Because of events beginning in September, 1912, most blacks quickly fled Forsyth County for the perceived safety of Atlanta or Gainesville, Georgia. D75 years later, a white self defense instructor (Charles A. Blackburn) came up with the idea of a "Brotherhood March." A transplant from San Francisco, Blackburn wanted to remove the stigma associated with the county stemming from the original crime and subsequent control of the county by a racially-motivated group.
The first week of September, 1912 had not been pleasant for Forsyth County. On Election Day, September 4, Ellen Grice, who was white, was reportedly assaulted by a black male, leading to a racial confrontation in Cumming the following Saturday. That Sunday, 18-year old Mae Crow was brutally raped. According to newspaper accounts, the victim was severely beaten. She would die later the same month from her injuries. Several blacks were arrested and one Ernest Knox confessed to the crime. Local law enforcement, fearing vigilantes, rushed Knox from the jail to Atlanta. The five other men arrested for the crime, originally moved to Marietta were later moved to Atlanta when local vigilantes threatened to go to Marietta and remove the suspects from custody.
Atlanta Journal reporter (later editor) Angus Perkerson began following the story as the trial progressed. The defendants were protected by troops and the county placed under martial law to give Georgia governor Joseph Mackey Brown the power to stop any violence. The trial led to the conviction of Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel, who helped Knox move the body. Following the hangings it was considered to be unsafe to be black and be in Forsyth County.
Through the 1940's it was fairly easy to enforce nearly complete segregation in Forsyth County. In 1953, however, the damming of the Chattahoochee River and the formation of Lake Lanier forced the segregationists to take stronger measures to eliminate black visitors from the county. To say they were made to feel unwanted is an understatement. As visitation from Atlanta increased, families were told to "leave the maid behind..." A near-mythical sign gave further warning: "N----r, don't let the Sun set on you in Forsyth County."
Dick Gregory with organizers Dean Carter and Hosea Williams during the first march
Because of threats against him, Blackburn was forced to withdraw from the protest march. Atlanta city council member Hosea Williams and Tammy and Dean Williams from nearby Gainesville took up the torch for the march.
On January 17, 1987, a racially-mixed group of protesters (normally estimated at between 75 and 90 people) marching with Rev. Hosea Williams near Cumming, Georgia, headed for the Forsyth County Courthouse. It was widely believed at the time that Forsyth County had no African-Americans living within its borders, although government census records show a very small number of Blacks (4 in 1960, 1 in 1980) did live within the county. "They was throwing rocks before we even got off the bus. First they broke the windows; then they broke our heads" according to Robert Thompson, who marched with Williams.
Marchers carried signs, one of which said "Give Brotherhood a Chance." Some of the racists carried signs, one saying "Sickle-Cell Anemia - The Great White Hope." The real confrontation, however, came shortly after marchers turned the corner on Highway 9. On two small hills that abut the road a quarter mile from the turn stood a group of 400-500 mostly male segregationists. Approaching the men on the hill march leaders did not think there would be a violent outburst because of the presence of uniformed police.
Racial insults, however, quickly escalated into a violence as militant segregationists broke through police lines, attacked and disbursed the group. Scenes of the violence brought back memories of Bloody Sunday on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. During the confrontation, Hosea Williams was struck by a rock. Police regained control of the situation, arresting 55 protesters including David Duke.
Bonnie M. Pike, an inspector of field operations for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told The Associated Press, "We lost control of the crowd." The Forsyth County Sheriff, Wesley C. Walraven Jr., said he had not been prepared for the large turnout of segregationists protesting the march.
The violence against the Civil Rights marchers caused an immediate reaction. Mead Corporation, a manufacturer of paper and supplies, terminated ongoing negotiations with Forsyth County to build a plant that would have meant 5,000 jobs. Ku Klux Klan leader Grand Dragon David Holland boasted the day after the march that "the Klan drove Hosea Williams and his busload of race traitors [from Cumming] with three or four windows gone.
On January 24, 1987, another racially-mixed group returned to Forsyth County to complete the march the previous group had be unable to finish. March organizers estimated the number at 20,000, while police estimates ran from 12-14,000. Right from the beginning there were problems. Only 5,000 people were expected, so at the last minute the King Center was forced to get 175 more buses to transport the marchers. An unknown number of people car-pooled to the meeting place, south of the courthouse.
Among those marching with the group were Gary Hart, Dick Gregory, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, U. S. Senators Sam Nunn and Wyche Fowler and U. S. Representative John Lewis. Curtis Silwa and some Guardian Angels joined with the intent of protecting the marchers. Match organizers said a group had chartered a plane from San Francisco and that vans and buses brought marchers Chattanooga, Tenn., Clemson, S.C., New Orleans and Ohio
The marchers formed south of Cumming. Many residents began lining up near the route of the parade, mostly in support of the march. Forsyth County residents expressed shock at the size of the group as they turned on to Highway 9, the road into town. This time, the state of Georgia was prepared to stop any potential confrontation between the marchers and the Klan. 2300 men, including National Guard, Cumming Police, sheriffs, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia Highway Patrol officers provided the bulk of the protection.
Gregory, King, Young, and Williams spoke on the steps of the Forsyth County Courthouse in Cumming, Georgia. March organizer Dean Carter told the 20,000 march participants "Today we have embarked on a journey, a journey that will take a lifetime to fulfill, the journey of worldwide brotherhood and understanding. Without this, Forsyth County, Georgia and even our nation will fail. Without brotherhood in a community, violence and intimidation will exist.
Forsyth County organized a biracial panel (5 Blacks, 7 whites) to help with the issues surrounding integration. In a similar move, nearby Dawson County formed a panel to help the nearly all-white county to integrate. The questions raised by the Civil Rights march brought the debate on the state flag controversy to the forefront.
Oprah Winfrey broadcasts from Cumming, Georgia
Less than a year after national syndication of her show, Oprah Winfrey broadcast from Cumming, Forsyth County's seat of government, on February 9, 1987. She confronted some of the racist feelings within the county and later recalled that show as being one of her favorite on-air experiences. In April, 1987, as a direct result of the protests in Forsyth County, U.S. Catholic bishops issued a bluntly worded statement condemning racism and warning Catholics to stay out of the Ku Klux Klan.
Williams held a second march a year later, to little notice. In April, 1989, Klansman David Duke, who was at the first march, was elected the the Louisiana State Senate in spite of President Georgia H. W. Bush and former President Ronald Reagan endorsing his opponent. The following year the U. S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling awarding $800,000 in damages to the civil rights marchers. In August, 1992 Hosea Williams led 50 people on a third march from Atlanta to Cumming Georgia, protesting what he claimed was still an all-white community.