Matter, you were voting against Trump. The president clarified that distinction as summer wore on, attacking the phrase as a “terrible name,” and saying the organization is “bad for Black people. It’s bad for everybody.”
As autumn settled in, “Black Lives Matter” and “We Believe” signs popped up in yards throughout Myers Park. Many were soon accompanied by “Biden-Harris” displays. You’d have had to search pretty hard to find an open Trump-Pence supporter.
Then came Election Day.
Around Myers Park and Eastover, Trump gained some votes from 2016.
Immediately after the election, precinct 8, whose map traces the protest route, and those that surround it were the only handful of precincts that were red in the city. But the county hadn’t assigned all the absentee mail-in votes to each precinct.
In early January, though, the county board of election did that. Biden flipped it, winning the precinct 57-43. However, Trump did improve his overall vote total in that precinct from 2016 to 2020. And he fared 10 points better there than he did in the rest of the county.
The numbers raised eyebrows among people who took part in the march, as well as its organizers.
And they created questions about just how much the protests resonated in this neighborhood where the median income is more than $130,000, and 87 percent of the residents are white.
“I think about my friends whose houses we walked past, and in the back of my head I think, ‘They still voted for Trump,'” says Marcy McClanahan, a white Myers Park resident and chairperson of the board of deacons of Myers Park Baptist. She voted for Biden. “It’s a very difficult thing to reconcile.”
McClanahan’s surprise highlights a low-key tension here, one of people caught wondering about the distance between what’s said and unsaid, and how the neighborhood presents and how it votes.
A Financial Times analysis said that among those families whose incomes were more than $100,000, support for the president rose from 45 percent in 2016 to 51 percent in 2020.
“You’ve got a lot of closet conservatives,” former Republican city council member Edwin Peacock III tells me. “I cannot think of a single Trump sign that I saw between SouthPark and Eastover.”
Former mayor and governor Pat McCrory, who has lived in Myers Park for 30 years, takes Peacock’s words further.
“You didn’t see Republican signs, or Trump signs, for fear of backlash from PC police. It’s just not worth it, which is a sad commentary,” says McCrory, a Republican.
“It’s at many people’s work, places of worship, and in your neighborhood. You keep your heads down and sometimes sadly it’s best not to converse in political discussion. And hope that those on the left don’t engage you in verbal assaults.”
The leaders of this summer’s protests say the challenge is deeper than appearances and what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
“It’s more than a photo op,” says Kass Ottley, who was on the bullhorn for the protest and led the crowd from one chant to the next. “It’s people’s lives.”
The Sunday after the 2016 election, the Reverend William Barber walked up the curved staircase to the pulpit at Myers Park Baptist while the congregation sang the old civil rights hymn, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Hold On).”
The former president of the state NAACP and the founder of the modern Poor People’s Campaign, Barber has been described by some as “the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in our midst.” His Moral Mondays effort was a weekly protest against the North Carolina legislature — and the McCrory administration — for advancing voter ID laws and for not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
That Sunday in 2016, five days after Trump’s election, Barber’s setting was the progressive Myers Park Baptist. In 2007, the North Carolina Baptist Convention booted the church because it allowed gay and lesbian members.
But even there, people weren’t prepared for what Barber would say. He was scheduled to speak for a few minutes but talked for 90.
The Keith Scott protests had been just two months earlier, but they never made their way down Queens Road. In some respects, Barber’s address was the first major protest in Myers Park — a neighborhood that was laid out as a streetcar suburb in the early 1900s, when the deeds included restrictions that said: “This lot shall be owned and occupied by people of the Caucasian race only.”
“We have to have a grown-up conversation about race in this country,” Barber told them. “And we’re gonna have to have it in audiences like this. And my white brothers and sisters, you’re going to have to help lead it and deal with it.”
Toward the end of the sermon, Barber called Boswell, a white man who was just 36 years old then. Barber said he wanted to “anoint” Boswell. He put two fingers on the local pastor’s forehead and said, “Even after rejection, we must be resilient, we must be revived, we must be forces of redemption, and we cannot give in to easy reconciliation.”
Boswell took the words to heart, and almost immediately started conjuring ways to have conversations about race among his congregation.
But the very next night, Boswell found himself in a very different setting — one with the deacons of his church. They were looking at him, their young pastor, and they wanted answers.
“People stood up and said it was horrible,” he told me of the deacons’ reaction to Barber’s address. “They said it was a political message.”
The conversation didn’t stop there, though. In fact, Boswell said, it opened up a dialogue that continues today.
His seven-week course, which is supported by grant money through Davidson College, usually has about 10 participants. Many are couples ranging from elderly to young. At the outset, each student writes his or her own racial autobiography.
“They almost all write about the first time they met a Black person,” he says. Then they read James Baldwin. Then the conversations shift the burden of race to them. By the end of the course, they write those autobiographies again, and they take far different forms.
For Boswell, the relationship between Trump and white supremacy is clear. And it goes beyond the president’s “both sides” comments after Charlottesville, or words on far-right organizations such as the Proud Boys. In his course and in his messages from the pulpit, Boswell drills far deeper into race than that.
The class isn’t for open racists; it’s actually targeted at white progressives who believe they aren’t racist. The same people that Baldwin was talking about in 1962 when he wrote, “Whatever white people do not know about the Negro reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.”
Here’s what most people didn’t see in that June 1 protest: Kass Ottley, the organizer, says her phone and email exploded that day with concerned residents.
“I got a lot of pushback — from people telling me we couldn’t park there. Or, you can’t have it at the park,” she tells me recently. “Just trying to tell me where I can and can’t be.”
Ottley is a longtime activist, now in her 50s, who worked with the city to produce a Safe Communities report that outlined ways to reimagine policing. She was recently named one of Charlotte magazine’s 2020 Charlotteans of the Year.
I followed her throughout that march and others. She’s purposeful, thoughtful, a New York native who ratcheted up her Charlotte activism after the a CMPD officer shot and killed unarmed Jonathan Ferrell 10 times in September 2013.
“People fall back into pressure. They want to do the right thing. They know about the oppression and the systemic racism, and they don’t want to be associated with that, but they don’t want to be outcast in their own communities,” Ottley says.
“It’s easy to say Black Lives Matter when you’re in a crowd of Black and brown people,” she continues. “But I need you to take that message to your homes and your offices and your friends, and I need you to speak up when your racist auntie says something about Black people.”
Ottley’s dissection of the election didn’t stop with Myers Park’s precincts, though. She looked at the numbers of Black men who voted for Trump, and Latinos who voted for Trump, and how those increased across the country over 2016.
Republicans say that’s too often overlooked. They say that regardless of labels and chants and marches, they believe their policies can help bridge inequities. And they wonder if the bump in support from voters of color this year will continue.
“I agree there’s systemic racism in this country,” local GOP campaign strategist Larry Shaheen says. “But I don’t think the Democratic approach to it is the best way to approach it.”
Myers Park is, like most places, more complicated than simple descriptions.
The high school here is one of the largest in the state, with nearly 3,000 students. It pulls from Myers Park and from Grier Heights, a historically Black neighborhood. And it pulls from some subsidized housing communities that have been mixed in. In 2015, I spent the fall working on a series about the Myers Park High football team, as its coaching staff tried to bring kids from different backgrounds together.
The series focused on several players, none more prominent than Jamal Watson. He was the star cornerback of that team, a young man who grew up with a single mother he adored and a little sister he protected in an apartment in south Charlotte.
After the series ran, Jamal and I participated in a discussion with the congregation at Myers Park Methodist. That discussion actually took place several months before the Keith Scott protests broke out.
The next time I saw Jamal was this past May, on Beatties Ford Road, at the first George Floyd protest near the police station there. Now a senior in college, Jamal stood on the outskirts of the protest, saying he was there just to observe. He’s a sociology major, he told me, and just interested.
Point is, Myers Park is a place that can nurture a young Black man like Jamal, and it’s a place where a young white reverend can launch a program on whiteness, and it’s a place where a former Republican governor can live for 30 years and still sometimes feel uncomfortable, and a place that went right when the rest of Charlotte went left.
And it’s a place for someone like Marcy McClanahan, the white woman and chairperson of the deacons at Myers Park Baptist.
McClanahan participated in a protest in June, then went through anti-racism training for seven weeks in the fall. She’s taken the mission of the training and tried to apply it with the friends from the neighborhood she believes voted for Trump. But few want to say they did, she says.
“It’s almost as if what we saw that day (of the protest) was a neighborhood coming out to — I don’t want to be too harsh on people — but coming out as allies for the moment, but not allies in reality,” McClanahan said. “If you’re too embarrassed to talk about who you voted for, should you have voted for them?”
Update: This story has been updated to show that in Mecklenburg County, mail-in totals haven’t been assigned to precincts yet. They’ll be posted around the first of the year.