Human Behavior

There is definitely no logic to human behavior.

King’s birthday celebration didn’t always end well

The January observance of Martin Luther King’s birthday typically results in statements from politicians of both parties urging Americans to carry on the march to justice and civil rights that King was a part of during the 1950s and 1960s.

For example, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal lauded King on Monday as someone who “inspired a nation through both his words and his walk, while donning the garments of non-violence and justice in place of a weapon. As we celebrate his legacy, we must admire the audacity of a man who risked and ultimately lost his life, because he would rather sacrifice it, than sacrifice his dream.”

The reaction to King’s birthday and holiday hasn’t always been so positive in some areas of Georgia – such as Forsyth County, which for years was portrayed as an area where white folks intensely disliked the idea of black people crossing over its borders.

Molly Read Woo, who was once a reporter for the Forsyth County News, passed along this remembrance of a “brotherhood march” through the county in January 1987:

I remember the first Brotherhood March through Forsyth County. It was January 1987. About fifty folks, black and white, Christians and Jews, all came up on a bus, headed by the ebullient civil rights leader Hosea Williams.

I was a reporter then, with the Forsyth County News. Our editor had left town that weekend under pressure. He’d written a column supporting the idea of an integrated march to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said it would show how the all white county of Forsyth had moved past its bad racist reputation.

Judging from the threatening phone calls we got in our office for days after his column ran, the county still had some moving left to do. Then a few ads got canceled, and our editor got out of town the weekend of the march and left the reporting to the lower ranks.

That Saturday morning, I was shocked when I got to the country crossroads where the march was supposed to start. A half-hour before the bus from Atlanta came up, it looked like every rebel flag-waving redneck in the South had converged there. They were carrying signs that read, “Forsyth Stays White,” and “Crusade Against Corruption,” and shouting slurs as they stood behind a barbed wire fence on a hill, looking down at the small contingent of officers who would try to protect the marchers when the bus finally came.

Suddenly, the crowd behind the cattle fence went wild, yelling to someone coming down the road. I turned to see a small, old man, walking with a limp. He was obviously some kind of folk hero to them. I didn’t know who he was, but it was my job to find out. I approached him, introduced myself as a local reporter, and asked his name.

He held out his pudgy small hand to shake. “I’m J.B. Stoner,” he said. “Thank God for AIDS.”

I was sick. I knew that name. The man convicted of bombing a black church in Alabama and more. Here he was, out of jail, free to come back and stir up this crowd of imbeciles on the hill, who were also waving signs praising AIDS as God’s special way of killing off the blacks and the gays, so the world would be left to good white Christian folks like themselves.

The first Brotherhood March didn’t last long. The group from Atlanta had taken a pledge of nonviolence and when they got off the bus, they didn’t return the rocks and bottles thrown at them by the herd on the hill. But then the “Keep Forsyth White” crowd jumped the fence and pummeled down to attack. Policemen rushed the relatively few marchers back on the bus, saying, “Hurry! We can’t protect you.” And they meant it.

The day got worse. So much worse. A racist mob had taken over the town square. They’d been allowed to set up a PA system on the courthouse steps. It was the closest thing I’d ever seen to a Klan rally, but huge, with people in ordinary clothes, mixed in with the white robes and hoods, waving their hate signs and holding up nooses like trophies. It was like a nightmare where what’s familiar becomes deformed. I saw so many faces in the crowd I recognized from earlier stories. Waitresses. High school kids. Secretaries. Store clerks. Construction workers. Farmers and church goers.

What had happened to this town, where I thought I knew people, and had some idea of their values? How had they all gotten swept up in this weird sickness? They were cheering with hatred. Hatred for blacks. Hatred for Jews. Hatred for gays. They ruled Forsyth County that day. And I felt fear like I’ve never felt it before – not because I was afraid I’d be hurt personally, but because I saw how quickly – how recklessly we can lose the laws and rules that keep us civil, right there, in our courthouse square.

We went back to our office, just a block from the crowd, to try and develop our film and write our stories for the next day’s paper. Our editor called from Florida. “You OK?” he asked. He’d seen the coverage on CNN.

We were shaken, but OK. He told us to take anything of value that we could carry out of the office, and go file our stories in Gwinnett.

Tags: Forsyth County , martin luther king jr. , Molly Read Woo , white reaction

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