New alarm over rising racial violence

BOB LEVIN February 2 1987

New alarm over rising racial violence

BOB LEVIN February 2 1987

New alarm over rising racial violence


Like figures from another time, they marched down the twolane highway winding through the snow-coated fields of Georgia’s Forsyth County. They sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” There were about 20,000 of them on Saturday, blacks and whites, flanked by scores of out-of-town reporters and 2,200 National Guardsmen and police. They were needed: the march through the all-white county, 60 km north of Atlanta, was a resumption of one begun the previous week but halted after hundreds of Ku Klux Klansmen pelted marchers with rocks and bottles. But now the marchers were back in force, led by Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. And although hundreds of counterdemonstrators showed up, their abuse was mostly verbal. Standing in a crowd that chanted “Nigger go home,” David Duke, a former Klan leader, declared, “This is the beginning of a white civil rights movement in America.” Shortly afterward, Duke was arrested for reckless conduct and blocking the highway, one of 33 coun-

terdemonstrators booked by police.

Last week’s demonstration, the South’s largest in a decade, seemed anachronistic, but in fact it was a reaction to a very current phenomenon: a wave of highly publicized racist incidents that went far beyond the rockthrowing attack in Forsyth County. Last October, at the Citadel military academy in South Carolina, five white cadets dressed like Ku Klux Klansmen taunted a black cadet and burned a paper cross in his room. In San Diego in December, a mounted policeman arrested a black man on a minor charge—and led him away at the end of a rope. Most prominent of all was the incident in Howard Beach, a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. There, also in December, a gang of white youths beat three black men, one of whom was killed by a car as he fled. The attack set off a storm of public protest, including a march through Manhattan last week by some 3,000 people.

It is difficult to determine how extensive—or recent—the racist upsurge is. But Leonard Zeskind, research director of the Center for Democratic

Renewal, an Atlanta-based organization that monitors hate groups nationwide, as well as community efforts to counter them, says that although the media are only now waking up to the increase in racial violence, it actually started seven or eight years ago and flourished in relative obscurity. “These people are like cockroaches,” said Zeskind’s colleague Mark Alfonso. “If you shine a light on them, they scramble away. But if you leave them in the dark, they all come out.” Zeskind said that white supremacist groups now have from 15,000 to 20,000 hard-core members, up from some 9,000 in the late 1970s.

The reasons for the racist revival are complex. Some experts point to white frustration over declining job prospects in the factories and reduced fortunes on the farms. But in the wake of the Howard Beach and Forsyth incidents, many civil rights leaders laid the blame squarely on President Ronald Reagan’s administration. They charged that policies such as attacking affirmative action programs have helped to create a climate conducive to racism. “The media called Reagan’s re-

election a mandate,” said Hazel Dukes, vice-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “We saw it as a mandate for racism, and so did the racists.” Justice department officials, however, say that the administration is simply a convenient scapegoat and that, in fact, they have stepped up criminal prosecutions of civil rights cases such as those involving Klanrelated violence.

Forsyth County was fertile ground for a clash. A hilly area on Atlantans’ path to the North Georgia Mountains vacationlands, the county —population 38,500 —has been allwhite since 1912, when a young white woman was raped and murdered there. Vigilantes broke into jail and hanged a black suspect, using methods so savage that the remaining black residents soon left the county. According to Zeskind, the area had recently been the scene of a recruiting battle between two Klan factions, the Southern White Knights and the Invisible Empire. But Charles Blackburn, a local resident who originally planned the march, said that he wanted not only to commemorate King’s birthday but to combat the county’s racist reputation. When he received threatening phone calls, he dropped the plan, which was then taken up by a coalition of whites and blacks from surrounding counties.

But on Jan. 17, marchers had covered only one kilometre of their planned four-kilometre route when the two Klan groups and their sympathizers started hurling rocks. Four marchers were slightly injured. Eight attackers were arrested on charges ranging from making terrorist threats to possession of marijuana. And for a civil rights movement that has long been galvanized by the power of public symbols, the televised images of robed Klansmen chanting “Go home, niggers” was a striking— and shocking—call to action.

Answering the call was an eclectic assortment of sympathizers, from

Trappist monks to comedian Dick Gregory to Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart. Nine members of the Guardian Angels, a self-styled crime patrol, held their own march two days before the major event and encountered a barrage of racial epithets in a trailer park. Curtis Sliwa, the group’s leader, said, “We wanted to

show that blacks could and would stay in Forsyth County.”

Thousands of whites joined the black demonstrators in the two-kilometre march Saturday to the town of Cumming, the Forsyth County seat. Roger Mills, 41, a white lawyer from Decatur, Ga., carried a sign saying, “I’m back and I brought my friends.” He said that he had been at last week’s march, and he added: “It’s nice to be in the majority this time. Last time was a bit I hairy.”

£ But across the road, blocked by a phalanx x of National Guardsx men, were the white counterdemonstrators. Teresa Lathem, a 28year-old mother of two and a Cumming resident, declared, “This was a very peaceful place until the niggers started coming in and causing trouble.” She added that she had moved to Forsyth from another county because “I didn’t want my child to have to lie down beside a black child to take a

nap in kindergarten.” Standing nearby, Mike Edwards, 30, a counterdemonstrator in a black leather jacket, said: “The younger generation is getting madder and madder and eventually it is going to come to an all-out civil war. Blacks against whites.”

The Howard Beach incident continued to make headlines as well. Four

weeks ago Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, the lawyers representing survivors Cedric Sandiford and Timothy Grimes, counselled their clients not to testify in the case. They contended that authorities were trying to cover up for Dominick Blum—a policeman’s son who was driving the car that killed 23-year-old Michael Griffith—by insisting that he was not connected with the youths who had chased Griffith.

The lawyers, demanded a special prosecutor, and two weeks ago they got their wish: New York governor Mario Cuomo appointed attorney Charles Joseph Hines as special prosecutor. Maddox and Mason promptly agreed to let their clients testify, and the case went before a grand jury last week.

The repercussions from Howard Beach and Forsyth County will reverberate for months to come. And racist sentiment in the country has clearly been rekindled. “So much hate,” said Shirley Miller, a 45-yearold black protester from Columbus, Ga., staring at the chanting white counterdemonstrators. “Why do you hate me? I haven’t done anything to you.”

—BOB LEVIN in Cumming