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Looking Back: Civil rights protestors take back Forsyth County (January 25, 1987)

A marcher stands in front of the National Guard in Cumming, Georgia. 

TIMES | Joe Walles

A marcher stands in front of the National Guard in Cumming, Georgia. TIMES | Joe Walles

This story appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times on January 25, 1987. What follows is the text of the original story, interspersed with photos of the event taken by Times staff photographer Joe Walles.

Civil rights march draws up to 20,000 in Georgia

By Larry King

Times Staff Writer

CUMMING, Ga. - For one poignant day, an all-white Georgia county was integrated Saturday as never before. About 15,000 to 20,000 civil rights marchers, many of them black, marched to the courthouse square of Forsyth County, where no blacks have lived for 75 years.

TIMES | Joe Walles

There they were taunted by an angry, racist crowd of whites who waved Confederate flags and yelled obscenities. It took 2,300 riot-equipped national Guard troops and police officers to protect the marchers.

"N-----s go home," the racists chanted, "N-----s go home." They made obscene gestures. Marchers responded with peace signs, clenched fists and friendly waves.

TIMES | Joe Walles

Despite the passions at hand, police reported no injuries or serious violent acts. There were, however, about 55 arrests on charges ranging from inciting to riot to weapons possession.

Those who were arrested included at least four Ku Klux Klan members and David Duke, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

"When you consider the size of the crowd, this was a pretty peaceful march," said Harry Heath, a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris. "Succinctly, today's event got everybody's attention."

TIMES | Joe Walles

TIMES | Joe Walles

The marchers walked in defiance of Forsyth County's longstanding image as a whites-only community. Vigilantes drove black residents from here in 1912 after the rape and murder of a white woman and lynched one of the three black men accused of the crime. No blacks have lived in Forsyth since then.

The march was also held to defy racists who disrupted a much smaller demonstration last weekend with rock-and-bottle throwing. The disruption became national news, resulting in the huge turnout Saturday.

TIMES | Joe Walles

Coretta Scott King and Hosea Williams march towards the Forsyth County courthouse.

"We've come back to Forsyth County today to prove that truth crushed to earth shall rise again," said black Atlanta City Council member Hosea Williams, a veteran civil rights activist who helped organize the march. "Please understand, Forsyth County. Before we'll be your slaves, we'd rather be buried in our graves and go home to our God and be free."

TIMES | Larry Alspaugh

Comedian-activist Dick Gregory speaks to the assembled crowd.

The 2,000 or so counter demonstrators appeared only too willing to accommodate Williams' wish, but the huge security force contained them in roped-off areas. When the marchers arrived in Cumming, officers and National Guard troops formed a human wall to separate the factions.

Marchers came from as far away as Boston and San Francisco. More than 150 buses and countless taxis delivered thousands of marchers from Atlanta, about 40 miles south of Cumming.

Among the marchers were former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat, and Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Wyche Fowler, D.-Ga; Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young; NAACP President Benjamin Hooks; Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Joseph Lowery; comedian-activist Dick Gregory; several Georgia state legislators, and several Forsyth County civic leaders.

Most of them spoke at a mass rally behind the courthouse after the two-mile march.

"When I look out at the audience, it's such a beautiful, beautiful sight," Mrs. King said. "You are black and white and colors in between, and of all religious persuasions. This is a reflection of Dr. King's dream."

Fowler said that the march "again reaffirms that in the state of Georgia, the color of a man's skin will make no more difference than the color of his eyes. We will work together to eliminate the prejudice that still lodges in the hearts of a very few."

Lowery lead the crowd in a boisterous cheer. "What do we want?" he yelled.

"Freedom!" the marchers shouted back.

Lowery: "When do we want it?"

Marchers: "Now!"

"And that's what we are saying to Forsyth County," Lowery said.

The afternoon march began in cold, sunny weather after a three-hour delay caused by traffic snarls. From a shopping center south of Cumming, the processions snaked two miles down a winding, two-lane blacktop road that eventually widened into the heart of Cumming.

At least half of the marchers were white. Many came with young children in tow, expecting no violence.

TIMES | Joe Walles

The racists brought children, too.

"My son is white," one of them yelled at the marchers, hoisting a small child in the air. "And he's gonna stay that way."

TIMES | Joe Walles

TIMES | Joe Walles

TIMES | Joe Walles

Fortunately, there was enough security to handle the larger crowd, and apparently it was needed.

Three hours before the march, three men and a woman were arrested for possession of undisclosed weapons. Shortly afterward, two more men were arrested near a Kentucky Fried Chicken store, carrying fireworks and bows and arrows. A half hour after that, four Klansmen were arrested on weapons charges.

Authorities received a bomb threat at the courthouse at 12:30 p.m. The threat proved to be false, but FBI agents managed to trace the call and arrested a man from a nearby county.

The only violence directed at the march came when a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent was struck on his helmet with a bottle. Officers never determined who threw it.

When the courthouse rally ended, marchers returned to their cars and buses by retracing the same route as before. Their adversaries hooted and shook their fists as the procession left.

"So long, n-----s," one young man yelled after them. "You'll see who's still left in this town here tonight."

TIMES | Joe Walles

TIMES | Joe Walles

TIMES | Joe Walles

TIMES | Joe Walles

TIMES | Joe Walles

TIMES | Joe Walles

TIMES | Joe Walles

Times image archive.

Jeremy King

Twitter: @TBTimesArchive

e-mail: jking@tampabay.com

Looking Back: Civil rights protestors take back Forsyth County (January 25, 1987) 05/11/17 [Last modified: Thursday, May 11, 2017 1:01pm]
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