What happened when Black Lives Matter came to a notorious KKK town in Texas
During a peace march in support of Black Lives Matter in Vidor, Texas, the organizers Yalakesen Baaheth and Madison Malone will be accompanied on stage by Rev. Michael Cooper from local NAACP: Fran Ruchalski / The Beaumont Enterprise via AP
The city of Vidor in eastern Texas has a good reputation. It is the kind of reputation that causes residents to pause when someone asks where they are from.
For years it was known as the sunset city - a place where non-whites were threatened with violence if they stayed after dark, and where they were banned from life through intimidation and discriminatory practices. It has a long history of Ku Klux Klan activities and was once described by a local magazine as "the most hateful city in Texas".
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When an announcement appeared on social media last week that there would be a march in support of the protests against Black Lives Matter, many believed it was a trap. "Don't. Step. Your. Black. Donkey. In. Vidor," a black woman replied to a flyer posted on Twitter.
Even the person who organized the march, 25-year-old Yalakese Baaheth, was aware of how unlikely it sounded.
"There were a lot of conspiracy theories, and I thought, yes, you know what, it looks kind of suspicious," she says, sipping an orange juice in a waffle house in Vidor.
But there was a purpose in holding the rally in an apparently inhospitable place. The idea came from Baaheth's friend Maddy Malone, a resident of Vidor. The two believed that Vidor was better than the reputation that preceded him. By marching for Black Lives Matter, they were able to show their support for something they believed in, and give the city the opportunity to show the world a different side.
“We have received a number of responses from people in and around the city. There were some people in town who were in favor of it, some were against it, ”says Baaheth. "But I wanted to do it whether people liked it or not, because everyone deserves the chance to be heard and to show who they really are."
Their march triggered a collective search for the soul in Vidor. The residents had complained for years that they had been wrongly chosen for the city's dark past. They claimed that Vidor had changed. These claims should be put to the test.
Yalakesen Baaheth, 25, stands in Raymond Gould Park in Vidor, Texas, where she helped organize a peace march to support Black Lives Matter. It was the same park that the Ku Klux Klan had once collected. (Richard Hall / The Independent)
It would be easy to drive straight past Vidor without realizing it. Interstate 10 from coast to coast runs right through the city between Houston and New Orleans. Someone who makes this trip may stop to recharge or rest and may not notice that a city is behind the malls that line the freeway.
It is 20 miles from the Louisiana border, and some say it is more similar to this state than the rest of Texas. It is surrounded by marshes that make the area vulnerable to flooding. This occasionally causes alligators to end up in people's backyards (an estimated half a million alligators live in the three-county area).
It is predominantly white - around 97 percent according to the latest census. It is also extremely poor. Around 20 percent of the approximately 10,000 residents live in poverty - more than in Texas and in the rest of the country. This poverty has created common problems, including a serious methamphetamine problem.
Much of the congregation revolves around the church; There is one on almost every street corner. It is also about hunting, fishing and high school soccer.
(Screenshot from the documentary 'The Least of My Brothers')
Vidor was originally founded on the site of a wooden mill in the early 20th century and got its name from the man who owned it. When the company left the company in 1924, the small community that had built up around it remained and gradually switched to agriculture.
In the late 1950s, the population was only a few thousand, but would grow significantly over the next two decades when the nearby oil city of Beaumont began to separate. Vidor became a "white flying city", a home for white residents who moved from the larger and more racially diverse city next door.
The Ku Klux Klan is firmly rooted in the city. There were several competing chapters in the city in the 1950s and 1960s. The clan even had a bookstore on Main Street. It used intimidation, violence and murder to keep black residents out and earned the city the nickname "Bloody Vidor".
The people in Vidor are still talking about the billboard that was once posted as a warning on the highway and remember a variation of the words: "N *****, don't let the sun go down here."
The visibility and strength of the clan in Vidor seemed to dwindle over the years. Locals speculated that its members would move away. Then, in 1993, it made itself felt again when a federal judge ordered the separation of a residential project. John DecQuir Sr was the first black adult to live in the city since the 1920s. His arrival was greeted by protests from Vidor residents and a series of public rallies and death threats by the clan. They held a rally in the same park where Baaheth and Malone would hold their peace march 27 years later.
Several other attempts to move in black residents met with the same response. Locals accused external agitators brought in by a small minority of Vidor Klan members, but a media circus followed and Vidor's reputation was sealed. On the other hand, the clan seemed to be fading. But Vidor held on to his reputation.
Stories of racism that black people encounter in Vidor are still commonplace today. One of the best results for Vidor on YouTube is a video of a group of young black men visiting the city that day and experiencing several hostile encounters. The title is: "A day in the # 1 racist city in America."
"It doesn't matter with the breed. it doesn't matter more than life. "
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Baaheth, who plans to study audiology next year, lives in Port Arthur, a short drive from Vidor. Like everyone else who lived near the city, she heard the stories grow up.
"We went there a lot when I was younger, but my family didn't stop in Vidor," she says. "We would not stop getting gasoline. We would not stop going to the store. We would just go straight to my friend's house. "
But over time, she says, she saw small changes that gave her hope.
“Whenever my parents went I went to the store with my friend, or when they had to go to the mall, I went with them. It really made me see that not everyone is like that.
“We really generalize, especially when a city has a history of racial stigmatization. All of these stories are true, don't get me wrong, there is a difference between lies and truth. At the same time, so much has changed. "
On May 25, a black man named George Floyd was arrested by a Minneapolis police officer for allegedly using a fake $ 20 bill. The officer, Derek Chauvin, handcuffed Floyd and pressed him to the floor with his knee and neck. Despite Floyd's insistent request to be unable to breathe, Chauvin held his knee there for more than eight minutes.
There can be more than one truth. It is true that some people in this city are stuck in the dark age, and it is also true that an entire generation is trying to get us out.
Floyd's death sparked unrest that led to mass protests across the country. Houston, where Floyd spent most of his life, was no different. Vidor is only an hour and a half drive from Houston, but few expected the protests to arrive here.
Baaheth and Malone wanted to show their support for the protests.
"[Malone] said," Hey, I really feel like we should do a peace march in Vidor. "And I thought: You know the reactions you will get right? Are you prepared for the good and the very, very bad? She said she did and I said again," No, do you really understand? "
They were concerned about the reaction of Vidor residents, they were concerned about extremists who might try to harm the participants, and they were concerned about their friends and family.
Realizing they needed support, the couple turned to a man named Michael Cooper, a pastor and president of the NAACP chapter in nearby Beaumont.
Local Cooper, Michael Cooper, speaks to those gathered at Gould Park, Vidor, Texas. (Fran Ruchalski / The Beaumont Enterprise via AP)
Cooper, 53, is a tall man who is rarely seen without his cowboy hat. Like Baaheth, he grew up not far from Vidor in a small town on the Neches river on the outskirts of Beaumont. And he also remembers the stories about Vidor.
"We were kids in the sixties and seventies who were playing in the streams on one side and the people from this sunset town on the other side," he says. "We were all swimming in the same water, but there is a big gap."
When Cooper was called for the first time and asked him to speak on the march in Vidor, he said he was inclined to do what his father always taught him: don't go to Vidor. His friends, mentors, and family told him the same thing.
"They asked me if I wanted to die," he says. "My wife's exact words were: Do you want to be a martyr?"
"Many people have never heard of the term" sunset city "- but we grew up with it," he says. "Don't stop in Vidor and get petrol. Do not stop in Vidor when it is dark. Don't stop in Vidor when the sun goes down. And they would tell you that in the city too. They weren't afraid to tell you. "
“Then I had to remember when my mother ran a small shop where she taught everyone in Vidor. And when I worked in Vidor. And I had to remember that when I was sitting in the pews of the First Baptist Church in Vidor, I was invited to meetings in these churches and treated very well.
“So I had to choose the good people and the people who wanted to make a difference. I really didn't want to. I didn't want to be the one to offer the olive branch, but at the same time I realized that it had to be done. And I said, "If not me, who?"
The days before the march were full of fear for everyone involved. The organizers and participants were concerned about the violence of angry locals. Meanwhile, the locals were concerned that violent demonstrators would come from outside the city to break windows and destroy their businesses.
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Most of the comments on the march on the city's Facebook page were positive, but there were also some naysayers.
"This is the kind of thing that brings Vidor back to the news. Next, you know the Black Panthers want to walk in Vidor again," wrote one user.
“It is organizations like BLM and ANTIFA that are burning the racism fires. These are the real racists in this country. They make the media angry about it, ”wrote another.
Another user replied to the occasional post with: "I'm tired of all these Ku Klux Karens."
When the day came, Baaheth and Malone arrived at Raymond Gould Park just off the freeway to see dozens of cars lined up.
"I was a little nervous, but to be honest I was ready to go. I don't think I've ever been so pumped up before, ”says Baaheth. "I thought my Godfolk really appeared."
“My nervousness subsided to see how people got together. And I was like that, we do it. "
Around 200 people took part in the march - some from Beaumont and the surrounding area, others from the city of Vidor. A protester held a sign that said, "Vidor can change, too."
In a speech quoting Bristol graffiti artist Banksy, Pastor Cooper said in a booming voice, "This is history."
"If nothing else happens in my life, it has happened and nobody can take it back," he says of the event. "We can't go back."
On the other side of the park, a small group of armed white men who described themselves as "constitutionalists of the second change" guarded a veteran monument. A counter-protester held a sign that said, "Vidor is kneeling before God."
On Saturday June 6, 2020, people came to Vidor, Texas' Gould Park to participate in a protest and peace march in honor of George Floyd, who died when he was arrested by the Minneapolis police. (Fran Ruchalski / The Beaumont Enterprise via AP)
The march went without incident. But the search for the soul continued after the demonstrators left. Almost everyone in Vidor saw the march in one way or another as a test of the city's reputation.
“I'm so fed up with people saying that our city is bad, racist and trashy. This is a good city and people here love each other and I have never seen or heard of anyone being treated like any of these posts. It is all ridiculous and everything is a lie, ”wrote a woman as the debate continued on the city's Facebook page.
The fact that it was no different from the thousands of other marches that have taken place across the country in the past few weeks was seen by many as a victory.
In the coverage of the march in Vidor, the strangeness of the march that took place there was noted. Texas Monthly, the same magazine that called it "The Most Hateful City in Texas" in 1993, read: "Black Lives Matter Comes to Vidor - Yes, Vidor."
In the days after the march, there was a question in the air: what did it mean that Black Lives Matter had arrived in Vidor? Had this sunset city really changed?
For Rod Carroll, Vidor's chief of police, the march was proof of that.
"I believe that every sinner has a future and every saint has a past," he says in his office at the police station in Vidor. “Yes, there was a Ku Klux Klan here in Vidor in the 1950s. We speak 70 years ago. Seventy years ago there was a lot going on in America. "
Carroll is not a typical police chief in Texas. He was born in New York and lived there until he was ten when his family moved to Dallas. His father-in-law Jack Brooks was a Democratic congressman for 42 years and helped draft the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (Brooks, who died in 2012, was in John F. Kennedy's motorcade when the president was murdered).
Rod Carroll, Vidor's chief of police. (Richard Hall / The Independent)
Carroll says there are no clan activities in Vidor ("I'm the chief of police. I know something about it. They would want to chase me out of town") and saw the march as a chance for Vidor to show what it is believed to be his real face for the world.
"It would only take an idiot to show up and push us back 70 years," he says. "But I had people coming up to thank me for the security of the march. It was a powerful moment for me and I think it was a powerful moment for her. It really removed some obstacles. "
He believes Vidor's reputation lasts so long, also because journalists come to town to look for something.
"You find someone who represents the stereotype. A not intelligent, toothless person. They go to the grocery stores and get them. It's easy to get involved with us because we have a lot of poor people here, ”he says.
“There is a perception that Vidor is very racist. My question is: tell me the last racist event in this community? "
"We accept our past, but let's face it: what about the entire state of Mississippi? When you think of racism, what do you think about in the 1950s? What about Alabama? What about Texas as a whole?"
When Vidor residents talk about the city's problems, they often speak in the past tense. The problem remained when the clan lost its influence here, it is said.
"It's an undeserved reputation," says a woman who has not given her name in a beauty salon on Vidor's main street. "My grandparents told me how the clan knocked on their door and slapped the door in the face."
But for Vidor's black and African-American community, the small number that lives there, racism is still alive and well.
DeVon Noe, 24, was born and raised in Vidor and still lives there today. He was among the speakers at the Black Lives Matter rally in the city. He introduced himself to the crowd as "Vidor's gay black man".
A week after the march, he speaks to The Independent and says he was selected for racial abuse from his first day at school.
“A group of students bothered me in the playground. They beat me down and started kicking me while calling bows. And one stayed with me: "You are a fool and nobody wants you here." The bullying continued throughout my school days, "he says.
“I threw bottles, beer, and even food on me when I was walking through the city. People jumped over curbs to circumcise me. I was checked from the door too often.
"Racism is omnipresent in Vidor. Those who deny its existence purposely don't know the truth," he adds.
Noe says he volunteered to speak at the rally to express his point of view as a colored person and a gay man. And he thinks it could have done something good.
“I wanted to use my position in this community and talk about a topic that most in the city wouldn't know about.
“I believe that as a church, we take these steps to help others who know our city and its past. This vidor is not the image from the 1950s that the media will not let die. Yes, we have our few weeds, but every city does it, ”he says.
James W. Loewen has spent many years writing and visiting sunset cities in the United States and has written a book entitled Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. Much of his work focuses on how sunset cities remain sunset cities.
"In general, it's just racism that isn't organized in any kind of Ku Klux Klan. And not just racists, but also traditionalists. They're racist, of course, but they can say," Well, I'm just for the city like that to keep as it always was. "
Vidor is like any other of the hundreds of sunset cities across the country, says Loewen. And many of them go through the same soul search that Vidor is currently experiencing.
“There are people who are completely satisfied with the reputation they have. Then there are people who no longer want to be known as the sunset city. And then there are people who don't want to be a sunset city anymore, ”he says. "And that's quite a difference when you see what I'm saying."
Still, he adds that the march itself was a sign of progress.
"It shows that there is more than one person, that is, it shows progressive people in the city that there is a mass of people who think that way, and that's wonderful."
Whitney Murdock, a 30-year-old mental health responder who lived in Vidor until she moved to Beaumont last month, is one of those progressive thinkers who have been waiting for change for a long time.
She went on a march with some friends, for the same reason as everyone else.
"I know Vidor's reputation and we still have a reputation for a reason. I know it's not gone I know that prejudice is still very much alive, ”she says. "And I know that in some of the deeper, darker corners, the KKK, the Ayran Brotherhood, all of these guys still exist.
“But I have the feeling, and I think we kind of showed people on this march the other day that there is a new generation that wants to take over and get away from it.
"And that's one thing people would really like to understand - that there can be more than one truth. It is true that some people in this city are stuck in the dark age, and it is also true that an entire generation is trying to get us out. "
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