The Racial Divide Herschel Walker Couldn’t Outrun

WRIGHTSVILLE, Ga. — The race for a critical Senate seat was in full motion by midsummer, but there were just a few Herschel Walker campaign signs sprinkled around his hometown.

They were planted in front of big homes with big yards, in a downtown storefront window, near the sidewalk by the Dairy Queen. There were two on the corner by the Johnson County Courthouse, near a Confederate memorial.

The support appeared randomly scattered. But people in Wrightsville saw a dot-to-dot drawing of a racial divide that has shaped Wrightsville for generations — and is now shaping a critical political race with national implications.

“All those campaign materials were in the white community,” said Curtis Dixon, who is Black and who taught and coached Mr. Walker, a Republican, in the late 1970s when he was a high school football prodigy. “The only other house that has a Herschel Walker poster is his family.”

It may not be an exaggeration. In a predominantly Black neighborhood of small homes about a block from where Mr. Walker went to high school, nine people, including a man who said he was Mr. Walker’s cousin, gathered on a steamy Saturday in July to eat and talk in the shade.

No one planned to vote for Mr. Walker. Most scoffed at the thought.

Around the corner, a retired teacher named Alice Pierce said nice things about Mr. Walker’s mother and family, as most people do.

“But I’m not going to vote for him, I’ll be honest with you,” she said.

Fearful of repercussions in a small town, and out of respect for members of the Walker family who still live in the area, many Black residents in Wrightsville spoke only under the condition of anonymity.

One woman, taking a break from mowing her lawn, said Mr. Walker would be in over his head as mayor of Wrightsville. “He’s famous to some people, because of football,” she said. “But he’s just Herschel Walker to me.”

Mr. Walker, who is one of the most famous African Americans in Georgia’s history, a folk hero for legions of football fans, is unpopular with Black voters. And nowhere is the rift more stark than in the rural farm town where he was raised about 140 miles southeast of Atlanta.

Mr. Walker’s hometown, Wrightsville, sprinkled with his campaign signs. Few are in the yards of Black residents, a microcosm that shows the racial divide among Mr. Walker’s supporters.
Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times
Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Since June, polls have routinely shown Mr. Walker attracting less than 10 percent of Black voters in the race against incumbent Raphael Warnock, the pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Although Mr. Walker often boasts he is going to win “the Black vote,” surveys have found him poised to win no more Black voters than other Republicans on the ballot.

There are easy explanations: Mr. Warnock, who is also Black, is a Democrat who preaches at Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church, and Mr. Walker is running as a Republican tied to Donald J. Trump.

But there are complex reasons, too, especially in Wrightsville.

“Herschel’s not getting the Black vote because Herschel forgot where he came from,” Mr. Dixon said. “He’s not part of the Black community.”

Such feelings toward Mr. Walker have been present for decades. They are flowering ahead of November’s elections.

But they took root during one seismic spring stretch in 1980. On Easter Sunday that April, Mr. Walker, the top football recruit in the country, committed to play at the University of Georgia in Athens. The signing made national news.

Two nights later, after months of simmering tensions, there was a racial confrontation at the courthouse, a lit fuse that exploded into weeks of violence.

The events, two of the biggest in town history, did not seem connected at the time. More than four decades later, their intersection may help decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Several two-lane roads lead to Wrightsville, a crossroads more than a destination, set amid rolling hills of farms and forests. It is the seat of a rural county with fewer than 10,000 residents, about one-third of them Black.

A few miles from town, one road is labeled the “Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.” Another passes by a substantial Confederate memorial. Down a nearby dirt road is the church that Mr. Walker attended as a boy.

Another road to Wrightsville passes the spot, five miles from town, where Mr. Walker and six siblings were raised by Willis and Christine Walker in a white clapboard house.

The family home has been replaced by a stately, ranch-style brick one, where Mr. Walker’s widowed mother lives. Behind it is a second home, a place for Mr. Walker to stay when he visits. About eight storage buildings nearby hold his collection of classic cars.

Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Mr. Walker, now 60, has mostly lived in Texas since the mid-1980s. He often comes to Wrightsville for the Fourth of July, and his cars comprise most of the parade. This year featured a new entry — a Chevy truck wrapped in an advertisement for “Team Herschel,” with Mr. Walker’s photo on the hood.

The parade, just a few minutes long, takes place in front of the Johnson County Courthouse, perched on a central square surrounded mostly by empty storefronts. Banners on lampposts call Wrightsville “the friendliest town in Georgia.”

But back in 1980, it was “a mean little town,” the Atlanta Journal reporter Ron Taylor wrote at the time, that “hangs at the damaged roots of all that did not grow after the sixties.”

It was outside the courthouse in 1979 that the Rev. E.J. Wilson, a Black pastor and civil rights activist new to town, began organizing protests calling out the indignities of being Black in Wrightsville.

Schools had been integrated, but plenty else felt separate and unequal. City jobs and services mostly went to white people. The police force was white. There was an all-white country club but no public parks or pools. Black neighborhoods had dirt roads and leaky sewers. There was still an all-white cemetery, Mr. Wilson pointed out.

And plenty of residents could recall 1948, when the Ku Klux Klan marched on the courthouse and not one of the 400 registered Black voters voted in a primary election the next day.

Mr. Wilson and John Martin, a local leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, saw Wrightsville as a rural echo of Birmingham a generation before, with Sheriff Roland Attaway in the hardened role of Bull Connor.

Mr. Walker was the town’s most famous resident, a potentially powerful ally.

“There were a few times after the Friday night football games when some of the protest leaders grabbed Walker, still in uniform and pads, and demanded he join them,” The New York Times Magazine wrote in 1981. “Sheriff Attaway offered to let Herschel carry a pistol. Most of the Black athletes quit the track team the same spring Herschel led it to its title.”

Protests grew through the spring of 1980. So did opposition. National civil rights leaders arrived. The Klan and J.B. Stoner, the white supremacist politician later convicted of a church bombing, rolled in. There were standoffs and skirmishes.

Kenneth Walker/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Two nights after Easter, the courthouse square filled with about 75 Black protesters and twice as many white ones. The Black protesters were attacked by the white crowd, and sheriff’s deputies joined in, Black leaders told reporters. No one was arrested.

Violence continued sporadically for weeks. Schools and factories closed for fear of outbursts. A little girl, a woman and a policeman were hurt by gunfire. A cafe burned.

In May, Sheriff Attaway and his deputies, guns drawn and bracing for a riot, rolled down South Valley Street into a Black neighborhood where Mr. Wilson’s red brick church still stands. They went door to door, arresting and jailing about 40 people, some for days, most without charges.

Mr. Walker never got involved.

“I’d like to think I had something to do with it,” said Gary Jordan, a white man who coached Mr. Walker in track and football, starting when Mr. Walker was in fifth grade. “I said, ‘You can’t get into shape marching. You’ve got to run. And practice is at 3.’”

Mr. Walker had several other white mentors in town, including an owner of a service station where Mr. Walker worked and a farmer who had employed his parents. Another was a math teacher, Jeanette Caneega.

“As a student in school, his role in society was not to solve the racial problems of the world,” she said this summer.

“I don’t want to be divisive,” Gary Phillips, Mr. Walker’s high-school football coach, who is white, said, “but as an 18-year-old Black kid in Wrightsville with a lot of pressure on him, can you see how or why he might have decided that this is not the best thing for me, to start getting into this?”

Mr. Walker soon left Wrightsville and rarely spoke about the episode. He declined to be interviewed for this article. In college, when he was asked by a reporter about the friction back home, Mr. Walker said that he was “too young” and “didn’t want to get involved in something I didn’t know much about.”

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In a memoir published decades later, Mr. Walker only briefly noted the conflict. But he described a school confrontation between a Black student and the white principal the year before.

“I could never really be fully accepted by white students and the African American students either resented me or distrusted me for what they perceived as my failure to stand united with them — regardless of whether they were right or wrong,” he wrote. “That separation would continue throughout my life with only the reasons for it differing from situation to situation.”

He added: “I never really liked the idea that I was to represent my people.”

Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Today, the school that Mr. Walker attended is shuttered behind a chain-link fence. A new school was built next to what is now called Herschel Walker Field. The complex sits on Herschel Walker Drive.

Teachers, coaches and classmates in Wrightsville remember Mr. Walker’s demeanor. Polite. Humble. Kind. Respectful.

People who plan to vote for him in November tend to mention those things, too. They credit Mr. Walker’s parents. Willis worked at a kaolin mine. Christine worked at a textile mill.

They stayed mostly to themselves and taught their children to try to get along with everyone. “The good Christian woman that she is,” Mr. Walker wrote of his mother, “she also taught us that color was invisible.”

Mr. Walker, in a family of strong athletes, was barely noticed until his junior year of high school. He was, by his telling, a chubby stutterer with so few friends that he paid children to talk to him. He was haunted by nightmares of wolves and was “petrified” of the dark and the Klan, he wrote in his memoir.

He painted himself as an outsider, even in his hometown.

“No one wanted to associate with me because I was an outcast, a stuttering-stumpy-fat-poor-other-side-of-the-railroad-tracks-living-stupid-country boy,” Mr. Walker wrote.

In his early teens, Mr. Walker disappeared into books and devoted himself to fitness. He became a model student, a member of an honor society called the Beta Club. Ms. Caneega, the teacher who led the club, joked that she would have taught for free if she “had a class full of kids like him.”

With no weight room in town, Mr. Walker did pull-ups from trees and ran barefoot along the railroad tracks. Mr. Jordan, the coach, wrapped a belt around Mr. Walker, fastened chains to him and had him pull truck tires across the Georgia red dirt.

Mr. Walker won state titles in track in both sprints and the shot put and led Johnson County to a football state championship his senior year.

The nation’s top college coaches crowded into Wrightsville. Some arrived by helicopter, landing on a field next to school. Mr. Walker delayed a decision for months through the tumultuous spring of 1980.

“Part of that might be that he was so nice, he didn’t want to tell other people goodbye and no thanks after he got to know them a bit,” Vince Dooley, Georgia’s coach from 1964 to 1988, said.

Mr. Walker flipped a coin. It landed on Georgia on Easter night.

A coin? Many details of Mr. Walker’s biography bend toward fable. Until recently, it didn’t really matter. Mr. Walker was just a sports legend, spinning legends.

J.C. Lee/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

But as scrutiny befitting a Senate candidate has grown, Mr. Walker has been found to be a purveyor of fiction and misdirection about basic résumé facts, such as graduating from Georgia (he did not) in the top 1 percent of his class (no); about the size, scope and success of his companies (all exaggerated); about working in law enforcement, including the F.B.I. (he has not); and about his number of children.

His candidacy has resurfaced his 2008 memoir, “Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder,” in which Mr. Walker described a dozen “alters,” or alternate personalities. It rekindled stories of Mr. Walker’s struggle with mental health, reminding voters of his admissions of violent tendencies (briefly chasing down a man he said he wanted to kill), suicidal thoughts (Mr. Walker, who nearly killed himself in an idling car in his garage, said he occasionally played Russian roulette with a revolver) and infidelity.

His post-football life, especially, has been a stream of erratic behavior, some of it described in the book. Mr. Walker’s entrance into politics has prompted stories with new details surrounding allegations that he abused and made death threats against his former wife of nearly 20 years and his late girlfriend.

He has denied the allegations and often deflects questions about his past by saying that he is “fighting to end the stigma of mental illness.”

Such matters have not derailed Mr. Walker’s campaign. Stamped deeper into Georgia’s collective psyche is Mr. Walker’s first college touchdown in 1980. (“Oh you Herschel Walker! My god almighty, he ran right through two men!” the radio announcer Larry Munson shouted then.)

When Mr. Walker arrived on Georgia’s campus, it had been less than a decade since the football team was integrated — one of the last in the country to do so. He became a near-instant hero among the school’s mostly white fan base when he led the Bulldogs to a national championship, playing in the Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame with a separated shoulder.

“Up in a private box in the Superdome,” Dave Anderson of The Times wrote from the game, “the second most important citizen in Georgia peered down yesterday at the most important. President Carter was watching Herschel Walker run with a football.”

Mr. Walker left Georgia after winning the Heisman Trophy his junior year, signing with the new United States Football League. State legislators wore armbands with Georgia’s colors, red and black, to mourn Mr. Walker’s departure.

It was before his second season with the New Jersey Generals that the team was purchased by Mr. Trump, then a 37-year-old New York real-estate developer.

“In a lot of ways, Mr. Trump became a mentor to me,” Mr. Walker wrote in 2008, “and I modeled myself and my business practices after him.”

Audra Melton for The New York Times

On a sweltering summer weekday at Jaemor Farms, a large produce stand off a rural highway, shoppers fondled ripe peaches and sampled ice cream.

Mr. Walker sauntered in, still fit in a T-shirt and casual pants, trailed by a loose huddle of handlers. Heads turned. Mouths opened. An elderly woman rushed to her car to tell her husband.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Drew Echols, whose family owns Jaemor Farms, a traditional campaign stop for would-be politicians. He shook his head and laughed. “It’s because they all know him. He’s Herschel Walker.”

It was Mr. Trump who nudged Mr. Walker back to the bright lights of Georgia. Mr. Walker played 15 seasons of professional football, 12 in the N.F.L. He was wildly famous but never recaptured the success of his college career.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the legendary Herschel Walker ran for the United States Senate in Georgia?” Mr. Trump said in a statement released in March 2021, adding: “Run Herschel, run!”

And Mr. Walker did. He appeared at Trump rallies, where he stood out for his relative lack of vitriol. Bombast is not in Mr. Walker’s nature, though he does share Trump’s penchant for unscripted, sometimes incoherent, remarks.

In July, for example, discussing China and climate change, Mr. Walker said that Georgia’s “good air decides to float over” to China, displacing China’s “bad air,” which returns to Georgia. “We got to clean that back up,” he said. And in May, after the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, he delivered a soliloquy that began, “Cain killed Abel, and that’s a problem that we have.”

His public performances raise questions about why Mr. Walker chose — and was chosen — to run.

Mr. Walker is widely viewed as “not being ready for prime time,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor at Emory University in Atlanta who teaches African American politics. “Which for Black voters, who may be skeptical of the Republican strategy of nominating him in the first place, just smacks of what they view as tokenism.”

Nicole Craine for The New York Times
Audra Melton for The New York Times

Much of the recent campaign intrigue has been over whether Mr. Walker would debate Mr. Warnock, who makes a living preaching from a pulpit. (The two will face off in a debate later this month.) Mr. Walker is more comfortable with small talk. A lifetime of autograph seekers has made him comfortable with quick interactions and people smiling back at him.

At Jaemor Farms, Mr. Walker met in a back room with about a dozen local farmers, all white. He was flanked by two polished white former state politicians, Terry Rogers and Butch Miller, who, like human crutches, kept the discussion moving forward whenever Mr. Walker wobbled into unfamiliar terrain.

Mr. Walker half-joked that Democrats wanted to force farmers to use electric combines. He reminded the group that he was from rural Wrightsville. He said his grandfather raised cotton and peas.

“I used to help pick,” Mr. Walker said. “I thought it was an upgrade to start baling hay.”

The farmers laughed, knowingly. Then Mr. Walker detoured into remarks about China, TikTok and Archie Bunker.

Georgia’s population is one-third Black, but Mr. Walker’s campaign staff is almost entirely white, as are the crowds that gather to watch him.

“The thing you can’t measure about his support is how many people he’s going to pull in that never voted before, haven’t been involved, but know him from his Georgia football days,” Martha Zoller, a conservative talk-show host and political pundit in Georgia, said.

Mr. Rogers, a former Republican state legislator and now a political consultant, noted that the Bulldogs are coming off their first national championship season since 1980.

“This election’s being held during football season,” he said. “I think that goes a long way — especially if Georgia keeps winning.”

The allusions to Georgia football are telling. Sanford Stadium in Athens, like many major sports venues in this country, remains a place where a mostly white fan base cheers mostly Black athletes. Mr. Walker, his No. 34 jersey long retired, is a link to feel-good nostalgia for a university where Black enrollment is about 8 percent.

As a politician, Mr. Walker tries to keep his messages about race in America positive. He says he is pro-police without addressing violence against Black men. He spreads unfounded claims about voter fraud but does not address voter suppression. He says Democrats use race to divide “a great country full of generous people.”

At a campaign stop in Wrightsville in August, he told a room full of women, nearly all of them white: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re racist.”

Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Change moves slowly in Wrightsville. As Mr. Walker said of his hometown last year, “If you got one year to live, you move there. Because that year’s forever. Same old, same old.”

Since Mr. Walker left four decades ago, several textile factories in the area have closed, including the one where Mr. Walker’s mother worked. So have a window factory and a meatpacking plant. Downtown storefronts have emptied.

The median household income in Johnson County is around $42,000 per year. About one-quarter of residents live in poverty. The race divide has softened, but slowly. As recently as 2003, Wrightsville drew attention for being one of several small Southern towns that still held segregated proms.

Across from the courthouse is a floral and collectibles shop called Kreative Kreations. This summer, its display windows were decorated with campaign signs for Mr. Walker. “Run Herschel Run,” read a larger banner over the storefront.

The store owner, Kevin Price, who is white and nearly a decade younger than Mr. Walker, grew up in Wrightsville and recalled his family “packing up every Saturday morning and heading for Athens” to watch the Bulldogs play.

“We need to do more to promote Herschel here in his hometown,” Mr. Price said.

On a shaded bench across the street, a woman named Lisa Graddy wondered just where Mr. Walker had run.

“He forgot about his hometown,” Ms. Graddy said.

Exactly what she and other Black residents expect from Mr. Walker is murky. It is a combination of investment, representation, empathy and engagement.

Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

Why has he not used his fame, fortune and now his political standing to raise the voices of those he left behind, they ask. It is a question raised in 1980, echoing in 2022.

One ex-teammate, Tommy Jenkins, said the answer to the question was once very simple. Mr. Jenkins was among the Black track athletes who boycotted the team and participated in the protests.

“A lot of people criticized him for not standing up, but I understood why Herschel didn’t do it,” said Mr. Jenkins, a Black Wrightsville resident who intends to vote for Mr. Walker. “It would’ve ruined his career.”

Christian Boone contributed reporting from Georgia. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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