Facing a racial reckoning. Georgia town prepares for civil rights march

For decades, a sign stood over Cumming's courthouse square warning blacks: ``Don't let the sun set on you in Forsyth County.'' It was well heeded. The sign has been gone for at least 10 years, but the warning came again last Saturday when a small group of mostly black civil rights marchers from Atlanta was pelted with rocks, clods of dirt, and bottles by an angry crowd in this all-white, semi-rural county.

This Saturday, national political figures including former United States Sen. Gary Hart from Colorado and the Rev. Jesse Jackson plan to join what is expected to be the largest civil rights demonstration the South has seen in a decade. About 1,500 law enforcement officers will work to protect the expected 2,000 demonstrators in this town of 2,800.

Cumming, and the rest of Forsyth County, is stunned by the sudden besiegement. This hill country just beyond the northern suburban reaches of metropolitan Atlanta, once among the poorest counties of the state, has a long, ugly history of racism.

Unlike the old plantation South where blacks and whites have been forced, sometimes violently, to come to terms, some up-country areas like Forsyth County have avoided a racial reckoning.

Since 1912, when the rape and murder of a white woman incited locals to run all the thousand or so black families out of the county, blacks simply have not lived here. Wealthy Atlantans who went to Forsyth for hunting or fishing with black employees recall the locals threatening to drive off the blacks.

The county has changed dramatically in the past decade. The billowing Atlanta suburbs are overtaking Forsyth, giving it a surge of prosperity. The population has grown from 27,500 in 1980 to close to 40,000 now. More than 30 new industries have moved in during the past five years, and unemployment is a minuscule 3.7 percent. Median income is rising faster than in any other county in Georgia.

Race relations are also showing signs of improvement, community leaders say. More and more blacks work in the county, even if they do not yet choose to live here, and no one has caused trouble over it. Other ethnic minorities, such as Koreans, Cambodians, and an Egyptian family, have moved into the county and run businesses.

``We're moving in the direction of assimilating blacks into the life of the community,'' says B.V. Franklin, pastor of Forsyth Baptist Church. ``This heritage and image that we've had [of racism] was crumbling.'' The march last Saturday, however, was a setback for that, says Mr. Franklin, as the community retrenches against the intrusion of marchers and their hecklers.

Many Cumming residents, embarrassed by the racist mob of last Saturday, say they feel their community has been tarred by violence inspired by Ku Klux Klan activists, mainly from outside the county. While Forsyth County has its racism, local leaders say, so does nearly every American community.

Anti-Klan groups, such as Atlanta's Center for Democratic Renewal and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala., are inclined to agree. Spokesmen compare the Cumming incident last weekend to recent racial beatings in the Howard Beach section of New York, and in Marquette Park in Chicago last year.

``To me,'' says Bill Stanton, director of SPLC's Klanwatch, ``what has happened in Forsyth is part of the white backlash going on all over the country.''

Between 15 and 25 Klansmen were in the crowd last Saturday, including some prominent organizers. The violence, however, was chiefly committed by young men without known Klan connections in the crowd of about 400. The US Justice Department this week vowed an investigation into those who committed assaults.

``I guess they felt like they were trying to protect their town,'' says Mark Watts, who was at the scene and started a Forsyth County Defense League this week. ``We're scared that we're going to be overrun,'' he says. ``We don't want the corrupted minorities taking over our town.''

Mr. Watts, a construction worker who hangs sheet rock, lived in the Atlanta outskirts with his family until four years ago. He moved to Cumming, he says, ``to get away from poverty and corruption.'' He believes that blacks would bring to Forsyth County ``their crime rate, AIDS, and everything else.''

A prominent activist in radical right racist organizations, Frank Shirley, lives in the Watts's basement. But Watts decries the violence that broke out last Saturday. ``Don't get us wrong,'' he says, ``we're not hate people. We just want to keep our town pure and clean.''

Local leaders are desperately trying to put out a different kind of message. Officials plan to welcome Saturday's demonstrators to the courthouse square to show that everybody, including blacks, is welcome on Cumming's streets, day and night.

``There's a very small minority resisting change,'' says Mayor Ford Gravitt. ``But 1 percent can start a riot.''

Leaders still resent the marchers, though, believing that the streets of Cumming were safer for blacks before the demonstrations drew the racists out of the woodwork.

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