It Was once a KKK Stronghold. Last Year BLM Came to TownBreaking News
tags: racism, sundown towns, Texas, Ku Klux Klan
On June 5th last year, the town of Vidor in East Texas, home to 11,000 people, awoke in a nervous sweat. It was a hot summer and waves of anger and indignation were rippling across the country after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Maddy Malone, a 23-year-old white woman from Vidor, had been attending Black Lives Matter protests in nearby towns and wanted to organise one in her own community. She called Yalakesen Baaheth, a black friend who lived in Port Arthur, a more racially diverse city nearby. We need to do something, said Malone. Would Baaheth help her organise a march? Baaheth’s initial enthusiasm dwindled when she learned precisely where Malone wanted to hold it. “Oh Vidor?” she replied. “That might be a problem.”
In this part of Texas, Vidor is notorious for being a former haven for the Ku Klux Klan. Some 98% of the population is white (compared with 79% in the entire state of Texas). For generations, black people warned each other not to stop there even to buy petrol. Many knew the stories of the few black people who’d been run out of town after trying to settle there. In 1993 a cover story in Texas Monthly labelled Vidor “Texas’ most hate-filled town”.
Baaheth had grown up in a conservative family that believed they should trust God alone to fight their battles. “But if we don’t do this, then we’re not giving the people in Vidor the chance to show their support,” she thought. Worried that participating might endanger her job, Baaheth asked her boss at Chick-fil-A, a fast-food chain, if she could attend. Then she agreed to help.
Malone and Baaheth posted a call on social media for a “Peace March in Vidor” in memory of George Floyd. Within hours, it had gone viral. Some tweets sounded the alarm: “DO NOT GO TO THE PROTEST IF YOU ARE BLACK! It is a stronghold for the kkk [sic]! DO NOT GO!” urged one woman. A few even thought the event was a pretext to lure black people to their deaths. “This is not a protest but a lynching disguised as one,” implored another post.
Some Vidorians couldn’t see any reason to protest. “We have all races that live here and there is no problem,” wrote a woman in one of Vidor’s Facebook groups. “Stop making us a point in someone else’s agenda for trouble.” When people cried “Black lives matter”, many conservative townsfolk heard calls for defunding the police, abortion on demand and outright socialism. They wanted no part of it.
The sign that has most defined the reputation of Vidor no longer exists. There are differing recollections about when this sign was displayed. One resident remembers seeing it in the 1950s. The editor of Vidor’s newspaper reckons that if it existed – a fact he is sceptical about – it would have been in the 1930s or 1940s. I met one black man who swore he had seen several distinct but identical signs as recently as the 1990s. The chronology may be in dispute but they agree on the slogan: “N----r, don’t let the sun go down on you”.
Vidor was not unique in having such a sign. It was one of hundreds of communities across America known as “sundown towns”, which stopped black people settling in them through ordinances that prohibited them from staying after dark or renting property – and through intimidation and violence. Reputation was often as powerful as any symbol or by-law: black people knew they weren’t welcome.
During my three weeks in Vidor I could find no documentary evidence that this sign existed. That is “totally normal”, according to James Loewen, a sociologist and author of a book on sundown towns. He has combed the histories of hundreds of these towns but found only one photograph of such a sign. They became part of a city’s landscape, he says – no more assuming than a Rotary Club banner – and therefore weren’t worth snapping. Their memory is preserved largely in oral histories.
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