Klan-Marcher Confrontation Feared : Georgia County Bracing for Black-White Conflict
Seventy-five years ago, the brutal rape of a teen-aged white girl, allegedly at the hands of three black youths, led to a reign of Ku Klux Klan terror and bloodshed that drove blacks by the hundreds out of this hilly, pine-studded county in rural northern Georgia.
“Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in Forsyth County!” warned the boldly lettered sign that once stood shamelessly in front of the white-columned county courthouse in Cumming, the seat of county government and Forsyth County’s only incorporated area.
But in recent years, Forsyth County residents have contended that there has been a dramatic improvement in race relations here, and that while few, if any, blacks still actually lived in the county, blacks nevertheless freely visited, shopped, worked and stayed overnight here.
Now, however, this county’s 40,000 residents once again find themselves swept up in a bitter and potentially bloody black-white confrontation.
On Saturday, thousands of civil rights demonstrators from around the nation are expected to converge on the county for a brotherhood march protesting an attack by Ku Klux Klansmen and other whites on a smaller march held here last week to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Marchers this week expect to be met by as many as 1,200 counterdemonstrators--many of them members of the klan or such paramilitary offshoots as the White Patriots Party.
On Thursday, the county, like much of the Eastern Seaboard, was blanketed with snow. Cold weekend weather could reduce the turnout somewhat on both sides, but concerned law enforcement officials, from local police to the FBI, have been meeting all week to plan security.
Last Saturday, about 75 marchers--mostly black and led by Hosea Williams, a city councilman from nearby Atlanta and former aide to King--were pelted with rocks, cans, bottles and mud balls by about 400 members of the klan and their sympathizers.
No serious injuries were reported, and eight of the attacking whites were arrested. But the incident on the eve of the federal holiday honoring King’s birthday has so provoked the nation’s civil rights community that the next march may turn out to be the biggest civil rights demonstration in the South since the turbulent decades of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“We hope to break the back of the racial terrorists in that county,” Williams declared in an interview. “Forsyth County is a bastion of racial hatred and violence in this nation. It’s worse even than South Africa--blacks at least can live in South Africa.”
Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart and comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory are among those who have said they will participate in the march.
“To all who oppose freedom and equality, we must send the same message,” Hart, a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 1988, said in a statement released after he met privately with King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, in Atlanta earlier this week. “We will overwhelm your hatred and pursue America’s commitment to brotherhood and simple justice.”
Klansmen to Gather
“Our indications are that klan members will be coming from all over the state of Georgia as well as from North Carolina, Alabama and others,” said Leonard Zeskind, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, which monitors hate group activity across the nation.
Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris announced Wednesday that he had placed the state’s National Guard on “standby status,” ready to be called into action if needed on the day of the march.
In a statement shortly after the racial skirmish Saturday, the governor said: “We do not and will not tolerate a rabble-rousing, troublemaking element which casts a negative image on the state whose race relations have been marked in large measure by harmony, good will and peaceful co-existence.”
The march comes at a time when civil rights advocates have become deeply disturbed over a rash of racial incidents in the nation, including an attack on three blacks in the Howard Beach section of Queens, N.Y., and the hazing of a black plebe at a South Carolina military college by white cadets dressed to resemble klansmen.
Civil rights advocates contend that much of the blame should be placed on the racial climate fostered by the growing conservative mood in the nation and on the Reagan Administration’s opposition to hard-won gains such as affirmative action and voting rights safeguards.
‘Whirlwind of Racism’
“Just when we thought we had swept the whirlwind of racism into the corners of society, now we see it is blowing back into the center of the floor,” said the Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, who is heading a contingent of at least 50 Bay Area residents planning to join the march this weekend.
Forsyth County’s new racial troubles began after Charles A. Blackburn, a white man who moved here five years ago from the San Francisco Bay area and operates a small private school in Cumming, decided to stage a “Walk for Brotherhood” through the community in honor of King’s birthday.
“The idea was to simply to express to people elsewhere--especially black people--that they don’t have to be afraid to come into Forsyth County,” said Blackburn, a tall, bearded karate master and former Air Force sergeant.
Linda Smith, Blackburn’s assistant, said the image of Forsyth County among Georgia blacks is extremely negative.
“I was once talking to a women’s club in Gainesville, over in Hall County, about coming here for some of our human development courses,” she recalled. “But when they found out where the school was located, they politely declined and said whenever we go through Forsyth County, we have our gas tanks full and pray God we don’t have to stop for anything,” Smith said.
Receives Threatening Calls
Blackburn eventually abandoned his march plans after failing to draw any support among county residents and receiving a barrage of threatening phone calls.
“I got a 30.06 bullet with your name on it,” one caller told him in a menacing voice, he said.
When Blackburn backed out, however, a fellow karate instructor, Dean Carter, and Carter’s wife, Tammy, decided to step in. They invited Atlanta City Councilman Williams, a flamboyant and unflagging civil rights advocate, to join them. Williams brought a busload of demonstrators the 50 miles from Atlanta for the event. The violence they met, coming on the heels of other recent racial incidents and just before the King holiday, became a news story around the world. The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference says this Saturday’s march will serve several purposes.
“It’s going to send a message to President Reagan and everyone else that this nation still has a commitment to human dignity and we’re not going to let the clock be turned back on that,” he said. “We also hope that it will change the racial climate in Forsyth County so that employers will look at their hiring policies and city officials will look at their housing policies . . . “
Although the 1980 U.S. Census listed one black resident in the county, local officials say none now lives there as far as they know.
1912 Events Remembered
To many Georgia blacks, the events of 1912 following the rape and murder of 18-year-old Marie Crow, daughter of a prominent white farmer, are like recent history. One of the three blacks said to have attacked her was abducted from jail, murdered and mutilated, and his body was hanged from a telephone pole.
The other two, convicted of rape and murder after a quick trial, were hanged in front of a crowd of almost 10,000 spectators. More than 1,000 blacks, then about one-tenth of the population, fled the county after a spree of klan raids, beatings and arsons.
As recently as six years ago, a black Atlanta fireman was shot through the neck while attending a picnic at Lake Lanier, and one of the suspects reportedly told investigators: “Somebody’s got to keep the niggers out.”
But many Forsyth County residents protest that they do not share such views and they protest that the area is getting an undeserved reputation. Anxiety is mounting over the possibility of a new clash Saturday between the marchers and the klan.
Outside Forces Cited
Sheriff Wesley Walraven told reporters, most of them from out of town, on Wednesday that, “We feel like we’ve become a basic battleground fought by two entities most folks in Forsyth County have no control over. And that’s one of the things we’re concerned about, because when y’all go home, we’re going to have to pick up the pieces and start over again.”
Walraven said he is urging local residents to stay at home during the march. “The world is not going to end Saturday,” he said. “Stay home, go to the back yard and cook hamburgers. Just don’t come to town.”
“We don’t have closed doors to blacks,” said the Rev. J.B. Jordan, pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Cumming. “They work here, they walk the streets here. This church itself sponsors mission work among blacks in many countries, including the black nation of Dominica in the Caribbean. It would be really hypocritical of us to support black missions and then throw rocks at black people in Forsyth County.”
Civic and business leaders here have publicly condemned last Saturday’s attack and are promising to roll out the welcome mat for this Saturday’s civil rights marchers, in hopes of sending out a signal to the klan and defusing a potentially volatile situation.
“We’re going to be there, greeting them and serving coffee and doughnuts,” said Roger Crow, president-elect of the Cumming-Forsyth Chamber of Commerce. “The Establishment in Forsyth County has not ignored this problem, will not ignore it and doesn’t think it’s going to go away by itself.”