When Herbert Johnson was a child, he watched his mother brave police dogs and high-pressure hoses in Louisiana while marching for her civil rights.
Friday, he marched more than 60 years later and 1,200 miles away in Brainerd with nearly 200 others to take a stand against hate. The non-partisan rally was in response to the events in Charlottesville, Va., and across the United States, and "to declare that we value and honor diversity and equality in our community and our country," organizers stated in a news release.
Beginning in Gregory Park, the group of people ranging from young children to senior citizens walked three blocks Friday evening to the intersection of Washington and South Sixth streets, where they stood on three of four corners waving signs and cheering as passersby honked in support.
Johnson, 67, who is black, carried a sign stating, "Make America Great, Lose the Hate."
"I think it was the right thing to do because we cannot afford to lose this nation because of hate," Johnson said. "Hate destroyed a great nation, Germany. We lost thousands of men and women to fight Nazism and we cannot let that ugly stigma raise its head again. That's why I'm here, to make a statement that we are all American. ...
"I feel I owe this to my mother, because she braved the elements of Jim Crow to vote. Her god-given right as an American to vote. So this is for my mother, too, and also my country."
Pequot Lakes High School students Molly Johnson, 16, and Sydney Ellison, 17, came together to the event.
"I just thought, I'm sick and tired of having people just not have their voices heard," Molly Johnson said. "I wanted to stick up for people that couldn't stick up for themselves and stick up for everybody that needs their voice to be heard."
"I just don't like being complicit with racism, and I think it's important to acknowledge your privilege and do something about it," Ellison said. "And to try to make other people in your community realize it's a problem."
Although the girls both primarily grew up in the lakes area, geographically far removed from the events in Charlottesville, they said social media makes it easier for them to connect with the people and places most affected by recent examples of racial hatred.
"These are actual people and their problems and lives matter, and I'm not just going to sit in the Brainerd lakes area and not try to fight for these people," Molly Johnson said.
Brainerd man Tom Freece, 71, said his faith combined with recent events around the country brought him out to march Friday night. The Vietnam veteran and deacon at St. Francis and All Saints Catholic churches said the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer demonstrating against white nationalists in Charlottesville was the "straw that broke the proverbial camel's back."
"I hope that events like this in our own community and around the country can cause us to begin to turn the corner towards a more loving country," Freece said. "When I was in the service, I fought beside a lot of young men of different colors: good friends that were Latino, friends that were African American. The fact remains that if anything happened to any one of us, the blood that we bled was all the same color no matter what the color of skin."
Arlene Jones of rural Brainerd said her son is about to leave on his eighth deployment with the U.S. Army, and the kind of hatred displayed by self-proclaimed neo-Nazis and others rallying with them is not what he is fighting for.
"I'm not risking our family's livelihood and our children's lives so we can dance backwards," Jones said. "We don't have time. We've come too far to let small voices take over what I think is the majority. ... The freedom he's fighting for is equality for all. That's how he was raised. That's what he grew up to believe in. He risks his life time and time again for small voices."
Although greeted with countless honks of support from drivers passing by the gathering, the crowd also experienced actions expressing disapproval. At least two people in vehicles were seen flashing their middle fingers. A contingent of drivers with large diesel pickup trucks spewed black smoke from pipes and revved their engines, appearing to make several passes up and down Washington Street, sometimes traveling at high speeds. There were no police officers present at the event, although organizers sported fluorescent vests to serve as marshals.
After about 45 minutes in the shadow of the historic Brainerd water tower, the group made its way back to Gregory Park to light candles and sing together. Several people shared reflections on why they came and what they plan to do next.
One small girl approached the microphone in front of the entire crowd to share her thoughts.
"God knows to love us, and we can listen to him and obey his rules," she said.
The reflections were followed by a moment of silence for Heyer and a sing-along to "This Little Light of Mine," while participants laid votive candles and glow sticks on the ground to form a heart shape.
The event was supported by Stand Up Brainerd Lakes, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Brainerd Area Coalition for Peace, Women's March Brainerd Lakes, Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and Project Rainbow.
Amanda Schwartzkopf of rural Brainerd helped organize the event through the Stand Up Brainerd Lakes group.
"We see a lot of the stuff that's going on nationally and it's really easy to say, 'Oh, that's something that's happening in New York or D.C. or L.A. or wherever,'" Schwartzkopf said. "But it is something that does affect us here in brainerd and it's something we should care about and make our voices known about."
She said organizers specifically requested participants keep their signs away from party politics, noting the intent was for inclusion of all who wished to participate no matter political beliefs.
"Love and inclusion and denouncing hate and denouncing racism, I think, is something we can all agree on," Schwartzkopf said. "It can really bring us together no matter what you believe. We want to be inclusive, we don't want to be divisive. We don't want to say just because you voted for one person, you're a bad person. ... We're a community, and these are all our neighbors here."
Rev. Leslie Moughty of the United Church of Christ said although she's worked on issues surrounding racial justice for a few years, this was the first event she took the lead in organizing. She was pleased with the turnout, she said.
"We were just happy to show people that they weren't alone," Moughty said. "Your single voice might feel like it's lonely and like it doesn't have enough oomph to get anything done, but that when we come together, there are people here who also believe that hate is wrong and racism is wrong. There is a power stronger than that."
Moughty said her inspiration comes from her faith.
"My faith informs my view that I shouldn't be sitting idly by," she said. "When people are suffering, or when people are oppressed or when people are judged, it's our responsibility as fellow human beings to come to their aid and to stand up for equality and to stand up for love in all things."