QUESTION: Is it true that Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson recently told a group of Alamance County pastors that he “does not want the Confederate monument” at the county’s historic courthouse?
ANSWER: No, Johnson never said that during a meeting with a group of Alamance County pastors on November 5, according to a recording of the discussion obtained by The Alamance News.
Michael Graves, who organized the meeting with the sheriff and pastors on November 5, also confirmed for the newspaper this week that Johnson never made any statement to that effect during the discussion.
However, one of the pastors who attended the November 5 meeting, Rev. Randy Orwig, senior pastor at Elon Community Church, told a group at Morgantown Baptist Church two weeks ago that the sheriff said he not only wants the monument to be moved but that the pastors have vowed to “hold him to it.”
A longtime civil rights advocate who lives in Burlington, Graves said in an interview Wednesday that he had organized the meeting between sheriff Johnson, Graham police chief Kristy Cole, and the pastors to get a clear understanding of the chain of events that led up to law enforcement using pepper spray to disperse a rally at the historic courthouse in Graham on October 31.
Organized by Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro, the “I Am Change March to the Polls” has since garnered national attention and a pending federal lawsuit in which Drumwright claims that the “violent” use of pepper spray to disperse the rally amounted to voter suppression.
At the outset of his discussion with the pastors on November 5, Johnson denounced white supremacy in no uncertain terms but never gave his own opinion about whether the Confederate monument should be moved, Graves confirmed this week. The nearly two-hour meeting with the pastors was held at the county annex building at 201 West Elm Street in Graham, he said.
“The sheriff’s opinion of that statue matters not – his opinion does not matter,” Graves pointed out Wednesday, referring to a state law that the General Assembly passed in 2015, which prohibits any “object of remembrance” on public property from being permanently removed. The 2015 statute, which also applies to monuments, memorials, or works of art, provides three exceptions for temporary relocation: to preserve the object; to mitigate a safety hazard created by some physical or structural element of the object; or to facilitate construction and renovation projects.
Pastor relates his version of sheriff’s statement on moving the statue
During the meeting at Morgantown Baptist Church on November 19 – convened to coordinate another march that Drumwright had planned in in Graham this past weekend – Orwig recalled feeling “set up” during the earlier meeting with the clergy, sheriff, and Graham police chief. “They put us in a room together, and they had video footage and all kinds of stuff to show us how good they were and how bad everyone in the march was,” Orwig told the group at Morgantown Baptist Church. “We were letting it go for about 25 or 30 minutes until finally we started saying, ‘What’s going on? Why are we here?’ You’re getting sued – you deal with that in the court case.’
“Terry Johnson was there and he said, ‘I’m against anything that has to do with white supremacy,’” Orwig said in outlining his account of the November 5 meeting with the other Alamance County pastors. “And he also said – he said it to more than one person – ‘I don’t want that Confederate statue there.’”
The group at Morgantown Baptist Church reacted with seeming disbelief and surprise.
“I swear to God, okay,” Orwig continued. “We were melting away. We said to him, ‘Say it in public.’ He’s on record with some of us and we’re not going to let him off the hook. The last thing I said to him – and I think you all know this, too – is when that event took place, Alamance County became one of the new Fergusons,” Orwig said, referring to Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, who was fatally shot after charging at a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. “We need to build on this because the optics has shown us,” Orwig added during the meeting at Morgantown Baptist Church, “now we’re seen as one of the most racist counties in the United States of America.”
What Johnson actually said
During the discussion with the pastors on November 5, Johnson shared that he has a multiracial grand-niece and that several of his own family members have moved away from the area out of fear for their safety and feeling “discarded,” as one unidentified black female pastor had said of some of her parishioners’ experiences.
“I understand a lot of things that y’all don’t realize I understand but I’m one person,” the sheriff told the pastors November 5. “I’m willing to do whatever I have to do to change this in our community. If it means moving the statue, I have talked to our commissioners. We’re putting people watching that statue 24/7, when I have people out here dealing dope, breaking in houses.
“But, as the sheriff, I took an oath to enforce the law and protect property,” Johnson said. “I have to do that. My hand went on the Holy Bible to do that – whether it’s your house, that statue, the courthouse, whatever, I’ve got to do that. Just maybe, if this group of pastors would come in to the board of commissioners and speak your piece from your heart, maybe their eyes would open. There’s got to be a better way to deal with these issues, and if that’s what’s holding these issues up, we need to do something about it.”
“We are already inviting clergy in Alamance County to come forward and take part,” Orwig elaborated during the subsequent meeting at Morgantown Baptist Church. “We need to build on this because – the optics have shown us – now we’re seen as one of the most racist counties in the United States of America.”
Why wasn’t Rev. Drumwright invited to the meeting?
Graves also addressed subsequent public criticism of his decision not to invite Drumwright to the meeting with the sheriff, police chief, and clergy.
“I did not want Drumwright there – that was my decision,” Graves told the newspaper Wednesday. “I wanted this decision to be an informational session; I did not want this to be a debate. It was an information session that clergy in Alamance County were invited to; Drumwright is not clergy in Alamance County, which was why he was not included.
“I did not want Drumwright there – that was my decision. I wanted this to be an informational session; I did not want this to be a debate. It was an information session that clergy in Alamance County were invited to; Drumwright is not clergy in Alamance County, which was why he was not included.” – Michael Graves, former president of the local NAACP, who organized the meeting
“Rev. Drumwright has said anything he has wanted to say to anybody who would put a camera in front of his face,” Graves elaborated. “If the KKK had a network, he would do the interview with them. He is a media whore, pimping the people of Alamance County for his personal gain; he has sycophants like Randy Orwig who have white guilt and feels like [they] can compensate for 200 years of injustice to black people by excusing these type of tactics and appealing to biased crowds with a bunch of lingo and misinformation just so he can get their cheers and applause. In my opinion he is as much a detriment to the progress of black people as any racist.”
Graves said that at least he knows where he stands with members of the KKK. “I can be cognizant to keep my guard up,” he said. “But with people like [Orwig], if you don’t give people the right information, you’re hurting them. Stop treating us like little kids on the plantation.”
Graves expressed pointed frustration about distorted accounts of the meeting with the pastors on November 5 that have been published since. “It was not a private, exclusive meeting,” he said.
Orwig and other pastors acknowledged during the November 5 meeting that Drumwright had violated the terms of a facilities agreement he had signed to reserve the courthouse grounds for his Halloween day rally, Graves recalled in the interview Wednesday. “He lied and he is pandering to black people,” Graves said of Orwig’s remarks during the meeting at Morgantown Baptist Church. “People were able to ask any questions they wanted to ask. After me, he [Orwig] spoke the most. Other pastors said, ‘We know who Drumwright is; we are not naïve to him.’ Their concern was about the pepper spray.”
At a subsequent press conference, a sheriff’s department spokesperson had said that pepper spray was to break up the rally on October 31 after deputies discovered Drumwright brought a gas-powered generator and two gas cans onto the courthouse grounds, which was explicitly prohibited under the facilities use agreement he had signed on October 20.
For his part, Drumwright has said that the generator was used to power amplifiers for his sound system.
The pastors didn’t come away from that meeting with the sheriff and police chief saying “We are pro-Drumwright,” Graves elaborated. “It was, ‘could you have done anything else [other than use the pepper spray]. Enough of the lies coming from Drumwright; enough of the lies from Randy Orwig; enough, enough.”