A day in the life of an Appalachian protestor
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Every day since June 19, Franco Cosby would wake up to start messaging speakers who would be part of his daily organized protests.
These protests take place in the heart of downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, where people gather to advocate for the removal of a confederate statue.
Cosby alerts those he considers marshals, or security, as to what groups might be counter-protesting on the streets each day, although his group does not engage.
“It is so important when having a Black Lives Matter campaign or protest to not engage,” said Cosby. “Society, America, has ascribed danger to us and loudness and all the things that could disadvantage us if things went wrong.”
He checked to make sure the signs were ready to go and that the music and the audio of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches are playable. Cosby graduated with a bachelor’s degree in discipleship and ministry from Lee University, and takes his learned knowledge and puts it into practice. He attributes his non-engagement style to the standards of Martin Luther King Jr. and his Birmingham campaign.
“Everything I have done is out of the Civil Rights Movement,” Cosby said. “It is extremely powerful and I have seen the sway. When we first went out there, people would just scream and ‘All lives matter’, you still have that sometimes. Then, as we just stood out there day after day, you would see people come by and raise their fists.”
Depending on the day, Cosby wears a different outfit to the protest. Maybe all black, sometimes a Black Lives Matter shirt. He is always sure to have masks an sanitizers to share. As the leader of the group, he also wears gloves as well as a mask for extra protection during the pandemic. Then the mental preparation comes.
“I have to make sure everyone is in the right frame of mind,” Cosby said. “That we are diligent, that we are out there, we are cautious, especially when you are talking about removing a Confederate monument from a small, southern conservative town that is 80% something white and I am Black.”
With each new protestor that approaches, Cosby alerts them to not even laugh or give any sorts of verbal cues.
During each day of protesting, there is a period of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence held in remembrance of George Floyd. Protestors kneel as others try to elicit reactions by screaming things like, ‘You are being controlled!” or ‘How much are you all being paid?’.
Since July 31, 2020, Cosby has now passed on his leadership role elsewhere as he goes on to pursue a graduate degree in African American theology and culture at Vanderbilt Divinity School He described that the protests have brought out both the good and bad sides of the community.
“I have seen soccer moms coming, bringing their little kids and raising their fists,” Cosby said. “Whole white families having Black Lives Matter shirts. Putting Black Lives Matter on the sidewalk. The other ugly reality is it has brought out all the nasty racists. The danger of bringing out the tension is that there could be violence.”
Cosby has a history of standing up for his beliefs. In 2017, he went to Shelbyville, Tennessee, and North Carolina to counter-protest white nationalism. As for the recent Black Lives Matter movement, he has attended protests in places spanning from Brunswick, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. He stated that the biggest difference in these protests by city was the circumstances for each of them.
“For instance, I can go to Atlanta and we march, we chant, we pray,” said Cosby. “I can go to Chattanooga and we march, go through the city and we go from the most gentrified area to the community housing area down there. Then here in Cleveland, I decided that it would be more effective if we were quiet. I think it depends on what context you are in and what you are trying to do.”
As Cosby continues to pursue his theological studies, he hopes that moving forward in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, America can reckon with its past.
“We are constantly repeating history,” Cosby said. “We have to come to grips with the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow and red lining and mass incarceration and the value of Black lives. When we say Black Lives Matter it means a plethora of things; it means what happened to Trayvon Martin, there is Ahmaud Arbery, there is George Floyd, then there is also the beauty and dignity and strength and resiliency of a people that went from slavery to the presidency.”
WHEELING, WEST VIRGINIA
When Rebecca Kiger attended a Black Lives Matter protest in her hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia, on May 29, 2020, she felt that she could contribute to her community and the historic moment through her photography.
Kiger is a mother, photographer, photography educator and wife of an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. This protest was not the first of its kind she attended, but it was the first big one organized locally. She said she was inspired by how many people there were and by the amount of diversity.
“I realized that there was some sort of turning point here,” Kiger said. “To see the amount of people who, with no hesitation, support, believe Black lives matter and support the Black Lives Matter movement. Five years ago that was a different story. I live in a place that I always say, we're like 10 years behind everything so I was just so excited to see the wave. This sort of change. This stance on solidarity.”
The streets that day were blocked off outside the city courthouse, and people shared time speaking. Masks were passed out to individuals who did not have them. With a camera around her neck, Kiger began to document some of the scenes that played out that day.
The first photograph Kiger recalled from the protests is an image of three young girls standing alongside their mothers with handwritten posters reading “Black Lives Matter: no justice no peace, I can’t breathe” and “This is America: vote!” She was particularly drawn to the image by the maternal instinct and bond of a mother and a child.
“The moms have not only brought them to the protest, but they were kind of helping them to hold the signs,” Kiger said. “You can just see how things are taught through generations, and also, I can sort of feel the presence of the moms. Like the moms have a much bigger energetic field.”
A sense of paranoia existed among Wheeling protestors in wake of white supremacy stickers and vandalism occurring in the city back in July 2020. People watched the masses gather from the city council building, anxious to see what would result.
“We have tunnels that go between this hill from Ohio, right between Ohio and West Virginia where we are, and they were going to go block the tunnels,” said Kiger. “I have never seen police cars move so fast. People are seeing news from all other places in the country where there had been some rioting or whatever so, you know, they had to be ready.”
At the end of the protest, a woman approached Kiger, who introduced her to her daughter and grandchildren. This led to her taking another memorable photo from her experience, an intergenerational portrait. She mentioned that she felt like this was one of her strongest images of the day.
“I think about my friends, especially my black friends here, who have sons and just the psychic and psychological and emotional weight they carry with them every hour of the day worrying about their children,” Kiger said. “There was something I think in that picture, that is me projecting onto it, but at the same time I have an awareness of that. I wanted to capture that connection and beauty in that relationship and just the emotions I feel thinking about the pain.”
Following the protests, Kiger collaborated with nine photographers in West Virginia to raise $3,000 for West Virginia Black Lives Matter by selling prints of those photographs taken. Two of her prints even found new life in the “Essential Images” exhibit at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado.
Kiger grew up understanding the impact of capturing history through a lens. As a fourth grader, her parents would get her copies of Life magazine, and she would read the photo essays on long bus rides to or from school. She said a specific essay that really impacted her contained photographs of the Holocaust.
“It just really impacted me,” Kiger said. “And I remember even thinking as a child like, ‘How can this happen?’”
She went on to become influenced by social documentary photography and by photographers who covered the Civil Rights movement. As a middle class white person, she said she knew she had to show up to the protest that day and take a stand. She also knew this moment of history needed to be documented.
“Images can be very powerful,” Kiger said. “They are also a part of memory, and while someone else may not see the importance of that in the moment, as a photographer and somebody who has done this for a long time, I very much feel like it is not about an individual person, you know. This is about 50 years later that this document is made.”
After staying up late painting t-shirts the night before a Black Lives Matter protest in her hometown, Dayjha Hogg woke up the morning of June 12 2020 to start making posters, nervous for what the day might hold.
“I did not know what the outcome was going to be,” Hogg said. “I didn't even know if anyone was going to show up. I didn't know if people were going to show up and try to stop it. Like, I had no idea. All I knew was I had my people behind me, going with me that day.”
Hogg has lived in the small, mostly white town of Whitesburg, Kentucky her entire life. She and her three biracial brothers were raised there by their single mother.
Hogg, not having been to the city often and overwhelmed by large crowds, was initially hesitant when her husband first suggested organizing a protest in their town. They dropped the idea until her neighbor and friend Natasha Raichel also mentioned having one.
“[Raichel] said, if no one shows up, if it's just us four—me, Ryan, her and her husband—she said, ‘If it's just us four out there putting our signs up, then that's what it will be,’ and she’s real fiery so she was like, ‘I don't care.’ And I was like, ‘You're right.’ I mean, as long as our family is there supporting us, what do we have to lose?”
Hogg was excited, but still nervous because she didn't know what would happen—whether people would show up, what they would say or if they believed differently.
The evening of the protest, she and her family walked down to the courthouse to get everything set up. When the event officially started at 6:30 p.m., there were about 200 people in the crowd.
“For Whitesburg, that's a lot,” Hogg said. “There were a lot of people out there and I saw friends from school. I saw teachers that I did not expect to be there. I saw certain people, and honestly, some of the people I saw were stereotyping on my behalf, because I was like, ‘Oh my God, I would never imagine that you would be here, supporting,’ you know, and so that was really good for me.”
Hogg said the main point of the evening was to educate their community about racism through sharing their personal experiences. Several people got up and spoke, including Hogg and her brothers.
She spoke about things that had happened to her growing up, such as being called the n-word in hallways at school, having to avoid watermelon in the lunch line at school to prevent receiving stereotypical comments and being followed and stopped in Walmart to have her bags and receipts checked after checking out. Hogg said the response from the crowd was positive.
“When I gave my speech, I basically told them kind of what it was like growing up here,” Hogg said. “And you could tell a lot of people had no idea that these things went on. Like a lot of people had no idea there was that kind of racism in our town, and so you could tell it opened a lot of people's eyes.”
After speeches they marched, which Hogg said was the most impactful part of the day for her. Her family led the crowd, and as they began marching, so did chants of “No justice, no peace.”
“I was just like, you know, we're doing this not only for all these people in the world that are struggling,” Hogg said. “Like all these black lives that need justice, but for us. For all the justice that we needed all years growing up here where people just pretended this stuff wasn't going on. Like this is for us. This is for my family, too, and it was for my mom as well.”
“When we were marching, it was just so powerful.”
They marched all the way to a vigil for Breonna Taylor, where Hogg passed out tea-light candles for people to light in front of Taylor’s portrait. Hogg’s older brother read something about Breonna Taylor, telling people her story. They marched back to the courthouse, and after Hogg’s father-in-law preached, the protest ended.
Hogg said for organizing a protest in a small Appalachian town, it is difficult to get people to realize that minorities have a harder time or experience more discrimination than Appalachians do.
“Because in Appalachia many people are poor,” Hogg said. “Many people have had to work their whole lives. They've been discriminated against for being a hillbilly. Like they've been through the things that they hear us talk about, but it's very hard to get the point across that, ‘Hey guys. I'm from Appalachia, so I'm facing the same hardships as you, but on top of that I'm getting the discrimination of just my skin color.’”
Something that has surprised her about Appalachia though, specifically the people in her town, was the amount of support they got. She said she did not realize how many people she had on her side, and she is optimistic that people in her area are willing to open their minds and change their hearts.
A specific heart who surprised Hogg by attending the protest was a former teacher. Hogg and her mom felt like this teacher had treated Hogg differently despite her being a good student. Seeing her at the protest meant a lot to Hogg, but not as much as what she did afterwards.
“She messaged me afterwards and was just like, ‘I wanted to message you and apologize if I ever let any racial biases creep into my classroom, if I ever treated you less then the wonderful lady you are. And I was just like, ‘Thank you so much. Thank you for saying this to me, like you don't know how much this means.’”
For Hogg, the protest had a lot of wins — it was peaceful, she shared her experiences with the community and she created powerful experiences and memories with her family and friends. However, Hogg said talking to her teacher was enough alone to make her content with the day because she knew that at least one heart got changed.