Spurred by a recent string of deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police, protesters have flooded the streets of American cities for a month. Most sustained efforts have been in city centers — but, with a frequency previously unseen, the movement has reached well beyond metropolitan areas, too. Georgia is no exception.
Protests are popping up in exurban communities and rural towns across the state, in places that are predominantly white, generally conservative and often more interested in peace and quiet than questioning the status quo.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Outside Atlanta, demonstrations have been held in Braselton and Peachtree City, Cartersville and Kennesaw, Newnan and Loganville. Some 1,000 people showed up to a recent demonstration in Forsyth County, the northeast Georgia community best known for violently driving Black residents out of town in the early 1900s — and then keeping them out for decades.
Madison is about an hour's drive east on I-20 from Atlanta. There, in Morgan County, about about three-fourths of the county's residents are white and nearly 70% of voters supported Donald Trump in 2016.
There have been at least three demonstrations there in recent weeks.
With few exceptions, these exurban efforts have been organized by young people.
Students, largely confined to their homes because of the coronavirus pandemic, have had sustained time with their parents to broach difficult subjects. They've talked to their friends about watching Ahmaud Arbery die while out for a jog. They've shared their frustration with their parents as they watched a police officer kneel on George Floyd's neck.
And they’ve taken their frustration to the streets.
“We’re the next generation,” Williams says. “The world is literally in our hands.”
Veterans of the movement say it will take progress in these types of communities to make real change in Georgia. The protests show how many are interested in doing so.
"It takes more than just Atlanta," said Mary Hooks, a co-founder of Atlanta's Black Lives Matter chapter. "Atlanta's not going to be able to change the whole state of Georgia."
‘An internal reckoning’
In his office at City Hall, in a building shared with a fire station, Fred Perriman silences his jingling cellphone and leans back in his chair. Perriman, 72, grew up on a nearby cotton farm and spent 30 years on the city council before becoming Madison's first Black mayor.
“That says a lot. Some people will say we have arrived,” he says of his election.“But we have not arrived. We still have a long ways to go.”
Perriman thinks local business leaders should do more to embrace and promote diversity. Residents have frequently opined about a dearth of Black educators in the local school system. Williams said his own activism is fueled partly by an incident in which he was falsely accused of sexually harassing a white schoolmate, and how he was treated afterward.
Just last year, a Morgan County resident hosted a gathering of the International Keystone Knights, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Still, ask just about anyone and they’ll tell you Madison, like other small towns, is a close-knit community full of well-meaning people.
In many ways, it’s easy to talk to folks you’ve known your whole life. But having pointed conversations about bias and institutional racism and how to build a more equitable society is something entirely different.
Conversations like those — and the drumbeat of ghastly videos showing Black people dying at the hands of police and others — challenge many people’s fundamental assumptions about how the world works, said Jessica Lynn Stewart, a professor of the political economy of race at Emory University.
“Whites are having an internal reckoning,” said Stewart, who is Black. “They’re not sure they understand all the intricacies of white privilege, but they understand something’s wrong — it doesn’t feel right.”
Most of the young people organizing protests in communities outside Atlanta are engaging in activism for the first time. Many are also white, having left their rural high schools for more diverse colleges where they made friendships with people who told them about their own experiences with racism.
That creates a natural tension when they come home. Organizing efforts are often equal parts pleasant surprise and jarring reality check.
Anslee Stephens and Dalton Ferrell, 19-year-old freshmen at Georgia State University, both grew up in rural Jackson County. The friends, who are white, said they felt the need to organize at home after college opened their eyes to issues they hadn't seen.
They put together events in their hometown of Braselton, where 77% of residents are white. The city is in four counties — Gwinnett, Hall, Barrow and Jackson — and while Gwinnett went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, 75% of voters in the other three counties chose President Donald Trump.
So the friends expected a small gathering of like-minded people they knew. They were shocked when more than 100 people came out on a Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of June, most of them strangers.
Ferrell said it was particularly heartening that his parents, both Republicans, came by. They hadn't been paying much attention to the events of Memorial Day weekend, he said, and were "very surprised" when he brought up the protests around the country.
Before the Braselton protest, Ferrell sat down with his mom to explain what he was doing. He wanted to be armed with facts, so he showed her the video of Floyd’s death.
“My mom broke down in tears,” he said. “She hadn’t seen it.”
He told her about other Black people who had died at the hands of police. Then he talked about what he and others wanted: for the state to pass a hate crimes bill, for the end of police brutality, for no more militarization of policing.
Ferrell said his family has now started to talk more about these issues.
“She wasn’t sure,” he said. “I think before I brought it to their attention, they were a little different-minded than me.”
In Jennifer Clark’s house, it was the Arbery killing that started the conversations about race. Those discussions led Clark’s 21-year-old daughter, Melissa, to go to several protests.
Clark, who is white, said she and Melissa stayed up talking late into the night after the first event. The Jefferson woman said her daughter found the experience moving. But Clark hated to learn that the parents of some of Melissa’s friends were upset that they had gone.
She told Melissa to tell those friends that she was proud of them for participating.
With videos of deaths like Floyd’s and Arbery’s, there is no question that what people are seeing “is completely wrong,” said Angela Jackson. Jackson, a white Hoschton resident, brought her four biracial children with her to a Braselton protest.
Recounting looks she got while with her Black husband, and the racism her children often faced walking into stores, she said it was important for her to show her kids that they were supported by their community.
“When you’re a white person, it’s really not something you’re aware of,” Jackson said. “Yes, this is absolutely still a problem.”
Ferrell and Stephens got more support than they anticipated. But plenty of the more than 500 comments on a normally quiet Facebook page were discouraging.
Neighbors accused Ferrell and Stephens of living out of town, of encouraging looting and destruction. People tried to get Stephens fired from her job at a local fast-food restaurant by calling her manager. She forwarded one Facebook comment — which recommended shooting protesters — to Braselton police, who confirmed an investigation was ongoing.
“I’m definitely mad something so good could be twisted and made evil,” Stephens said.
Josh Jachles, a white Braselton resident who recommended on the city’s Facebook page that the permit office be permanently closed to prevent that protest and others, called Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization.
He said the area is “White country” and that the people who came out in Braselton and elsewhere “have no clue what the hell they’re protesting.” He thinks they’d be better off just talking to people about their concerns.
“I think the protests are a lot less welcome out here,” he said.
That may be true. But they’re seemingly more welcome than ever before.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Candice Horsley, 36, organized a protest this month in Forsyth County – which is still best known for Oprah Winfrey showing up in the 1980s to document its long-held hostility toward Black people. There were rumored threats from the Ku Klux Klan and a white nationalist counter-protest that didn't materialize.
A group of local students had hoped to host their own protest but backed out due to threats, Horsley said.
Horsley, who is white and has biracial children, moved forward with the help of the local sheriff’s office. A related “Forsyth County United” Facebook page now has some 2,000 members.
“It was just way more than I ever could have imagined,” she said. “Everyone has a voice now, and we want to see change in our immediate community too.”
The events are beginning to reach people who had not been engaged before.
April Haney, a white Braselton resident who attended a protest in the Hamilton Mill area of Gwinnett County, said she hadn't understood why people had a problem with the phrase "all lives matter" until she saw a picture of a Black girl holding a sign that said she knew all lives mattered, but Black lives were in danger.
Haney, 54, explained the issue to her 79-year-old mother.
“I know what an advocate is,” she said. “If we could all join together, maybe we’ll see change.”
‘I grew a voice’
Williams’ group wrapped up their march at Madison’s Hill Park, with the Confederate monument — “no nation rose so white and fair, none fell so pure of crime” — standing sentry nearby.
Samuel Head Jr., a Black local pastor, delivered a fiery prayer.
“We’ve gotten to a point in our world, in our society, where ignorance is no longer a solution,” he said. “We’ve gotten to a point in our society where turning our heads can no longer be a sense of normalcy for us.”
That, really, is the gist of what those trying to lead the movement in new areas are looking for, they say.
But they're learning that, especially in their own hometowns, all of that has to start with acknowledgement. They have to convince neighbors that systems have never been perfect and still aren't, that there are experiences beyond their own to consider.
Some of them are just going through that reckoning themselves.
“I was scared to speak in high school about racism, especially around white, country, Georgia-loving, USA-loving people,” said Stephens, one of the young Braselton organizers. “I grew a voice I didn’t know I had.”
That matters to people like Shantwon Astin, a newly-elected city councilman in nearby Hoschton. There, Mayor Theresa Kenerly and another council member resigned in December after Kenerly said a candidate for city administrator was disqualified "because he is Black, and the city isn't ready for this."
"We all know Georgia's history, we all know the South's history," said Astin, who is Black and attended the Braselton gathering. "We as a community, we as a nation, have to stand up for what's right."
In these small and outlying Georgia cities, that’s happening more and more. But the process of change is not smooth or easy.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
In Madison, as Williams’ group marched past quaint downtown shops and restaurants chanting and holding signs, a local stuck his head out of the deli where he was picking up lunch. He shouted at the demonstrators that “all lives matter.”
But further down the road, as the march rolled on down Main Street, another Madisonian stepped onto her porch and applauded the group. Elizabeth Bell said she was proud of their “force of will.”
They need it to overcome the negative feedback and online harassment that Lucia Hodges, 19 and white, said she and others have faced. Hodges, born and raised in Madison, was home from college in California and helped Williams organize the protest.
"The idea of racism is deeply embedded into small communities, especially in the South," Hodges said. "It's just something that is very present. And having those difficult conversations are so, so important."
“If they’re uncomfortable,” she added, “they’re supposed to be uncomfortable.”
That discomfort, if successful, begets change.
Williams’ mother, Candy Smith, grew up in Madison. Now 50 years old, she vividly remembers white children avoiding her on the school bus because their parents told them, while using a racial slur, not to play with Black children.
She, too, is encouraged by her son, his friends and others like them.
“I feel like we sat back so long,” she said. “And this generation, they’re not gonna sit back.”