Today marks the 24th anniversary of a significant event in Forsyth County history. It’s an event that I think largely isn’t well remembered or observed. I think many who relocate to this area are not aware of it at all. I certainly didn’t know about it until I had lived here for several years. It is fitting that the anniversary this year falls on the day we observe Martin Luther King Day. I’ll get back to the events of January 17th in a bit.
Forsyth County has long been a deeply segregated county. The history of this dates back to 1912, a year which saw lynchings and violent racial cleansing. The population of African-Americans in Forsyth dropped to nearly zero and stayed that way for most of the 20th century. It remains low to this day.
So in 1987 a man by the name of Charles Blackburn decides to do something about Forsyth’s segregation. He begins to organize a march on Cumming but backs off after receiving threatening phone calls. Plans for the march continue when others pick up the cause including Billy McKinney and Hosea Williams of Atlanta. On January 17th, 1987 they begin their march. They proceed north on GA-9 towards the Cumming Square but they never reach the city. A group of about 400 segregationists, including David Duke of Louisiana, violently attack the marchers. Hosea Williams is hit in the head with a stone. Police eventually take over and make arrests.
Needless to say, the event gets national attention. Soon a second march is organized. This one draws tens of thousands including civil rights icons Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, Jessie Jackson, John Lewis and scores of other politicians. This time the march is peaceful, reaching the Forsyth County Courthouse without violence. It went down as one of the largest civil rights protests of its time.
Not long afterward, a new nationally syndicated television talk show host by the name of Oprah Winfrey filmed a show in Cumming about the event. It further exposed Forsyth County and some intolerant views to the nation. Oprah made news last year when she announced she was trying to find audience members from that 1987 broadcast. Given that 2011 will be the last year of her show, I expect her to film a reunion episode pretty soon.
It’s worth noting that I pretty much glossed over these events from the past. The entire south was segregated during much of this time. What makes Forsyth different is the violence that was behind it and just the overall ugliness of it all. I’m not real comfortable writing about some of the hatred that was expressed. If you want to learn more, I’ll note some references at the bottom of this article.
Why is Forsyth’s past significant today? It explains the lack of an African-American community in the county. In 1990 there were a mere 14 blacks in the county. In 2000 after Forsyth began to grow, that number was only 684, still less than one percent of the population.
Why did I write about this? I’m not trying embarrass Forsyth County. Many histories I’ve read suggest that the aggressors in the 1987 march came from outside of the county. And in my ten years of living in this area I’ve never witnessed bigotry firsthand. Most long-term residents of the county have put feelings of hatred behind them. At least I like to hope that is the case.
I think Forsyth County has deep wounds that still are not completely healed. The best way of addressing these is not to forget the past. It would be easy to pretend that this never happened. Another generation of relos will move in, displacing a few more locals. It could become a distant memory, right? Yet I assure you that the African-American communities in metro Atlanta haven’t forgotten about our past.
I believe it best to not forget the past. Forsyth County should include these unfortunate events as a part of its history. They should be taught to school children and remembered on anniversaries. And speaking of anniversaries… next year will be the 25th year. Will we forget the courageous actions of Hosea Williams and others on this milestone date, or continue to sweep it under the rug? Something to ponder on this MLK Day.
Photo Credit: Oprah.com