Forsyth County march ignites dreams and doubts for civil rights

For Atlanta City Councilman Hosea Williams, a battle-scarred civil-rights veteran and a longtime aide to Martin Luther King Jr., it was, he says, ``the happiest moment of my life.'' The Forsyth County march that Rev. Mr. Williams organized late last month drew an astounding and unexpected 20,000 marchers, matching the great anti-segregation battles of the 1960s in turnout and national attention.

Flushed with success, a veteran cadre of civil rights activists finds itself once again carrying the torch of national indignation at racism.

Yet activists concede that they face a difficult job in carrying that outpouring of support over to the major concerns of blacks in the late 1980s. ``The crowd was evidence of a new mood in this country,'' Williams says. ``We've got to have the foresight to keep it going.''

A few black leaders scoff outright at the Forsyth County march. ``It's a lot of vague foolishness,'' says Robert Woodson, chairman of the Washington-based Council for the Black Economic Agenda. ``All it does is misdirect the limited resources and moral capital that we need urgently for other issues.''

Many are less skeptical. ``If people can carry the excitement over to something else, then [the march] will mean something,'' says US Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, who adds, ``I'm not so sure that's going to happen.''

In its glory days, the civil rights movement had simple goals and a vivid moral clarity, as it fought segregated lunch counters, club-swinging national guardsmen, and unreconstructed Southern governors.

Now the black community is more concerned with the complex problems of chronic joblessness, crime, drugs, and teen-age pregnancy. ``It's very difficult to get a theme, a rallying cry,'' notes Mr. Lewis, a veteran leader of the movement.

So when news cameras caught Klansmen and their sympathizers attacking a small group of marchers celebrating Martin Luther King Day in Forsyth County, civil rights organizers flew into action. Their success was unprecedented. The numbers that descended on the Forsyth County courthouse a week later typically take at least four to eight weeks to gather, Williams says.

``The mob introduced an element of the old simple enemy,'' says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a march organizer. ``It's much more difficult to dramatize changing the system than getting a seat at the lunch counter.''

Williams and his fellow march leaders have followed the big march with a list of demands in Forsyth County that is keeping them in the news. They are pressing the all-white county to pursue jobs and housing for blacks and to make restitution to the families of blacks driven from their land in 1912.

But all the march leaders are aiming well beyond the county, finding the larger target of the march in racist incidents around the country, the growing underclass, and Reagan conservatism.

To Robert Woodson, the whole Forsyth County episode is a distraction from more important black problems, like crime. ``More people died on the streets of Detroit last year than the Klan has killed in 10 years,'' he says. Black organizations should be joining together instead in the more mundane work of helping black businesses grow, Mr. Woodson says.

Others find the Forsyth County confrontation discouraging for other reasons. Just as the black community was turning from battling racism outside to its own internal problems, says Creigs Beverly, a sociology professor at Atlanta University, it was confronted with a vicious racism of the old kind again.

Many activists note with optimism, however, that many of the marchers - Williams estimates more than half - were young whites, a first for a major demonstration against racism.

Hosea Williams, who has been suddenly catapulted into the national spotlight, is jubilant. ``I guess I've been wishing for so many years that the movement would get back on foot,'' he says. The public has been willing, he adds, but they have not had the right kind of take-it-to-the-streets leadership.

Lowery, who fired Williams from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1979, disagrees. ``That's a tired old song of those on the outside looking in.'' Lowery insists that the civil rights movement has been going strong all along. Forsyth County, he says, simply brought back the news media. Second of two articles

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Forsyth County march ignites dreams and doubts for civil rights
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today