Welcome to Cumming.

Welcome to Cumming 1987

This photo was taken 21 years ago today, 24 January 24, 1987, near the start of the March Against Fear and Intimidation, in Cumming, Georgia.

Cumming is the county seat of Forsyth County, about a 45 minute drive north of Atlanta. In 1912, night-riding Klan types led a month-long purge of the black population after an alleged rape of a white woman by three black men. Since then and up until the point when this photo was taken, the county remained virtually all-white. Afterwards, according to several locals, Forsyth became known as a county that warned black visitors not to “let the sun go down on their heads”.

The previous weekend, on January 17, 1987, a march was held in Cumming to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which was formalized one year earlier. About 75 marchers were greeted by a motley crew of local Klan types, a group estimated at about 200. About a half mile into the two-mile march, they began throwing rocks and bottles at the marchers, and, largely outnumbering the police on hand, managed to halt the demonstration. The incident received national attention, and over the course of the next few days, a follow-up was organized. On January 24, nearly 25,000 people converged on Cumming to finish the march.

Initially, it was an extremely tense afternoon. Some 3000 or so National Guard troops and state and local police separated the marchers from the 2000 or so counter-demonstrators, organized primarily by The Nationalist Movement, a Mississippi-based white supremacist outfit. There were rumors that a National Guard arms depot was broken into and looted. The caravan of buses that drove from Atlanta had a police escort, and there was surveillance from virtually every highway overpass. We wondered, if the shit were to hit the fan again, whose side would the National Guard be on? Many of them were, after all, local boys.

But the march went on without incident. Fearing violence, many locals boarded up their windows and left town for the day. Others watched from their porches, some holding signs of support. Marchers largely ignored the taunts and signs of the counter-demonstrators. I’ll never forget one, written in a child’s hand, which read, “Die Nigers Die”. (Yes, it really was misspelled).  In the numbers game, the crowd of 25,000 was said to be the largest to gather in a civil rights march in nearly two decades.

kip in cumming

I was still in college then; I covered the march for a small local paper in Ohio, and it was the first story I was ever paid for. I don’t recall what I did with that $35, but the march itself is something I won’t ever forget. That racism was alive and well was hardly ‘news’ to me. But it was, to me, a wild-eyed 21-year-old suburban white boy, the bluntest illustration of how racism was always barely –always just barely– lying beneath the surface of just about everything in the U.S.

I changed that day, and many others I was with also changed. I’d also like to think that attitudes in general have changed over the past two decades, but my jaundiced eyes and ears tell me differently.

Let’s begin again.

(To see larger versions of the photos, go here.)

 
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  1. pengovsky says

    A great post! Just out of curiousity, could you elaborate on “beginning again”? I don’t want to jump to conclusions or anything, so I thought I’d ask first 🙂

  2. pirano says

    Thanks! As for the REM song, it’s been one of all-time favorites, that’s all. 🙂 I like the concept, beginning again, particularly when dealing with something like racism in the US, which just below the surface of things, hasn’t really changed much at all.

  3. pengovsky says

    I though so 🙂 I had half a rant on “beginning again vs. moving onward” already written, but then I thought better of it 😀

    But the trick is that you can’t start over. You can only try to improve things as they are now. But perhaps I’m too narrow minded on this – as you know we have the “Erased” problem in Slovenia which the government has created and now wants to “start over” without facing the consequences.

  4. pirano says

    On one hand, it’s obviously an idealistic notion. On the other, when something is so deeply rooted and ingrained, you have to go back to the root of the problem. Beginning again, so to speak.

    Edited to add: I understand “erased” issue. But there’s no comparison between that and racism in the US, which was for all intents and purposes, institutionalized until about a generation ago.

  5. dr. filomena says

    Thanks for sharing! This is an excellend read…

  6. Kim Madlom says

    I was there for the march. I was living in Thomaston, Georgia at the time and saw the news about the bottle throwing. I took the day off work and drove in the snow to get there. I was 25 years old at the time. We formed big lines to walk up the road. The anti-march protesters were along the side yelling things at us. Initially, I was third in the line, with two young African American girls on the end. They were probably in their teens. The white men were saying things to them as we walked. We were moving really slowly. We stopped near a particularly rude group of men. The girl on the end ask me if I would change places with her. I know she thought it wouldn’t be as bad for me since I was older, and white. I did and of course they said things to me, too, but it was okay. There were national guardsmen, GBI and other officers every where. Plus there were so many of us. It was safe. Even so, I’ve never seen so much hate. It was hard to understand how people could be so cruel and hateful.

  7. […] posted these three years ago, but this being the anniversary, I thought I’d post them again. If you’ve got a few […]

  8. Gandalf says

    Great post, thank you!

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