Evan Davis was still on the school bus Friday morning, rolling up to Middletown High School at 7:00 am, when he saw a fellow student in the campus parking lot holding a Confederate flag.
Initially, the bus riders thought it was a “stupid” display, as Davis put it. He saw two administrators make a beeline to talk to the student.
But as the day went on, the air felt “heavy” as classmates began processing what had happened, said Davis, 15, a sophomore in the school’s Minority Student Coalition. An image of the flag incident had been posted on social media.
“I got more upset just knowing, why are you doing this in a community like Middletown?” Davis said.
The spectacle on the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend rattled this city known for its liberal politics. Upset parents aired their concerns. Students soon gathered with school administrators, the start of talks that continued this week. State Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said the student who carried the flag attends the school’s vo-ag program, but is not a city resident.
“We are all in a state of shock, and so making sure that students — particularly students of color — feel safe and supported … is our No. 1 priority,” Lesser said. “It was disturbing … . That was a symbol of hate, racism and division that was brought to a school that wasn’t expecting it.”
On Monday, the annual MLK Day celebration and scholarship fundraiser in Middletown was abuzz with whispers and preaching about how to respond. Without naming President Donald Trump, some of the speakers alluded to the president’s inflammatory remarks on racial issues, and urged residents to follow King’s example — with acts of unity and peaceful resistance.
“What happened in this community on Friday is a manifestation of the unleashing of hate in a large segment of our society,” Mayor Dan Drew said at the lectern of the First Church of Christ, Congregational. “It’s not new. It’s been there all along. And there are many people in this nation and unfortunately, in every community, not just ours … who have locked up these beliefs in their hearts for many, many, many years. But now, many of them feel empowered.”
While Superintendent Michael Conner declined to discuss any school disciplinary action for the student, Drew said the city police department was investigating the incident.
“No one is going to be able to take a symbol of hate, and divisiveness and treason, and turn us against one another,” Drew told the congregation.
After the event, Conner said he was prepared to lead “courageous conversations” at Middletown High, including meeting with vo-ag students and the minority student organization in the coming days. As a black man himself, Conner said he has experienced racism in his everyday life.
“Was I surprised? No. Are we going to handle this as a community? Absolutely,” Conner said. “But we’re going to use a different strategy and tactic to defy some of the negative connotations that played out in our community last week ... . A tactic of how to come together as one, a tactic of love, a tactic of denouncing hate, denouncing bigotry, denouncing racism.”
As for Davis, who led a school choir rendition of U2’s “MLK” on Monday, his disappointment shifted to pride over how swiftly the Minority Student Coalition began organizing. Many students wore black to school on Tuesday as a form of protest. The coalition also plans to educate classmates on the history of the Confederate flag and its connections to slavery and white supremacy.
“We’re trying to make a clear statement: This is not going to fly,” Davis said.
Brittany Hoggard, president of the MLK Jr. Scholarship Committee of Greater Middletown, told students that the community stands alongside them.
“What’s a better time than now to advocate for yourselves? To advocate for peace, justice and equality in your school?” Hoggard said. “What’s a better time than now to look to Dr. King’s work as guidance to have your voice heard and respected?”
This report is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.