A Very Disturbing Sign of the Times
I played three years of high school football back in the early 1970s for a small private school called Onslow Academy in Jacksonville, N.C.
In order to get to two of our Eastern Independent Conference rivals, our team bus used to have to take U.S. 70 through Smithfield. I remember that vividly because just on the outskirts of the west side of Smithfield was a billboard that featured a white knight on a bucking stallion welcoming visitors to the town, inviting them to join and support the Klan in their fight against communism and integration, and proudly declaring: "This is Klan Country."
I hated that sign. It made me embarrassed for my state, for my race, and for living in the South. It said ignorance and intolerance live here. For people of color, it was an unnecessary reminder that it is easier to change a law than a heart, and that for as long as the people responsible for that sign drew breath, they would always be second-class in their eyes. It was a sign of defiance in a changing time, an ineffectual bulwark against the tide of history.
The impact of signs was brought home to me again recently. I got a call one evening about 10 days ago from a friend of mine from church who said that he had witnessed someone stealing "Vote Against Amendment One" signs on Morganton Road.
Stealing political yard signs is nothing new. I was a volunteer for the Obama campaign in 2008, and our signs were either prized possessions or prime targets, depending on one's perspective. People were stealing them left and right.
Likewise, a local resident who feels strongly about this issue bought and distributed 250 of the Carolina blue "Vote Against" signs. By last Friday, all but 26 of them were missing. It speaks to the worst of human nature. But sadly, it's to be expected.
Still, there's something a little different about these signs because they're not about candidates. The effects of the amendment they address will have a much more direct impact on people's lives, gay and straight, than the election of any one particular candidate. As I drove down Morganton Road the morning after my friend called and the familiar signs were gone, I was filled with an anxiety that I never felt when candidate signs went missing.
The stealing of the signs sends a very inhospitable message in an area that depends in large part upon its hospitality. It makes us look narrow-minded, backward and mean-spirited.
Serious action by the local authorities might go a long way toward countering that perception.
Last Sunday, another friend of mine at church explained what it meant to him, personally, as a gay man. It says to gay people that they don't deserve equal protection under the law and that they are unworthy of the 1,300 rights and protections afforded to heterosexual couples when they marry.
It says that gay people are not welcome here and that as long as the people stealing the signs draw breath, he would always be a second-class citizen in their eyes.
The most disturbing part of what the friend who called me witnessed was that the people he saw stealing the signs were not alone. They had two younger people, presumably their children, with them.
They were in effect teaching their children, by example, that not only was it acceptable to discriminate against people who are different from you, but it is equally acceptable to commit petty larceny to deny them their First Amendment rights. It is an example so gravely misguided as to border on child abuse.
That billboard in Smithfield no longer stands. In time, the fear that gave rise to Amendment One will, like that sign, be regarded as a unfortunate example of the ignorance and intolerance of the past - one last attempt to deny people their dignity in support of a dated and misguided sense of propriety.
The signs say we should be and will be better than that.
Kevin Smith lives in Aberdeen. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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