Discovering Racism Close to Home

About a decade after I moved to the Atlanta area, I finally reached the point where I would actually shed a tear if I had to move away.  To say the least, it felt like forever for this huge city with its nightmarish traffic to grow on me.  However, there is one aspect I have loved from the very beginning.  Its diversity.  Numerous nationalities, languages, and colors of people are spread throughout the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta showcasing God’s creativity.

So, when my husband and I took our four kids to the annual Fourth of July parade in Cumming, GA for the first time several years ago, we immediately noticed and commented to each other that this was a different part of Georgia.  The lack of diversity in this town 40 miles north of the heart of Atlanta was unlike anything we had observed in surrounding areas.  Lots of white people.  Not many African Americans.  Oh well.  It was what it was.  Who knows why.  We enjoyed the parade and went home.

This year when we went to the parade, I was surprised, but then not really surprised, to see two of the parade participants riding down the main thoroughfare with a large Confederate flag attached to the back of their tractor.  Wow, that doesn’t seem appropriate, I thought.  I snatched a quick, not so great, photo as proof of what I had seen.  And, yet, what had I seen?  It’s not like it’s a crime to fly the Confederate flag.

Cumming Confederate Flag

A few days after the parade, I was invited to a book club that would be discussing Blood at the Root, A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips who grew up in Cumming.  This book published in 2016 was new to me and contains an incredibly sobering account of a little-known piece of history.

Growing up I was always intrigued by the Holocaust in Europe during World War II.  I have yet to comprehend how a whole group of educated people in modern times in a civilized country would strive to annihilate a whole other group of people simply for being descendants of Abraham.  And, yet, as I read Phillips’ book about Cumming, GA from the 1900s, I shockingly discovered a whole group of people that looked just like me, who grew up in the South just like me, and who were willing, even as recently as 1987, to terrorize any and all African Americans who dared (or unintentionally) stepped foot into any part of the entire Forsyth county (page 212). These hate-filled humans were determined to maintain the “whites only” rule that was created after the “racial cleansing” of the county back in 1912 by their equally hateful ancestors (page 229).  Over 1,000 African Americans had been violently expelled from the county at that time (page 141).  A Holocaust-type hatred suddenly seemed much closer to home.  Only it wasn’t between Nazis and Jews this time.  It was between the “good ole boys” of the South and the defenseless descendants of slaves.

The low level of diversity and the presence of the Confederate flag at the Cumming Fourth of July parade made sense now.  Earlier today a white friend who lives in Cumming recalled years ago African American coworkers down in Atlanta telling her they would never go to Forsyth.  Many whites in Atlanta might not know Forsyth’s racial history, but it was imperative that the African Americans knew it (page 198).  To be ignorant could literally cost them their life as it almost did for one black man back in 1980 who unknowingly entered the danger zone.  He was shot solely because of his skin tone (page 202).

Does racism still exist in Cumming, GA?  Phillips acknowledges times are changing as many new people are moving into Forsyth.  But, I ask you…what does a Confederate flag flying during a Cumming Fourth of July parade communicate in 2018?  I can assure you it does not say “Hey, African Americans, we love you!  We welcome you!  We are sorry for what our ancestors did!  Come, let’s all live in peace here in beautiful Cumming!”

Let me be very clear—I am not saying that all people in Cumming are racist.  I have several white friends that live in Cumming, and I have never heard racist remarks from any of them.  Many new residents in this growing county have no knowledge of the history.  But, even with that there is a problem.

Why do we not know the history?  Visit Cumming and you will find no trace of the hundreds of African Americans who lost their homes, churches, and livelihood in 1912.  No memorial.  No marker.  No publicly displayed photographs.  Just gone (page 241). Thankfully, Patrick Phillips has sought to preserve this important piece of history through his well-written book.

Just as we remember other historical events, so we need to examine and learn from what took place in Cumming in 1912 and in the years that followed.  We need to understand what we are capable of as humans…both for good and for evil.  Both what we can endure and how we can terrorize.  We need to understand how our actions and choices do matter not only to the current generation but for those that follow.   We need to understand how impactful our beliefs are on our children.  I would strongly encourage you to read Blood at the Root and learn not only of history but of humanity.

I know it is not pleasant to talk about, think about, or write about racism…whether we are black or white.  But, as Patrick Phillips says, denial of racism keeps it going (page 235).  We have to ponder the past.  As whites we have to face the ugliness of our ancestors so we do not repeat history.  But, please don’t lose hope in the process.  One thing that I have repeatedly been encouraged by and challenged by while studying American history is the white person that stood up and did the right thing in his generation for the African American.  While countless white people of the past have bobbed in the current of hatred towards blacks and gone with the flow, there are those brave individuals that resist the intense animosity around them and stand up for the African American, at times even risking their lives, to ensure that the African American is treated with respect, dignity, and as an equal.  Let us dare to be such a person in our own generation.

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