I WAS in the second bus that entered the tiny north Georgia town of Cumming Jan. 4 for the largest civil rights march since the 1960s. It was a VIP bus, the vanguard of the 15,000 demonstrators who followed us from Atlanta. Cumming is the seat of Forsyth County, an area where no blacks have been permitted to reside since 1912. A week earlier in Cumming several hundred white supremacists had attacked 90 civil rights demonstrators with stones and bottles. When I saw the films of that bitter and bloody confrontation, I was jolted back in time to 1964, when I had taken part in a black voting rights drive in Hattiesburg, Miss. The same faces of hatred I had encountered back then stared out at me again in 1987 from my TV set. In the last 23 years, Hattiesburg, like the rest of the Deep South, has made enormous advances in race relations, and I had become complacent. My marching in Hattiesburg was like an old soldier's tale of a youthful battle; I never thought I would have to march again.
A sense of dread filled me when I saw the huge number of state and local police officers, sheriffs, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, and, most chilling of all, the several thousand Georgia National Guardsmen who awaited us in Cumming - even though they were there to protect us. The soldiers, in battle dress, carried antiriot sticks and stood about 20 inches from one another, forming a long narrow human aisle as we left our bus ... a wall-to-wall security perimeter. Heavily armed officers also stood on rooftops of buildings while low-flying security helicopters flew over us.
In 1964 I viewed the Hattiesburg police with painful ambivalence. I was never certain which side of the civil rights struggle they represented. But in Cumming, the law enforcement officers were out in tremendous force to protect us, and indeed, during the march, they arrested 55 counterdemonstrators.
As we started our march to the county courthouse, I looked out on a small ridge to my right and for the first time in my life saw white-robed Ku Klux Klan members. They were waving Confederate flags, and several had their right hands stiffly extended in the Nazi salute.
Pictures of KKK members are always upsetting, but it was unnerving to confront them in person, even with the extraordinary protection provided by the State of Georgia. I looked at the people next to the Klansmen, just outside the security perimeter. They were spitting at us and yelling epithets, identical to those I had encountered 23 years ago in Hattiesburg. One man held a handwritten sign: ``James Earl Ray, American Hero'' and ``Trade With South Africa, Our Blacks For Their Whites.'' Coretta Scott King, just ahead of us, could not have missed it.
When I got on the speakers' platform to address the large crowd, I became very tense. I knew, as did everyone else on the rostrum, that one well-positioned sniper could kill any one of us. In Hattiesburg, and again in Cumming, I had seen racism close up. I was especially disturbed that so many young women and teen-age boys screamed at us. I wondered which one of those furious, desperate, and dangerous people was capable of killing another human being while hiding under a white robe?
As dusk approached, the security perimeter was drawn tighter around us. I saw groups of guardsmen rush to several areas in the town square when more Klansmen appeared. An FBI agent muttered, ``Bigots become braver in the dark.'' I left Cumming in an unmarked police car as night approached. On the ride back to Atlanta we heard radio reports of two shootings in town, but fortunately the reports were false.
The 15,000 marchers made a powerful statement in Cumming. Americans have the right to march anywhere in our nation peaceably and without intimidation in support of civil rights. And as long as there are bigots in KKK robes making Nazi salutes, we'll keep on marching whenever and wherever we must.
A. James Rudin, a rabbi, is the American Jewish Committee's director of national interreligious affairs.