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 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 Walker went to high school, nine people, including a man who said he was Walker's cousin, gathered on a steamy Saturday in July to eat and talk in the shade.
No one planned to vote for Walker. Most scoffed at the thought.
Around the corner, a retired teacher named Alice Pierce said nice things about 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.
Walker, 60, 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 starker than in the rural farm town where he was raised, about 140 miles southeast of Atlanta.
Since June, polls have routinely shown Walker attracting less than 10% of Black voters in the race against incumbent Raphael Warnock, the pastor at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. Although 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: Warnock, who is also Black, is a Democrat who preaches at Martin Luther King Jr.'s former church, and Walker is running as a Republican tied to Donald Trump.
But there are complex reasons, too, especially in Wrightsville.
"Herschel's not getting the Black vote because Herschel forgot where he came from," Dixon said. "He's not part of the Black community."
Such feelings toward Walker have been present for decades. They are flowering before November's elections.
But they took root during one seismic spring stretch in 1980. On Easter Sunday that April, 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.
It was outside the Johnson County 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
In May, Attaway and his deputies, guns drawn and bracing for a riot, rolled down South Valley Street into a Black neighborhood where Wilson's red brick church still stands. They went door to door, arresting and jailing about 40 people, some for days, most without charges.
Walker never got involved.
He 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, Walker said that he was "too young" and "didn't want to get involved in something I didn't know much about."
In a memoir published decades later, 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."
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.
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. Walker delayed a decision for months through the tumultuous spring of 1980.
Walker flipped a coin. It landed on Georgia on Easter night.
A coin? Many details of Walker's biography bend toward fable. Until recently, it didn't really matter. Walker was just a sports legend spinning legends.
But as scrutiny befitting a Senate candidate has grown, Walker has been found to be a purveyor of fiction and misdirection about basic resume facts, such as graduating from Georgia (he did not) in the top 1% of his class (no); about the size, scope and success of his companies (all exaggerated); about working in law enforcement, including the FBI (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 Walker described a dozen "alters," or alternate personalities. It rekindled stories of 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 (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. 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 Walker's campaign. Stamped deeper into Georgia's collective psyche is Walker's first college touchdown in 1980.
When 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 nearly 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.
Walker left Georgia after winning the Heisman Trophy his junior year, signing with the new United States Football League.
It was before his second season with the New Jersey Generals that the team was purchased by Trump, then a 37-year-old New York real estate developer.
"In a lot of ways, Mr. Trump became a mentor to me," Walker wrote in 2008, "and I modeled myself and my business practices after him."
It was Trump who nudged Walker back to the bright lights of Georgia. Walker played 15 seasons of professional football, 12 in the NFL. 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?" Trump said in a statement released in March 2021, adding, "Run Herschel, run!"
And Walker did. He appeared at Trump rallies, where he stood out for his relative lack of vitriol. Bombast is not in Walker's nature, though he does share Trump's penchant for unscripted, sometimes incoherent remarks.
In July, for example, discussing China and climate change, Walker said that Georgia's "good air decides to float over" to China, displacing China's "bad air," which returns to Georgia. 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 Walker chose - and was chosen - to run.
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."
On a shaded bench in Wrightsville, a woman named Lisa Graddy wondered just where Walker had run.
"He forgot about his hometown," Graddy said.
Exactly what she and other Black residents expect from Walker is murky. It is a combination of investment, representation, empathy and engagement.
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. 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 Jenkins, a Black Wrightsville resident who intends to vote for Walker. "It would've ruined his career."
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