Dancer with Union Black Baptist Church's MIME Ministry in Winston-Salem.
Dancers perform with Union Black Baptist Church's Mime Ministry in Winston-Salem. Credit: Courtesy / Joan Cheever

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.C. – I’ve only been to North Carolina twice in my life. Once in late October 2008 and then again on Friday. Both journeys were fueled by the same consuming emotion. Fear has brought me here.

While this state is home to Cape Fear, a coastal region made famous by the 1991 remake of the horror movie of the same name, I have felt wrapped in my own cloak of fear for the past two months. I both fear and feel that the vitriol, nastiness, and hate in this presidential election has divided families, childhood friends, and my entire country.

Eight years ago, I traveled here with my husband and our bewildered and, sometimes, openly hostile teens. My daughter and I wrote about it in a column in The Huffington Post.

The kids decided that 11th hour road trip was “bizarre” and a “Crazy Mom moment.” But I saw it as the best civics lesson I could have provided about the political process and the precious right of all Americans to vote.

Our family block-walked and phone-banked then in Cary, N.C., a suburb of the Raleigh- Durham “research triangle.” Hoping to inspire my children to step up their game (“Okay, Mom! We GET it!”), I incessantly quoted the political pundits who said that if Barack Obama won Cary, he’d win the White House. And he did. On both counts.

Four days before the pivotal 2016 election, I’m back and North Carolina is again a battleground state. For weeks, my fears have focused on the possibility that the African American community could be shut out of the electoral process. My fear is that the fundamental right to vote – the invention that defines us as Americans to people around the globe – is under assault. True fear.

FRIDAY

This time here I didn’t block walk, but I did phone bank briefly for the North Carolina NAACP’s It’s Our Time, It’s Our Vote project. I failed miserably due to the fact that Friday afternoon is not the best time to dial, my San Antonio area code on Caller ID wasn’t recognized, and because no one answers their home phone anymore.

SATURDAY

I drove two hours to Fayetteville, one of three counties in this 100-county state where nearly 5,600 voters had been purged from registration lists after a challenge by local Voter Integrity Project activists.

Trista Mitchell, a member of Victory Counsel's legal team from New York.
Trista Mitchell, a member of Victory Counsel’s legal team from New York, visits Durham, N.C. Credit: Courtesy / Joan Cheever

A small town 90 miles south of Durham, Fayetteville was the subject of Friday’s successful NAACP federal lawsuit. I came here to speak with the “boots on the ground.”

New York City’s Trista Mitchell, a member of Victory Counsel’s legal team, kept both eyes on the polling site outside the Kiwanis Recreation Center while we visited. She said she and three attorney friends came to Cumberland County specifically because of news reports of the massive purge and took a three-hour voter protection training course. This morning, Mitchell said, the only blip was a machine malfunction. She noted an African American woman in her late 60s, who had been on the purge list, was able to vote at the recreation center without a challenge.

Jimmy Keefe, a Democrat running for re-election to the Cumberland County board of commissioners, who playfully tried to photo bomb my pictures of Mitchell, said the early polling site was busy, with 650 to 700 voting during Saturday’s four-hour, last chance window.

Jimmy Keefe, a member of the Cumberland County board of commissioners.
Jimmy Keefe, a member of the Cumberland County board of commissioners. Credit: Courtesy / Joan Cheever

“I wish we had more polling places,” Keefe said. “Cumberland County really does need to embrace early voting. It’s not a fad.”

I also wanted to talk to voters, thinking I could sniff out voter fear. But intimidation is insidious. I didn’t see it. But I felt it. This was a community on edge. It was a community that shared my fear.

Only hours earlier, the eyes of the nation were focused briefly on Fayetteville as U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs in Greensboro blasted election officials for allowing an antiquated and “insane” purging of the voter rolls. There were thousands of names purged in Cumberland County alone. Biggs’ ruling restored voting rights in Cumberland, Beaufort and Moore counties. Remarkably, the judge acknowledged that systematic purging was occurring across North Carolina, but there was no time to review additional evidence. Instead, she ordered Justice Department lawyers to return to North Carolina on Tuesday to guard against voter suppression and intimidation.

I drove back to Durham after lunch and went to the NACCP’s legal office where lawyers were hunched over computers, iPhones in hand, painstakingly investigating complaints of voter intimidation that had occurred earlier in the week.

In addition to news reports of a poll watcher menacingly carrying around a baseball bat with the word “TRUMP,” one African American man reported that a poll worker had opened his laptop in the polling area, browsing internet sites that sold firearms. The man told the lawyers he felt threatened.

Based on my eavesdropping, I suspect the legal team will have enough evidence by Tuesday morning to amend a voter intimidation lawsuit filed Friday by the North Carolina Democratic Party against the North Carolina Republican Party and the Donald Trump campaign.

SUNDAY

I headed south to church this morning hoping for a blessed assurance to wrap around my fears. Ushered into a pew at the packed Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, I was welcomed with songs, personal testimonies, dancing in the aisles by the Dance and Mime Ministries, and hugs and handshakes before absorbing a fiery, hour-long sermon by Rev. William J. Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP. Part speech, part shouting and part singing, his sermon was electric.

The 53-year-old preacher told a story of his childhood when he had been caught misbehaving.

“My mother didn’t say, ‘Young man, you need a time out.’ She didn’t say, ‘I suggest you come in here and do your homework’ or ‘let’s discuss this further.’ Rather, she’d say, ‘Billy, YOU BETTER come in here.’” That’s when, Barber said, “you knew things were serious.”

This day, he said, is a very serious time for America. He then told the congregants to turn to each other, look one another in the eye and say, “We better vote.” They obliged.

“It’s time for America to have a grown up conversation.” Barber told the worshipers. “It’s time.” Then, his voice rising to a commanding shout, Barber urged that his mother’s firm direction be followed. “YOU BETTER.”

In the face of such fierce maternal wisdom, fear fades.

Joan Cheever

Joan Cheever is a non-practicing attorney and San Antonio community activist. She is the author of Back From The Dead: One woman’s search for the men who walked off America’s death row (John Wiley...