Return to Forsyth County
Blatant racism in North Georgia
“There is a county in Georgia where black Americans may not live.”
— Creative Loafing, November 15, 1986
On a cold, rainy Saturday early in 1987, at least 20,000 demonstrators from across the country converged on once-sleepy Forsyth County, newly connected to Atlanta and to the 20th Century by the opening of Ga. Hwy. 400, for the largest Civil Rights march since the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., almost two decades earlier — and Creative Loafing is the reason it happened.
It almost didn’t.
A few months earlier, I sat in the office of an angry, red-faced man named David Foster, who at the time was publisher of the company which owned Atlanta magazine and a gazillion other trade magazines (including one called Solid Waste Management), as he berated me for nearly three hours. Over and over, he recited his own resume while telling me that he was “everything” — the first and last name in publishing in Atlanta — and I was “nothing.”
Whenever he infrequently paused to take a breath, I would interject, “May I please have my manuscript back?”
I asked dozens of times, literally. This was before the age of computers, and my typewritten pages were hostage on his desk. It was the only copy of a painstakingly written piece I’d already revised several times, needlessly, at Foster’s insistence. He had rejected it for publication in Atlanta and it was shunted over to Business Atlanta, admittedly an odd fit for the subject matter.
After reporting for six years at The Times in Gainesville, a great daily newspaper, I’d returned home with a secret — one hidden in plain sight for 75 years and common knowledge throughout northeast Georgia — but virtually unknown in Atlanta.
Forsyth County was 100% white — and not by accident.
Hundreds of African American residents, including property owners, had been expelled in 1912 in the violent aftermath of an interracial rape. Signs posted at the county line once bore the courtesy warning, “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in Forsyth County” — but even after those came down in the early 1970s, the obviously illegal countywide “policy” was enforced. In 1980, a black Atlanta firefighter escorted his girlfriend to her company picnic at Lake Lanier and as they were leaving, he was shot in the neck through the windshield of his car, which flipped upside down. They both survived.
But the county was growing rapidly and so was the danger I’d long vowed to expose. The article I’d written was not exactly a “labor of love” so much as something I felt driven to do as a journalist.
I had come to realize that no amount of revision was ever going to be sufficient and was not going to undertake another rewrite. From other individuals who worked there, I knew David Foster was afraid of a backlash from advertisers, but it was more than that. The truths I intended to expose also made him deeply uncomfortable on a personal level. Not only was never going to allow the editor of Business Atlanta to publish my article — although she wanted to make it a cover story — he was trying to ensure it never saw the light of day anywhere.
“May I please have my manuscript back?” I asked again.
As he finally handed it over, Foster told me bluntly, “Nobody else in Atlanta will print this.”
That was the last time I ever saw the man (and he was soon to vanish entirely from the local landscape). I got in my car, drove to the first pay phone I could find, and used the Yellow Pages to looked up the address of Creative Loafing.
I’d read “Atlanta’s Free Weekly” countless times, of course, usually while sitting around at places like Fellini’s Pizza or the Cup & Chaucer Restaurant at Oxford Bookstore, but I’d never been to its offices, didn’t know anybody who worked there, and had never written a word for the paper or really even thought about it. Creative Loafing had always been primarily an entertainment guide, although it already was morphing into more. On that day in 1986, I walked in the front door and asked a receptionist if there was any chance I might speak to someone in the editorial department.
After a very short wait, I was greeted in the lobby by Gene-Gabriel Moore, who I would learn was a noted poet, playwright, and occasional journalist who seemed a bit confused to find himself as the managing editor at CL. He escorted me to the newsroom I was introduced to the dynamic and very talented young news editor Rodger Brown. I recounted my experience with Atlanta and Business Atlanta and offered them the article.
“You don’t have to pay me a penny,” I told them. “If you’ll print this, you can have it.”
Without knowing it, I was speaking their language. CL was never famous for paying freelancers well, if at all. Gene-Gabriel and Rodger looked at what I’d brought them and were enthusiastic. They agreed to run it and pay me $300, which was the high end of the scale for a cover story — and I was overjoyed.
A couple of weeks later, I was sitting in Lowe’s Tara with my family on a Friday night, waiting for a movie to start. A couple several rows in front was reading the new issue of CL. And for the first time I saw Dyann Diamond’s wonderfully garish, red-and-black illustration depicting three Klansmen looming over the horizon of Georgia and over the top half of the front page, along with my title, “The Forsyth Saga.”
It would be difficult to describe the sudden exhilaration of that moment — a simultaneous mix of fulfillment and horror that grew as I realized other people around the theatre also were reading the article. I even could hear them discussing it. That CL story became the talk of the town… and to the north of town. At that moment, I knew — without exaggeration — lots of people in Forsyth County would want me dead. I did not know the article before long would be quoted on the front page of The New York Times.
Elected officials and Chamber of Commerce types up there declared the whole thing a fabrication and critics said if any of the story once was true, that certainly no longer was the case. One resident, a relative newcomer named Chuck Blackburn, a white guy (needless to say) who had lived in Forsyth County two or three years, read the CL article and rejected the allegations of institutional racism. Inspired by the movie Gandhi, he announced a nonviolent demonstration for racial unity was just the thing Forsyth County needed and announced a “March for Brotherhood.” He said he thought it would be an innocuous gesture to prove hearts and minds hand changed.
Within a day, Blackburn decided he was wrong.
In fact, he and his family moved away from Forsyth County for good. Dozens of rabid, vulgar, hate messages, including many death threats, had been recorded on his answering machine — and ended up on TV. I might have had a little something to do with that.
Although by then I was writing other stories for Gene-Gabriel and Brown at CL, and working as a stringer for Time magazine, I also had taken a low-level job on the assignment desk at WSB-TV Channel 2 to get a foot in the door of television, where I would end up spending most of my career. From that vantage point, I watched an epic drama play out — and at times helped guide it.
Dean Carter of Gainesville was outraged by what had happened to Chuck Blackburn. They were both karate instructions and had known each other. Since the “March for Brotherhood” wasn’t going to fly, Carter decided to proceed instead with plans for a “March Against Fear and Intimidation” set for January 17, 1987 — two days after what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 57th birthday.
Then, Hosea Williams signed on, and things really got interesting.
Williams had been one of Dr. King’s most effective strategists during the Civil Rights movement — the man arguably most responsible for “Bloody Sunday” in Selma and other demonstrations that together brought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was the epitome of what disgruntled whites used to call an “outside agitator,” and in a place like Forsyth County, Hosea was seen as the human personification of Satan. For more than a few, the thought of his feet touching the racially pure soil of Cumming, Georgia, was unbearable.
I did not attend the march January 15. I had to direct WSB-TV’s coverage — ironically, from the old White Columns building, which itself over time had become an unintentional symbol of the Old South and eventually would be torn down. In those days, the station used only a skeleton crew on the weekends. Though still new, I implored management to bring in an additional photographer. Nobody particularly believed my warnings that the situation was volatile and could get out of hand, but I was persistent and mostly to humor me, Channel 2 did end up sending Don Franklin and Karen Sawyer with reporter Jim Shuler, who all got roughed up.
By that night, WSB-TV’s footage was leading the national news and would be shown again and again, becoming as familiar to local viewers as recent events like the shooting of President Ronald Reagan and the Challenger explosion.
Hosea Williams, Dean Carter, and about 50 other marchers were confronted on a muddy backroad by hundreds of hate-filled Forsyth County natives, who hurled rocks, bottles, and racial epithets, overwhelming the local and state law enforcement on hand. “I’ve never seen it worse than this,” said Williams, no stranger to violence directed at non-violent protesters, after being hit by a brick.
To most Americans of good will, it was shocking that such virulent racism still existed almost two decades after Dr. King’s assassination — and so close to a fully integrated city like Atlanta, where Hosea Williams was an elected member of the Atlanta City Council and another close MLK advisor, Andrew Young, happened to be mayor.
“It is inconceivable,” said Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain Civil Rights leader. “We have learned a valuable lesson today that we must stay ever-vigilant to protect those freedoms which were so dearly won by Dr. King and his non-violent followers.”
Immediately, a second march was announced for the following Saturday. In that one week, Hell rained down on Forsyth County. Demonstrators poured into Georgia by the hundreds and then thousands and tens of thousands — from New York’s colorful Guardian Angels to Civil Rights veterans like Dick Gregory to presidential candidate Gary Hart. Not since March 7, 1965, in Selma had images of violence against peaceful demonstrators prompted such a swift and massive backlash.
Also present in large numbers were white supremacists including hooded Klansmen, former Gov. Lester Maddox, and future politician David Duke, who wore a suit. The popular Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard, sometimes accused of racial insensitivity himself, called it “a full-fledged circus” and mocked the locals who called themselves “God-fearing, God-loving Christians.”
Miguel Marcelli, the firefighter who had been shot in Forsyth County, showed up for the second march and I had him sign my copy of the infamous CL front page, right beside Dyann’s memorable illustration. Never did I imagined that the manuscript I had to wrestle back from David Foster would have such far reaching impact.
That second march was enormous, and enormously successful — and the presence of 1,500 National Guardsmen helped ensure no serious incidents occurred. Connie Chung was talking about Forsyth County’s unique history on the NBC Nightly News and much of the world knew the horrible secrets that somehow, incredibly, had been kept for the better part of a century.
“Racism in Forsyth County is a part of their culture,” Hosea Williams said. “It’s like a religion. They teach those kids from the cradle, just like they teach them to talk, they teach them, ‘Hate the nigger! Kill the nigger! Keep the nigger out!’ It’s sick. It’s unbelievable. Right here in greater Atlanta, in our own backyard, is an apartheid government.”
He wasn’t wrong. And everybody knew it. The saga in Forsyth County provided the often-disparaged Williams with a widespread credibility he had never been able to attain despite his many successful campaigns during and after the Civil Rights movement.
The CL article that Atlanta had refused to publish snowballed into a huge, national story that would go on for months.
One side note: With its publication of “The Forsyth Saga,” Creative Loafing indirectly gave Oprah Winfrey the platform she needed to become a household name. Her talk show had launched just two months before the first march, and on February 9, 1987, she brought it to Forsyth County for an unforgettable live broadcast that truly put her on the map. Lewis Grizzard called it a “Donahue-show clone” but was himself thunderstruck by the “looney-tunes who rambled on about ‘commonists’ and homosexuals” who had been in the march. He wrote, “I wanted Oprah to ask them if they thought wrestling was for real, but she didn’t.”
It was a turning point for me and for CL, which would go on to become a serious alternative newspaper and important voice in Atlanta under the leadership of Gene-Gabriel Moore and his successor as managing editor, Cliff Bostock, who became a great friend and mentor. Debby Eason, the founder and publisher, was an enthusiastic if sometimes apprehensive supporter. She was thrilled with the newfound influence of the free weekly she and her husband created in their basement, but also did not want to get sued — which sometimes made for a difficult high-wire act.
I wrote news articles and a well-read column called Certain Speculation for five years, and in 1990, Debby brought me on as editor for a little over a year, and we did many great things with a truly wonderful staff — but I was to spend most of the balance of my career in television and, for the last 16 years, a body of Civil Rights documentaries working with Andrew Young.
Now, on the rare occasion someone recognizes my name, it is not for those documentaries, or my investigative reporting and Olympics coverage at 11Alive, or the many specials I did at WSB-TV with Monica Kaufman Pearson and John Pruitt, or the fact I have worked with and even directed some of Hollywood’s most legendary movie stars and notables, from Sidney Poitier to Joanne Woodward, or for the 30-something Emmy awards I’ve received.
Over three decades after my byline last appeared, they see my name, squint, think for a moment, and then it comes to them:
“You used to write for Creative Loafing, didn’t you!” —CL—