Saturday, August 8, 2015

Forsyth County

Finland has seen some unusually prominent political demonstrations recently over the question of immigration, including a massive peaceful pro-multiculturalism rally in Helsinki’s Senate Square and a neo-Nazi gathering in Jyväskylä that resulted in some violence.

I’m hoping to write more about those events soon, but since I had almost finished this post on a conveniently related topic, perhaps I’ll get this one out of the way first.

Almost thirty years ago, I marched in what amounted to the only political demonstration I’ve ever taken part in. I even hesitate to use the word “march”, since to my ear that sounds far too self-important. Let’s just say I showed up.

I wasn’t an especially political person in my youth. The part of rural north Georgia I was from was not exactly a hotbed of political activism in those days. I think the status quo was just fine for most folks in my solidly conservative and God-fearing county. There wasn’t lot of diversity of opinion there when it came to the biggest political issues of the day, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. I think it’s safe to say that most residents supported the former and were at best uneasy about the latter.

In high school, the only overtly political act I engaged in was at a public hearing held in my hometown to gather “public comment” about a new four-lane highway to be built between Atlanta and North Carolina. As I recall, there were five proposed routes the highway could have taken through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I felt that at least one or two of them would devastate some beautiful, mostly secluded mountain landscape.

At the well-attended hearing in our old county courthouse one evening, I took my turn to stand before a microphone and briefly, and no-doubt awkwardly, expressed my opinion about which of those alternative routes should be rejected outright, mainly the one through Neels Gap, a high saddle along the Appalachian Trail. I thank God, or whomever, that there is no recording of my statement.

For what it’s worth, that four-lane highway was eventually routed through my own hometown, the least disruptive option really, so in a sense, my side won.

Also while at college in Athens, I don't recall there being any major student protests on the University of Georgia campus, where a diversity of opinions certainly could be found, as well as the kind of young, energetic, sometimes idealistic, student body that is tailor-made for political activism. If there had been some massive exercise of the right of assembly while I was there, other than for a football game, of course, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

Much later, after living abroad in Finland for a few years, I was again a resident of Athens, this time studying journalism, when an unexpected event occurred that harkened back to the civil rights movement of two decades earlier. That event occurred in Forsyth County.

Forsyth is a little county occupying some rolling countryside about halfway between Atlanta and the mountains of North Georgia, a county with a tainted history I had never heard about, despite growing up only two counties away.  

In truth, I didn’t know much about Forsyth at all. We never had much reason to go there. Cumming, the county seat, was not on the way to anywhere we ever went, though I have driven Highway 53 across the northeast corner of the county on innumerable trips back and forth between home and Athens – genteel enough wooded countryside that in a sense camouflages some truly horrible violence from over a hundred years ago.

In 1912, Forsyth County was the scene of some of the most explosive racial trouble to take place in the Jim Crow South. Within a week of each other, two women, both white, were assaulted by black men. Now, whether they were actually assaulted – and one certainly was – is almost beside the point, given the racial tilt of the criminal justice system in the South at the time (and arguably even today). The perception of assault was proof enough for the local white population.

In the first incident, it might have actually been only a case of attempted rape. Race relations being what they were, however, this was sufficient to stoke tensions to the point where white vigilantes patrolled the streets of Cumming, a local black preacher was nearly beaten to death for making disparaging comments about the white victim, and the National Guard was called out to maintain the peace.

The incident that quickly followed the first one was much more serious, resulting in the murder and alleged rape of a second young white woman. Two days later, a mob of townspeople dragged one of the suspects (just an accomplice, not even the alleged murderer) from the county jail, shot and then hung him from a telephone pole in the middle of town, no doubt to the great satisfaction of many of the white citizens.

The other suspects escaped mob “justice” only by being shuttled off to more secure jails in Atlanta.

The white mobs of Forsyth were not done, however. In the months that followed, practically every one of the thousand or so black people living in the county (about 10% of the population) were driven away, often forced to sell or even outright abandon their lands and homes. It was probably the biggest single example of ethnic cleansing to take place in Georgia since the Removal of the Cherokees.

By the 1980s, there were still practically no blacks living in the county, despite the fact that the urban spread of metro Atlanta had almost reached the southern borders of rural Forsyth. The county’s reputation as an unfriendly place for African-Americans had not been diminished in the least.

Presumably, to highlight this lack of racial progress in a county holding such a fateful place in Georgia black history and to commemorate the original violent banishment of the black population, Georgia civil rights leaders decided in 1987 to hold a demonstration in Cumming.

The rally on January 17 was not a huge affair. Fewer than a hundred marchers gathered there. I can’t recall much prior publicity surrounding it, if any. I suspect that, like many others, I hadn’t noticed anything in the news about such a demonstration about to take place. By 1987, that sort of thing seemed mostly out of date, Page Two sort of stuff, you could say.

That changed quickly. The small group of marchers, led by Hosea Williams, was met by a counterdemonstration that included elements of the Klu Klux Klan. Rocks and bottles were thrown, and some of the marchers sustained small injuries. Eight counterdemonstrators were arrested.

The specter of peaceful civil rights protesters being pelted by bottles, almost a quarter of century after Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, captured the attention of folks well beyond a core of civil rights activists. It sparked outrage with the wider public, and rightly so.

A week later, a second march took place in Cumming, following a mounting wave of publicity. I felt I had to be part of it.

I confess that part of me felt this was a chance to get a taste of the civil protesting of the Sixties that I had been too young to appreciate at the time. But mainly I felt ashamed of what had just taken place in Cumming, where thickheaded throwbacks to Georgia’s segregationist past had tried to revive their bigoted ideology in the crudest fashion. I wanted to help show the rest of the world that Georgia wasn’t like that anymore. Looking back, maybe I was too quick to be so optimistic.

On that chilly, sunny Saturday morning, my housemates and I gathered with other Athenians in front of the El Dorado vegetarian restaurant on Washington Street. Whether by design or coincidence, this was also the location of the Morton Building, which was built in 1910 as home to one of America’s first black vaudeville theaters.

Someone laid some old bed sheets on the sidewalk and painted some slogans on them as makeshift banners. We then drove to Cumming, joining the other demonstrators at a little shopping center on the edge of town, to wait our turn to begin a slow mile-and-a-quarter walk to the Forsyth County courthouse. There were some 20,000 of us.

I can’t say I remember many details from the march itself, but a couple of things do still stand out in my mind. One was the wall of National Guardsmen in riot gear lining both sides of the road along the entire route. They were part of the reported 1,700 troops sent, along with some 500 police of different sorts, to prevent violence.

I recall that they were arrayed with their backs toward us marchers. It wasn’t us they were keeping their eyes on, it was the counter-protesters. And there were some of those to be sure. Here and there, on the other side of the phalanx of National Guardsmen, were pockets of outwardly hostile people, shouting at us, though they were no doubt a bit subdued by the overwhelming presence of the police and troops. At least, there was nothing thrown.

There were, of course, some people just watching. I remember one young man standing alone on the road bank, watching the flood of outsiders filing into his hometown. He was wearing a watch cap and sunglasses. He had a big piece of duct tape prominently covering his mouth, and he held a handwritten sign that said, “I have to live here”. The message was clear.

Some of the other onlookers, standing on their front lawns or porches, reminded me of people I knew from my own home county of Gilmer, which was also an all-white county (if that status has been due to a Forsyth-like banishment of blacks, I’ve never heard about it, but I can’t be sure).

Many of these locals seemed to be basic country folks, people that I saw as ordinary, mostly decent people. I felt they weren’t bad people, but just out of step with the times. Watching them watching us, I couldn’t help thinking that they were in shock over the immense public display taking place in what they probably considered to be a town just fine the way it was.

And the public display was immense, with the thousands of marchers and police, helicopters flying overhead, Oprah Winfrey supposedly broadcasting from a restaurant somewhere in town, leading national figures like Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, and presidential candidate Gary Hart giving speeches from the courthouse. The march certainly overwhelmed the sleepy little town, and I’m sure it blindsided the people living there. I felt they couldn’t comprehend why such a thing would happen. They just didn’t get it.

I didn’t necessarily see those individuals, watching from their lawns in stunned silence, as racists. And I had no reason, just by virtual of the fact that they lived there, to think they were. At least, not overtly so.

Nor did I necessarily see them as supporters of the hateful white-supremacists counter-demonstrators – many of whom, after all, had come from elsewhere, just we marchers had.

I had a bit of sympathy for them. Cumming, partly due to its history and partly due to its present, had suddenly become a focal point, a magnet of sorts, for the changing racial currents of America circa 1987, changes that were unstoppable and needed to happen. These folks, ensconced in a parochial, small-town bubble, were simply in no way prepared for those changes, as I saw it, though you could argue they should have been.

They were caught off guard, a bit like a deer in the headlights, at the magnitude of the change that was about to overtake them as. Despite their stubborn wishes for it not to be so, the world was continuing to turn and society was continuing to progress. I thought that for many of them, their biggest fault was only an inability to accept change.

Now, thirty years later, after seeing the recent furious uproar in support of the Confederate Battle Flag, which in my mind can only be seen as a symbol of racial hate, it’s obvious that resistance to change in the South is more entrenched than I would have ever imagined, at least when it comes to race. Not that much has changed. Even now, only about 3% of Forsyth County is black, compared to 26% in adjacent Gwinnett County. Race relations seem as fraught as ever, not only in the South, but all over the country, as witnessed by the Black Lives Matter movement, born almost exactly a year ago.

If I thought in 1987 that Forsyth County was an aberration in an increasingly progressive, modern Georgia, I’m thinking now I was wrong. 

1 comment:

  1. Hell...Forsyth County has erupted in racist violence since your experience marching there (and good for you for doing so). I'm not sure what the demographics are like there these days, but I doubt that very few (if any) non-whites are living there. Something about that county's reputation that is exceptionally virulent.

    Gilmer County is not a lot better. There were racist murders there, too. I could go into details, but frankly I'm sick to death of the horror of that scene.