My name is Jay Furr and I’m a resident of Richmond, Vermont. I’ve lived here since 2002 and in Vermont since 1998. But prior to that, I was as Southern as one could be; my mother descended from generations of dirt-poor central Floridians and my father’s folks had been in the Piedmont of North Carolina since the mid-1700s. I grew up in the hills of Virginia, received my undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia, and lived for years in Durham, North Carolina. My hometown in Virginia was a college town and we didn’t have housing projects, disadvantaged neighborhoods, or any of the normally visible signs of institutionalized racism. However, when I attended the University of Georgia (1985 through 1988) it was another story entirely.
Athens, Georgia in the mid-1980s had plenty of signs of racism; housing projects that had definitely seen better days, “good” elementary schools and “bad” elementary schools, high unemployment among minorities. But that said, it was considered a progressive town — “Not as bad” as the truly scary places elsewhere in Georgia.
One such place was Forsyth County, Georgia. Just north of Atlanta on the edge of the Atlanta metro area, the county of approximately 38,000 citizens had zero (0) persons of color living there. It was a classic “sundown” county. If you were Black, you could not buy property there; if you were Black and found within county limits after dark you could expect at a minimum a very hard time from local police if not actual assault, battery, and contrived charges and imprisonment. The county had once had over a thousand Black residents, but in 1912, local whites rose up and destroyed Black homes and businesses, lynched Black residents, and drove the survivors out of the county entirely. You can listen to an NPR story (from Terry Gross and “Fresh Air”) on the 1912 “cleansing” here. From 1912 onwards, Forsyth County was 0% Black.
So: in 1987 a white resident named Charles Blackburn, who had moved to the area from San Francisco, decided that there should be a “Brotherhood March” in Forsyth County. After threats and attacks, Blackburn had to withdraw from the event. However, the march (dubbed the “March Against Fear and Intimidation”) took place anyway, on January 17, 1987, led by Atlanta city council member (and famous civil rights activist) Hosea Williams. 75 to 90 marchers showed up and found themselves confronted by an angry, rock-throwing mob of over 500 Ku Klux Klansmen. The police escort assigned to protect the marchers were vastly outnumbered by the counterprotestors, and the Klansmen surged through and attacked the marchers. Eight of the most violent Klansmen were arrested; all but one were local residents.
The violence and hate, captured in photographs and news footage, sickened and alarmed people across the state and across the country. The bad publicity caused Mead Corporation to cancel plans to build a 5,000-employee plant in the county. As a result, the local chamber of commerce took out full-page ads in newspapers proclaiming that the attacks and counterprotestors did not “represent Forsyth County”.
So: a second march took place in Forsyth one week later. This time around there weren’t 75 to 90 protestors. There were twenty thousand. And there were two thousand Klansmen and other angry whites waving Confederate flags and waving hate-filled signs and banners. On top of that there were seventeen hundred National Guardsmen and five hundred law enforcement officials. There were also over a hundred local church leaders (and bear in mind — these would all have been white churches) and miscellaneous county officials there to greet the marchers, to say nothing of both of Georgia’s United States Senators (Sam Nunn and Wyche Fowler). And, as it happened, also present were a bunch of my friends from the University of Georgia. I had to work that morning or I’d have been there too. I still wish I’d called in sick and gone to the march; those who attended said it was an unforgettable experience.
The two marches in Forsyth were a wake-up call for the county, state, and nation — serving both as a notice that violent, institutionalized racism was very much a thing even in the 1980s and that good people were prepared to turn out in large numbers to challenge it.
Did things change drastically overnight? Obviously not. Even today, only 2.6% of the county’s 244,000 residents are Black; the county is still over 85% white.
This seems like only yesterday to me; 37 years ago is a lifetime for some people. But nonetheless: those who think racial problems have all been solved (and that we should just shut up and stop making waves) would do well to recall how recently things were very, very different.
For more about this: http://www.aboutnorthgeorgia.com/ang/Civil_Rights_March,_January,_1987