[Marxism] American Apartheid: A Georgia County Drove Out All Its Black Citizens in 1912

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Oct 2 11:30:11 MDT 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Oct. 2 2016
American Apartheid: A Georgia County Drove Out All Its Black Citizens in 

A Racial Cleansing in America
By Patrick Phillips
Illustrated. 302 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

Patrick Phillips’s book, at its core, is about the lies told over and 
over again until they become the truth. Lies ­crafted to exonerate white 
residents, who deployed terror, lynching and the law to racially cleanse 
all black people from Forsyth County, Ga. Lies proffered to explain why, 
despite the civil rights movement and the area’s proximity to Atlanta, 
the ­county remained virtually all-white into the 1990s. “Blood at the 
Root,” whose title is taken from a stanza of “Strange Fruit,” the 
hauntingly painful song about lynching, is no redemption tale. By the 
end, it is clear that the white supremacy responsible for killing black 
bodies and stealing land and property remains, to this day, unbowed and 

Phillips begins with his childhood. In the late 1970s, his family had 
moved out of Atlanta and, like so many, purchased a home in a white 
suburban setting. But, Phillips began to think: Why this white? Not one 
black person in the entire county? How could that be? Years later, still 
asking those questions, he began his quest.

He takes us back to the moment in 1912 when a young white woman named 
Mae Crow is found in a ditch, bludgeoned and raped. Forsyth County’s 
whites immediately assumed that the perpetrators had to be black. Who 
else would do something so savage? Moreover, there were a few 
­African-Americans who were “outsiders,” teenagers taken in by their 
extended families and given a home in Forsyth County. Because they 
weren’t born there they automatically fell under suspicion. Soon 
thereafter an upstanding citizen drove one of the black teenagers into 
the woods, placed a noose around the child’s neck and demanded a 
confession. The frightened youth told whatever story this man ­wanted to 
hear and, for good measure, ­implicated others.

Confession in hand, Forsyth County’s whites were determined to avenge 
Mae Crow. And Rob Edwards, one of the “outsiders” seen with the teenager 
that day and held in the local jail, fit the bill. While the sheriff, 
who was up for re-election, conveniently slipped away leaving only his 
rival, the deputy, to protect a young black man whom the voters wanted 
dead, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. After Edwards was dragged, 
beaten and shot on the town square, his bullet-riddled body was strung 
up and left as a warning. ­Unsated, the lynch mob then went after the 
other defendants, but they had already been secreted away to Atlanta’s 
Fulton County Jail, known as the Tower. Denied their pound of flesh, 
bands of night riders turned their attention to the remaining black 
community and finished the job with dynamite, gunfire, arson and sheer 
terror. Within a matter of weeks, Forsyth County was racially cleansed.

Months later, when the state militia escorted the defendants back to the 
county seat of Cumming, Ga., to stand trial, the only black faces in the 
county were theirs. The subsequent court proceedings, designed to exude 
an aura of decorum amid the lawlessness of vigilante justice, snuffed 
out the last black lives in Forsyth County for nearly 80 years.

Phillips provides powerful insight into the motives of the various class 
and business sectors in the county’s white community, which conducted, 
acquiesced to or benefited from the terror. Key to the sustained 
systematic violence was the refusal of law enforcement to enforce the 
law. Thus, the voices of the few who pleaded for moderation were 
threatened or ignored. Impunity ruled. Even a crime with parallels to 
the Mae Crow case — committed after there were no African-­Americans 
left and Edwards had been lynched and his co-­defendants executed — was 
not enough to compel local whites to admit that a killer was still on 
the loose and that racism and greed had been guiding their own actions.

Phillips’s goal in this book, however, is not just to tell the tale of 
whites who rained down violence on their black neighbors but also to 
capture the voices, hopes, fears and subsequent lives of Forsyth 
County’s African-American population as they emerged from slavery, built 
their lives around Cumming, and then lost everything — sometimes 
hundreds of acres — as whites drove them out. This part of the book is 
the most hopeful, ambitious and, unfortunately, least successful. 
Phillips’s effort is hampered by the scarce records, biased contemporary 
newspaper reporting, traumatized family memories and oral histories that 
are few and far between. His tendency to throw block quote after block 
quote onto the page can’t sufficiently make up for what really isn’t 
there. Indeed, it is in these moments where the book is weighed down by 
supposition and tangents — like a section on the 1943 Detroit race riot, 
which one of Forsyth County’s former black residents may or may not have 
experienced — that ruminations overtake the once taut text. There are 
also times when Phillips’s history isn’t as precise as it needs to be. 
The end of Reconstruction did not immediately lead to Jim Crow. There 
was an intervening Redemption period that is crucial for understanding 
black agency, the alliance between African-Americans and white ruling 
elites, and the subsequent race-baiting that blamed blacks’ right to 
vote for the economic and political ills of the South. Redemption helped 
fuel the disfranchisement and vulnerability that put Forsyth County’s 
black population in the hands of whites more than willing to scapegoat, 
terrorize and kill.

Phillips regains his storytelling rhythm when he moves to the 1980s and 
unveils the story of a black couple from Atlanta, who were on a 
corporate outing in Forsyth County and tracked like prey by local 
whites. When the couple got on the road to drive home, the hunters took 
aim and fired. Although one of them was severely wounded, they somehow 
managed to get out with their lives. A few years later, in 1987, the 
civil rights legend Hosea Williams, who had endured Bloody Sunday in 
Selma, took marchers, who were joined by Phillips’s parents, into 
Forsyth County. It wasn’t a fair fight. Men, women, children and 
Klansmen, proudly waving the Confederate flag and a noose, overwhelmed 
law enforcement and hurled stones, debris and epithets as they surged at 
the nonviolent protesters. “Keep Forsyth white!” scraped through the air 
like fingernails on a chalkboard. The only thing that finally broke 
Forsyth County open was the pressure of Atlanta’s sprawl and the 
onslaught of economic development.

Still, white lore in Forsyth County insists that blacks were never 
driven out. Rather, the story goes, African-Americans left in 1912 
because of the boll weevil or, if there was violence, the Klan. But, as 
Phillips demonstrates, neither the insect nor the K.K.K. was around 
then. The lie surrounding black erasure absolves Forsyth County’s whites 
of racial cleansing and mass theft of black-owned property. The lie 
removes any justification for compensating the families’ descendants. 
And the lie undergirds the tale that whites alone built that county and 
made it among the wealthiest in the nation.

“Blood at the Root” thus meticulously and elegantly reveals the power of 
white supremacy in its many guises — be it active, complicit or 
complacent; rural or suburban — to distort and destroy, not only lives 
and accomplishments, but historical memory, the law and basic human 

Carol Anderson is the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of African-American 
studies at Emory University and author of “White Rage: The Unspoken 
Truth of Our Racial Divide.”

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