By Kelli R Thompson
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, people all over the country began protesting for days and weeks on end. Unable to sit at home watching the unrest unfold on social media and on television any longer, a local woman in a small collegiate town in the deep red state of Alabama decides to take a stand. Or, more accurately, she decides to take a sit.
At the same time every day she returns to the same location, an iconic space in the middle of town known as Toomer’s Corner. In many ways this space represents the heartbeat of this tiny little town. The sacred ground where the university meets and greets the community at large. She brings with her a protest sign she got at the 2018 Women’s March in DC. A cardboard reprint of a classic protest sign from the National Organization for Women with a simple directive, Stop Racism Now. The all caps message emblazoned in bold red letters is hard to ignore against the bright white background of the circular sign. Even harder to ignore, the music coming from the speaker nearby and the chalk markings scribbled on the ground beneath her.
She is no stranger to protest. Days earlier, on this very corner, she witnessed one of the largest protests this town had ever seen. It had been incredibly energizing. She is familiar with the surge of inspiration these moments can provide. She is likewise familiar with the aching void which too often follows these moments. An unmistakable feeling caused by the deep-seated fear simmering just below the surface. The fear this might not be enough to make a difference. She was tired of showing up for fleeting moments like these, coming and going, always returning to the status quo of the void. She was in need of something more sustainable, but had no idea how to create it.
She was prepared to figure this thing out on her own, if she must. She has always feared being alone. Yet, she is no stranger to feeling like an army of one. She takes her place on the corner, sitting alone, feeling vulnerable and exposed in this very open public space, trying to make sense of the heavy feelings swirling about. The familiar racial tension as thick as the humid air she is accustomed to breathing in the deep South. Luckily, the corner rewards her leap of faith and she never sits alone in this space for too long. Each and every day someone joins her, taking up residence on the hard ground next to her and waiting patiently for what the corner will bring.
The first day she sat down on the corner was possibly the scariest. Her heart was beating out of her chest. Her hands shaking and trembling as she reaches into her bag for the portable speaker. She anticipated needing this distraction to keep her in place and instinctively starts playing a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Within in an hour, someone joins her on the ground, an older Jewish gentleman. A welcome stranger indeed. Not long after, another welcome stranger arrives on the scene, this time a young girl. Each of these strangers is their own unique breath of fresh air on the corner, each bringing their own individual energy to the space. The young girl vibrating with the nervous energy of someone fresh off their first protest, someone in shock of witnessing civil unrest in their country for the first time. And the older gentleman, emanating the calm steadfastness of someone who has been doing this hard work for much of their life. She, a middle aged woman herself, sits somewhere in the middle between these two energies. She sits for nearly two hours conversing with these strangers before returning to her car that first day.
The second day starts with the same pit of fear. She faithfully takes her seat on the corner nonetheless. Again, the soothing voice of Dr. King echoing and bouncing off downtown buildings. An older gentleman silently approaches as she sits alone with her sign and takes an unsolicited photo. She politely nods in his direction, smiling beneath her face mask. He shakes his head in disgrace while maintaining a withering stare of disgust pointed in her direction. She is shaken, but remains seated. Not long after, she is joined by another breath of fresh air as another welcome stranger approaches. This time a middle-aged woman, a mom out running errands who feels compelled to take a seat on the hot bricks. Another wonderful conversation ensues. It felt like exactly what both women needed in that moment. Refreshed by the conversation and hardly phased by the earlier negative interaction, she leaves her post. Torch in hand.
The same pattern continues in this space, each day for the rest of the week. The woman arrives with her sign, takes a seat with the portable speaker, and waits patiently for two hours for what the corner will bring. A mixture of emotions swirl about on the corner as some people express vitriol for what she is doing while others express immense gratitude. A vehicle passes and a total stranger yells at her to “get a job” one minute. The next minute, a window rolls down and another stranger expresses the most heartfelt sentiment of love and support in the middle of this public square. She continues to show up, day after day, ready for whatever is to come.
Each and every day she has the courage to show up alone. Each and every day someone else has the courage to join her. Each and every day people express gratitude for what is happening on the corner. Each and every day someone else is angered by what she is doing on the corner. A stark and all too honest reflection of the deep divisions currently facing our nation. Undeterred, each and every day she faithfully returns, keeping a public record of the positive and negative interactions with chalk on the ground nearby. More than 40 thousand positive interactions and just over one thousand negative interactions have been logged since the day she first began showing up.
In the weeks and months that follow, a community of support springs up around her in a way she never could have predicted day one. A diverse group of regulars join her in this space daily. Together they have held hundreds of hours of conversations with people struggling to make sense of this moment of racial reconciliation unfolding before us. They have been yelled at, preached down to, and at times spat at. They’ve heard vile racist and bigoted slurs hurled from the windows of timid motorists trying to make a point. In the same vein, they’ve also witnessed incredible acts of kindness and generosity from their daily post. Gifts and other tokens of appreciation are tossed from the windows of caring motorists also trying to make a point. Random strangers, including local law enforcement, bring water and lemonade on hot days. Employees from local restaurants in the downtown area bring whatever treats they have to offer on their way to and from work. For every bit of negativity flung toward the protestors on the corner, there is always a reliably larger counter weight of love and support waiting just below the surface. That is what the corner brings day in and day out.
Now more than 150 days in to this impromptu social experiment, she no longer sits alone in this space. She is joined daily by people who feel more like family than strangers. They laugh together and mourn together. They dance together and sit in silence together in this space. Art is created together in this space. They each faithfully return, rain or shine, to the same spot in the center of town waiting for the next conversation to unfold.
In the midst of a global pandemic which has left many of us feeling isolated and alone, new friendships are being formed around the common purpose of simply showing up for racial justice. During a time when social media forces us into comfortable bubbles where our ideas go unchallenged, a public marketplace of ideas, open to anyone willing to struggle and put their values to the test, has been created in the middle of a small conservative town. In a period of incredible civil unrest when our culture seems to be running dangerously low on safe spaces to grow and learn, a group of people managed to carve out a space in the center of town for anyone willing to honestly grapple with the challenges of our time. An incredible thing has been happening these past five months in this space. It has affectionately become known as the Great Toomer’s Corner Sit-In. It remains open for all who wish to take a stand during these trying times simply by taking a seat. All are welcome.
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Kelli R Thompson is an Assistant Research Professor and Director of the Juvenile Delinquency Lab at Auburn University. As a community organizer, she is a founding board member of the area’s local PFLAG National Chapter and recently ran for City Council in Opelika, AL. She wrote this essay to tell the story of how she started the Great Toomer’s Corner Sit-In on June 1, 2020. She decided to use a third-person narrative style. The repetition of the feminine pronouns in the telling of the story was important to her.
“I wanted to step back from the story and hopefully allow young girls and women to see themselves in this story. To see themselves as capable of being change makers in their own spaces. No matter how vulnerable or helpless we may feel in our bodies at times. We have agency. No matter where your space may be, from an urban area to a small rural town. We all have something to contribute to this moment. Get out and make something happen, girl!”