Understanding the new Old South

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'The bigots don't run things anymore but you could say very conservative people choose to live here.'

One of my American friends should have warned me.

While doing research for a novel I noticed two bright red counties next to apatch of dark blue on a CNN Georgia state map of the 2004 U.S. presidentialelection. It looked like the perfect place for my main character — a cynicalyet still earnest Canadian journalist — to go in order to investigate thegreat American electoral divide.

So, here I am in Forsyth County, Georgia, where 83 per cent of voters chose George W.Bush and 16 per cent marked their ballot for John Kerry and it feels like aparallel universe — a place like the town in the 1967 film In The Heat of theNight, in a sequel directed by the Grand Wizard of the KKK, co-produced byDisney and Bob Jones University.

In this “ex-urban” county of 130,000 about 30 miles north of Atlanta (where61.4 per cent of people describe themselves as black or African-American)there are no faces of colour. Or, to be more precise, according to the U.S.Census Bureau there are fewer than 900 living in the 226 square miles ofpleasant rolling lower foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Republican stronghold

The first clue as to the character of this Republican stronghold came as Ipassed the county marker on Highway 400. The van I was passing had twobumper stickers. They read: “Don't Worry — God is in control” and “BushCheney 04.”

Minutes later, hungry after the five-hour drive from Brunswick, I entered anoutlet of a fast food chain called Chick-Fil-A. On the wall beside thecounter was a large U.S. flag with the Ten Commandments where the starsnormally are located. After ordering the No. 2 meal I sat down across from abooth where a 50-something manager was doing an orientation with three new employees.

“We expect your commitment to excellence,” he said to the three women, twoteens and one in her 40s. “The Lord asks us for this in everything wedo.”

As I ate my “waffle fries” and chicken sandwich — both of which wereexcellent — bits and pieces of the orientation session burrowed into myconsciousness.

“Sunday is for church and family so we don't open âe¦ We ask you to read andsign these so you understand exactly what is expected of you âe¦ The LordJesus Christ âe¦ positive attitude at all times âe¦ smile âe¦ we care âe¦ Our Saviour âe¦we expect âe¦”

All this to take orders on the drive-thru, probably for minimum wage, Ithought, then noticed the older woman was avoiding eye contact with themanager.

After checking into the local Hampton Inn, I headed to a convenience storenext door to buy a paper and a bottle of water. One of the things I havelearned from two decades as a journalist is that to get a picture of acommunity one needs to engage in conversation with ordinary people.

Interesting history

After asking me where I was from and what brought me to these parts, Wayne,the clerk at the store, was happy to explain the reason why Forsyth Countyvoted so overwhelmingly for George W. Bush.

“This county has a very interesting history,” said Wayne, who moved here30 years earlier. “We've always been very conservative. You could saycertain people, with a background in the KKK, more or less ran this countyuntil about five years ago.

“The bigots don't run things anymore but you could say very conservativepeople choose to live here.”

I was intrigued and back in my hotel room with a free high-speed Internetconnection the story of the county was revealed.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court: “It has had a troubled racial history.In 1912, in one month, its entire African-American population, over 1,000citizens, was driven systematically from the county in the wake of the rapeand murder of a white woman and the lynching of her accused assailant.Seventy-five years later, in 1987, the county population remained 99 per cent white.

“Spurred by this history, Hosea Williams, an Atlanta city councilman andcivil rights personality, proposed a Forsyth County March Against Fear andIntimidation for January 17, 1987. Approximately 90 civil rightsdemonstrators attempted to parade in Cumming, the county seat. The marcherswere met by members of the Forsyth County Defense League (an independentaffiliate of respondent, The Nationalist Movement), of the Ku Klux Klan, andother Cumming residents. In all, some 400 counter-demonstrators lined theparade route, shouting racial slurs. Eventually, the counter-demonstrators,dramatically outnumbering police officers, forced the parade to a prematurehalt by throwing rocks and beer bottles.

“Williams planned a return march the following weekend. It developed intothe largest civil rights demonstration in the South since the 1960s. OnJanuary 24, approximately 20,000 marchers joined civil rights leaders,United States Senators, presidential candidates, and an Assistant UnitedStates Attorney General in a parade and rally. The 1,000counter-demonstrators on the parade route were contained by more than 3,000state and local police and National Guardsmen.”

The county passed legislation to make demonstrators pay for policing costsand years of litigation resulted, with the Supreme Court eventuallyoverturning the law.

New face of segregation

Today Forsyth County is the face of a new sort of segregation. The medianper capita income is more than 50 per cent higher than the Georgiaaverage. Money will get you in. As Wayne at the convenience store put it: “Oh there's some black people in this county now — conservative blackpeople.”

Turns out there are other counties like Forsyth. Just north of here isDawson County (97.2 per cent white âe" 82 per cent Bush), which Wayne tells me, is wherepeople from Forsyth go who find liberal Atlanta getting a little too close.Near Birmingham, Alabama, are Blount (95.1 per cent white âe" 81 per cent Bush), Shelby (89.8 per cent white âe" 81 per cent Bush) and St. Clair (90.0 per cent white âe" 81 per cent Bush) counties.

The really weird thing about this place, especially after exploring itshistory, is how pleasant it is. While the commute into Atlanta would beridiculously long, strangers in restaurant parking lots smile and strike upa conversation. I get the feeling people are trying to recreate some(imagined?) safer, friendlier past. And, based on my experience, at leastsome of the younger people are open to other possibilities.

The most hopeful image that will remain with me is of Sue-Ann, an18-year old waitress at the local Folks Southern Kitchen Restaurant.

After a lengthy discussion about growing up in rural Georgia and recentlymoving to Forsyth County she told me how she had been to Canada, to Montrealwhere lots of people spoke French. I told her that's where my son livesand he speaks French, Spanish and English.

“He's very lucky,” Sue-Ann said. “I wish I could speak another language. Iwish I could see the world.”

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