Dixie Highway is a main drag that runs from Covington south through Fort Mitchell, Crestview Hills, Erlanger, Florence and south to Dry Ridge and beyond.
It is, in fact, part of a national road that was conceived in 1914 and now runs from Michigan to Chicago to Florida. The name “Dixie,” of course, calls to mind the minstrel song of the same name that was adopted as an anthem of sorts by the Confederacy during the Civil War. As a geographic reference, it’s a term for the Southern states that formed the core of that secessionist government that fought to keep slavery alive.
All those references crossed the mind of Chris Brown when she decided to organize a march through her hometown of Elsmere 12 days after the death at police hands of George Floyd. But her decision to lead a march down Dixie Highway had more to do with visibility and safety than with any notion of calling attention to what some consider an archaic, even offensive, reference to the antebellum South.
She has bigger issues in mind than changing the name of one of the region’s main thoroughfares.
“The name ‘Dixie Highway’ … is it racist? Absolutely,” she says. “But it is so low on the priority list.”
What’s more important to her, as a rising activist associated with the Black Lives Matter movement in Northern Kentucky, is getting people registered to vote, improving the diversity of city councils and school boards and building understanding among the races.
“We’re not here to tear down everything that you’ve ever known in your life,” she says. “That’s not significant to us. What’s significant to us is that we’re safe with the people that we pay the salaries of. We need public servants to be public servants. If you never take down a Christopher Columbus statue, that’s OK with me.”
On Sunday, June 7, protesters began marching from the former Kmart parking lot on Dixie Highway through Erlanger to the Elsmere Police Department at 4500 Dixie Highway. Brown says more than 1,200 participated in what was the first such march in Northern Kentucky following the May 25 death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
TANK donated buses to ferry marchers back to the start and the protest had the full cooperation of police departments through the route, she says.
The property management of Crestview Hills shopping mall did balk at starting the march there after protests in Cincinnati and elsewhere had resulted in vandalism to businesses.
The march was peaceful. Organizer Brown is a 39-year-old office manager and mother of two who had been connected to the Black Lives Matter movement in Cincinnati but never led a march or rally. The death of Floyd and the March 13 shooting death of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police changed all that.
Things just felt different and it was time to act, she says. Born and raised in Northern Kentucky, she thought it was time for the communities to be given a voice.
“Because it’s smaller, our voices are often overlooked,” she says. “Our voices are sometimes outsourced to either Louisville or Cincinnati.”
She became attuned to activism through her father, now 79, who she says was run out of Montgomery, Ala., a center of the civil rights movement, sometime in the ‘60s. Working at a dry cleaning shop, he objected to cleaning the white robes and hoods of Ku Klux Klan members. His outspokenness about it, and his participation in marches in Montgomery, were enough to mark him for rough treatment from local whites.
“He wasn’t willing to be treated the way it was going in the South,” Brown says. “He had a lot to say about it. They were intent on killing him as far as he was concerned.”
His family urged him to leave town and he landed in Covington.
But for Brown, it really wasn’t until her daughters were in school that she began to see some of the subtle and not-so-subtle racism that exists.
“It took me having children to really see the cultural divides,” she says.
They attended schools in Boone County, a county that is more than 90 percent white. She felt her kids were scolded in school for little more than being black and she saw a lack of understanding of diverse cultures among the teachers and administrators. “That blew me away,” she says.
Now, with her daughters in their late teens, she feels freer to come into her own as an activist. “Timing is everything," she says. “And here we are.”
Moving forward from the June march, she sees voter registration as the top priority. “The most important thing between now and November is to register young people to vote and to get to pick and pinpoint the leaders that best represent our needs,” she says. She is working with Democrat organizations in Northern Kentucky on voter registration.
She plans to push for more diversity in policing and in local governments and for diversity training.
“We need to really get to know one another,” she says. “That is the core solution. We need to start talking. We are different but we can meet in the middle here. Or we can disagree, but it doesn’t have to result in a loss of life.”
A turning point has been reached, she feels, and we’re in a moment that demands that voices be heard.
“You either have to say what you have to say or be silent,” she says. “And I think the time for silence is over.”