Wednesday June 19th, 2024 1:09AM

25 years after Hosea Williams - the changed face of Forsyth Co.

By Ken Stanford Contributing Editor
CUMMING - A significant event in the history of Forsyth County has passed this year virtually unnoticed: a civil rights demonstration 25 years ago that is credited by some observers with helping change the face of the county in more ways than one.

A reputation for racial intolerance had longed plagued Forsyth County, going back to the early 20th Century. It grew out of the rape of a young white woman in 1912 by three black men. The incident led to a move to oust all African-Americans from the county and the campaign was spear-headed by gangs of night riders. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, by 1930 only 17 blacks lived in Fosyth County compare to about 1,000 in 1920.

It was not until 1987 that racial tensions erupted again in the county, culminating in one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in Georgia history.

It began in January of that year when a small group of people, lead by veteran civil rights activist Hosea Williams of Atlanta, staged a march in Cumming to mark the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. They were met by a small bottle- and rock-throwing group of counter-protesters.

The incident received nationwide attention and the following weekend, on Saturday, Jan. 24, 20,000-25,000 demonstrators descended on the town.

''We're not going to stop marching until there are no more Forsyths anywhere,'' said Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as the marchers got underway, delayed three hours by a traffic jam created by their numbers.

They faced an estimated 1,000 counterdemonstrators gathered in the north Georgia's county, where authorities reported at least 12 arrests before the most of the marchers arrived.

The march was scheduled to start at 11 a.m., but a traffic jam created by an estimated 7,000 marchers in cars and more than 150 buses clogged the state highway linking Forsyth County with Atlanta.

Authorities in Cumming, determined to avoid a recurrence of the violence, deployed 148 Georgia State Patrol officers around the courthouse square about 9 a.m. and an estimated 350 troopers took up positions in the heart of town.
Two state patrol helicopters circled above the town, along with two television news helicopters..

About 1,700 National Guard troops in camouflage fatigues and visored helmets, carrying 3-foot riot batons, were posted at the shopping center where the march was to start.

Then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris called in the Guardsmen to protect the marchers, and Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Robbie Hamrick said law officers planned to line the route from a shopping center to the county courthouse.

Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the governor, called it ''the greatest show of force on the part of the state of Georgia in history.''

About 3,000 civil rights demonstrators gathered at the starting point to wait for more than 150 chartered buses, believed to be carrying more than 6,000 marchers.

About 1,000 counterdemonstrators, some carrying Confederate flags and signs, waited as the first bus arrived from Atlanta around 10:15 a.m. One sign said,

''I'm glad to be here to stand up for whites' rights,'' said Byron Burger, a Forsyth County resident wearing a Ku Klux Klan T-shirt as he waited across the street from the shopping center. ''Everybody's got rights.''

The counter demonstrators, a few of them robed Klan members, marched to the courthouse square, where they were met by troopers and Guardsmen. They carried Confederate and American flags and signs reading, ''Whites have Rights'' and ''White Power.''

FORSYTH COUNTY, THEN AND NOW

What happened in January 1987 is credited by some observers, along with Georgia Highway 400, with helping change the face of Forsyth County.

A month after the marches, Oprah Winfrey brought her highly popular television talk show to Cumming for a roundtable discussion of the county's racial history and the demonstrations.

People began flocking to the county - their commute to jobs in Atlanta made easier by the four-lane, Interstate-like Georgia 400. Developers moved in, too, grabbing up acres and acres of undeveloped land and turning the tracts into large subdivisions, some of them gated, upscale communities. Forsyth quickly became one of the fastest-growing, and at times the fastest-growing, counties in the country.

Commercial development quickly followed and mirrored the residential growth that has continued for a quarter-century and continues today, slowed only by the recent recession.

The population of Forsyth County has become more diverse, as well.

As noted above, in 1910, about 1,000 blacks lived in the county. By 1930, that number was 17. As late as 1980, seven years before the 1987 marches, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the breakdown of the county's population, by race, was as follows:

TOTAL POPULATION: 27,950 (99.4% white, 1 black (not enough to compute a percentage), no Hispanics)

Since then, the number of whites has decreased and the number of blacks and Hispanics has increased.

1990 TOTAL POPULATION: 44,083 (98.9% white, .03% black (14 total persons), 635 Hispanics)

2000 TOTAL POPULATION: 98,407 (95.05% white, .70% black, 2.57% Hispanic)

2010 TOTAL POPULATION: 175,511 (88.10% white, 3.3% black, 9.6% Hispanic)

How much those demonstrations 25 years ago played in changing the face of Forsyth County is hard to gauge but one thing is for sure:

It is not your daddy's Forsyth County anymore.

(Sources: Jacobs Media Corp. news archives, the Associated Press, the author who covered or directed coverage of the civil rights demonstrations and several white rights demonstrations in Forsyth County during his career, the U.S. Census Bureau, georgiaencyclopedia.org, and forsythco.com.)
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