Hundreds of protesters marched through downtown Luray on Saturday calling for the mayor's resignation after he shared a racist post on Facebook. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn reports.
Protesters gathered at the West Luray Recreation Center as they prepared to march downtown.
[Sound of crowd gathering]
It was once the Andrew Jackson School – where African American students in Page County attended before desegregation. On Saturday, it served a different purpose as volunteers – such as Alejandrina Vega – invited Luray residents to sign a petition urging Mayor Barry Presgraves to step down.
ALEJANDRINA VEGA: Folks, come up and sign the board!
Calls for Presgraves to resign have persisted after a racially insensitive joke appeared on the mayor’s personal Facebook account more than a week ago. The post said 'Joe Biden just announced Aunt Jemima as his VP pick.'
The offensive nature of the post, and the swift criticism from local politicians and residents, received attention from national news outlets including the Washington Post. Biden has promised to pick a woman as running mate, and many Black women are reportedly on his shortlist.
Longtime Luray resident Michelle Billings organized Saturday's protest.
BILLINGS: I think the message is out there, and it is bringing attention to these positions of authority here that we see you. They have to be held accountable.
For Billings, growing up Black in Luray meant racism was a constant reality. Still, she was surprised by Presgraves’ words, and she saw no humor in them.
BILLINGS: This is a public official! I had to read it twice, and I was like “you know, your real colors came out.” This man is 80 years old, I’m 55. I know what Aunt Jemima means, and he knows exactly what Aunt Jemima is and what she represented.
Presgraves reportedly deleted the joke and posted an apology the next day, but some residents in the small town of just under 5,000 found it tone-deaf.
[Protesters chanting “Barry Presgraves has to go!” and “No hate in Luray!”]
Around 200 people marched – including those from Luray and others from outside the town. Leah Pence has been the only Luray Town Council member to openly call for Presgraves’ resignation, and spoke at the march.
PENCE: Something is happening in Luray, and something is happening in America! Systemic racism plagues this community, as well as it does the rest of America.
Members of the Shenandoah Socialist Collective were also there – donning green armbands and armed with pistols. They say they were there to protect protesters and de-escalate conflicts with counter-protesters, as they have at other rallies around the Valley. Jake Krug, of Rockingham County, was with them.
KRUG: This can’t just be something where you show up for one or two protests and that’s it, this has to be a sustained effort to combat racism in every aspect of our lives.
The march was mostly calm as the crowd walked from the recreation center down to the town offices, but throughout the day, a pair of bikers wearing patches from the Pagans Motorcycle Club drove by protesters in what seemed to be an intimidation tactic.
[Sound of bikers revving engines]
VEGA: They’re just being crazy, don’t engage!
The only visible opposition to the March came from a few women who held a banner supporting Presgraves across from the town office. They refused to identify themselves, but one of them offered this:
Counter protester: I just want to say one thing – we are not the minority in this town.
The mayor is in the final months of his third four-year term and will reportedly not run for re-election. While he did not respond to a request for comment and has avoided most local news media, Page Valley News reported last week that the mayor will not resign.
Presgraves is expected at tonight’s town council meeting. Billings also plans to be there front and center, and – despite limited space due to physical distancing requirements – is encouraging other Luray residents to show up and speak out against the mayor.
BILLINGS: They only have a certain amount of seats – I don’t give a darn. I will be sitting right outside the council door.