The Sickening History of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Hometown
It was the scene of “the most successful racial cleansing in U.S. history,” and the results of that history were still on display during her years in high school there.
When Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new congresswoman known for her racist and anti-Semitic rants, was a senior at South Forsyth County High School in 1992, a few dozen Black marchers made their way through the Georgia county’s rain-slicked streets singing old protest songs and carrying signs reading “We Shall Overcome” and “Black and White Together.” The route was flanked by hundreds of snarling white racists waving Confederate flags and shouting ″Go home, n---ers.”
The marchers had been marking five years since the 1987 “Walk for Brotherhood” drew international condemnation to all-white Forsyth County. Newspaper accounts describe protesters being pelted with so many “rocks, bottles and mud thrown from a crowd of Ku Klux Klan members and their supporters” that they were forced to abandon the two-and-half mile route. Forsyth County had maintained an unwritten whites-only policy dating to 1912, when white vigilantes lynched a black man and drove out nearly all of the African American residents. The county’s reputation as too dangerous for Black folks to even drive through—a courthouse lawn sign in the 1950s and ‘60s warned “N---er, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You” — was well earned. ''I have been in the civil rights movement for 30 years,” Hosea Williams, an acolyte of Martin Luther King Jr and organizer of the Forsyth County march, told the New York Times in 1987. “I'm telling you we've got a South Africa in the backyard of Atlanta, Georgia.''
After the 1987 protest, many of Forsyth County’s white residents lashed out at the media for supposedly shaming them, including one local who told the Atlanta Constitution that “we should have busted every camera down there and kicked every reporter’s ass.” Thirty-three years later, before the Jan. 4 vote when a handful of Republicans joined Democrats to strip Greene of House committee seats, she gave a speech blaming her most outrageous comments on “cancel culture,” “Facebook posts” and “big media,” which she described as wanting to “crucify me in the public square for words that I said.” But while the internet and the media made me do it may be a convenient, if stupefying, excuse, it seems more likely that Greene’s existing views, perhaps developed during her time in Forsyth County, found affirmation in Trumpist corners online.
Forsyth County today is nearly one-quarter Asian and Hispanic. But only 4 percent of its denizens are Black, in a state where one-third of the people are Black. The county was recently ranked one of the richest counties in Georgia, its grand houses and country clubs obscuring a history of Black bloodshed and standing on sites once occupied by Black churches and homes. That land was long ago stolen from Black folks during a campaign of terror that has been called “the most successful racial cleansing in U.S. history.”
Before 1912, Black folks made up roughly 10 percent of Forsyth County’s population of nearly 11,000. Elliot Jaspin, author of Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing, estimates that local Black residents “owned or rented 109 of the county's farms and paid over $30,000 in local taxes.” Many of the area’s Black occupants had generations of antecedents who had been enslaved in the area. Their lives would change almost overnight after Mae Crow, an 18-year-old white girl, was found unconscious in a wooded area roughly a mile from her Forsyth County home on Sept. 9, 1912.
Crow had been raped and beaten bloody, left for all but dead by her assailants. (News of her assault came just days after another local white woman, Ellen Grice, alleged that she had been “awakened by the presence of a Negro man in her bed.” White vigilantes horsewhipped Grant Smith, a prominent Black preacher, to within an inch of his life after he publicly named Grice a “sorry white woman” who had lied about having consensual interracial sex. Notably, the Black men arrested for the crime later saw the charges dropped.) Crow spent two weeks in a coma, then succumbed to death.
Sheriff William W. Reid—who would go on to co-found a Forsyth County KKK “klavern” in the 1920s—hastily arrested a 24-year-old Black man named Robert Edwards for the attack on Crow. Reid abandoned his post long enough for a white mob to descend upon the county jail, where they “shot Edwards as he cowered in his cell, then bashed in his skull with crowbars,” author Patrick Phillips recounts in Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America. “Edwards emerged alive, pleading for mercy, and died while being dragged from the back of a wagon, a noose cinched tight around his neck.” After lynching Edwards, the white mob “took turns with pistols and shotguns, and each time a load of buckshot spun the mutilated corpse, the crowd of hundreds roared.”
Two more Black boys—16-year-old Ernest Knox and 18-year-old Oscar Daniel—were also arrested for the crime, their confessions coerced through violence. Both were convicted and sentenced to hanging by an all-white jury in two separate trials held the same day. More than 5,000 people turned up to watch the lynchings of those two Black children, a grotesque portrait of Forsyth County’s white citizens’ unquenchable thirst for Black death and endless need for white power. Phillips writes that the throngs of white onlookers brought “their quilts, their children and their picnic baskets” with them to the local hillsides, from which they had a clear view of the execution.
The lynchings of Knox, Daniel and Edwards—killings that used their Black presence as evidence of guilt—took place against a backdrop of rampant white violence and terror against all of Forsyth County’s Black citizenry. In the two months between the September attack on Crow and the end of October, an estimated 1,098 Black folks were chased out of Forsyth County limits, their schools and churches firebombed, their lives threatened by night riders in hoods and cloaks. Nearly 1,900 acres of farmland were sold or, more often, simply seized by whites in land grabs. “White neighbors harvested abandoned crops without apology or compensation, stole what horses, cows, and hogs were left unattended, and plundered property for fence posts, house timbers, and barn boards with impunity,” Casey Cep writes in The New Yorker. “Even the dead were run out of town: headstones from Black cemeteries were taken and made into flagstones for white property owners, their inscriptions erased with every step.”
Phillips writes that white folks in Forsyth County were deeply invested in the notion that "”racial purity” was their inheritance and birthright.” Every conceivable manifestation of white racist terror, including lynchings, was commonplace across the South, but Forsyth County retained the dubious distinction of keeping its whiteness intact for decades upon decades.
During the Jim Crow era, the county did not require signs delineating “white” and “colored” spaces, because there were no Black residents to keep separate. In 1968, a group of 10 Black kids and their adult chaperones on an overnight trip from Atlanta were told by locals to leave the Lake Lanier campgrounds or be removed “feet first.” Throughout the 1970s, Black delivery truck drivers making stops at Forsyth County’s Tyson chicken plant had to be escorted by agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to ensure their safety.
In 1980, a Black Atlanta firefighter attending his Black girlfriend’s company picnic in a public park was shot by a local man who later reportedly told police, “Somebody has got to keep the n---ers out of Forsyth County.” That same year, the U.S. Census reported one Black person among Forsyth County’s population of 30,000. A Southern regional newspaper from the era wrote that “even county leaders think that must have been someone playing a joke with the questionnaire.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene’s most outlandish quotes—about fire-starting Jewish space lasers and 9/11 fakery—have gotten endless pickup, perhaps because they make her seem like a newfangled breed of far-out crackpot. But Greene’s ideas about Black folks aren’t innovative or creative, they’re just garden-variety, old-school racism. Greene is, of course, a birther who has claimed Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. In a video unearthed this January, she claims that “being in gangs and dealing drugs is what holds” Black and Hispanic men back, concluding “it’s not white people.” She once stated that there are “white people that are as lazy and sorry and probably worse than Black people,” an assessment she probably considers a generous concession. Greene has called Black voters “slaves to the Democratic Party”—racists always love a slavery allusion—and suggested African Americans should be “proud” of monuments to Confederates because they’re supposedly a reminder of how far Black folks have come.
It’s unlikely that Greene’s Forsyth County high school taught her the history of white terror that would have explained the overwhelming whiteness of her classes. Her textbooks also likely omitted Forsyth County’s history dating to 1829, when the discovery of gold drew thousands of white miners to what was then Cherokee territory. The rapaciousness of those white gold seekers led to the cruel forced removal of Creek and Cherokee people westward along the Trail of Tears. Perhaps her ignorance of this long history of ethnic cleansings—and its connection with America’s larger legacy of white supremacy—explains Greene’s videotaped insistence that “the most mistreated group of people in the United States today are white males.”
But it is nearly impossible that Greene is ignorant about Forsyth County’s more recent racist history. The 1987 civil rights march that made international news just five years before the commemorative protest, itself a big news event, took place during her senior year of high school. At a press conference one day ahead of the event, intended to mark the celebration of the new federal holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Hosea Williams called for all “those who support the non-violent philosophy of Dr. King” to march together through Forsyth County in a statement of interracial solidarity.
The group of protesters, numbering about 50, could not have anticipated the rage of the racists they encountered, who outnumbered them by scores. Newspaper accounts describe Williams and other marchers being pelted with so many “rocks, bottles and mud thrown from a crowd of Ku Klux Klan members and their supporters” that they were forced to abandon the two-and-half mile route and return to the chartered buses that delivered them from Atlanta. (Footage of the march, and there is plenty, shows the white racists being barely restrained by police.) Even Williams, the veteran civil rights organizer, was astonished. “I have never seen such hatred,” he told the Times after the march. “There were youngsters 10 and 12 years old screaming their lungs out, 'Kill the n---ers.' ''
A week later, Williams returned to Forsyth County in an attempt to finish what he started. By then, images from the first protest had been beamed around the country and internationally, and “Forsyth County” had become a stand-in for the kind of violent white racism this country fallaciously insists is “not who we are.” The number of anti-racist marchers at the second protest ballooned to somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000, and included Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Lewis, Coretta Scott King, Senator Gary Hart, and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.
One week later, Oprah Winfrey brought her new talk show to town, filling the audience with local Forsyth County residents, whom she earnestly asked at one point, “Do you not even watch The Cosby Show?'' (Asked after the taping if she felt comfortable in Forsyth County, the host stated, “Not very comfortable at all. I’m leaving.″) The self-identified head of the Committee to Keep Forsyth County White took his turn at her mic to boast that the angry white mob represented “the largest white people's protest against communism and race-mixing in the last 30 years."
Those words hew awful close to a post Greene shared more than 30 years later, which declared, “Zionist supremacists have schemed to promote immigration and miscegenation.”
The mantra of every white racist is that racism is just something that Black folks made up. Naturally, Greene is an adherent of this idea.
“Guess what? Slavery is over,” she stated in one video, rejecting the idea that discrimination is a real problem. “Black people have equal rights.”
“I understand [Blacks] weren’t run out,” one white Forsyth County resident said on national television in 1987, exhibiting the same kind of racist denial. “I understand that they left over a period of time.”
Before she picked up stakes and relocated to a more winnable Georgia district for her 2020 congressional run, Greene lived in Alpharetta, a tony suburb of Atlanta under 20 miles south of Forsyth County. Since winning her election, Greene has continued to label Black Lives Matter a “domestic terrorist” organization, and recently signed onto a bill that would ban BLM flags, which she labels "hate America" banners, from being flown atop diplomatic outposts. Greene has been far less critical of the treasonous white supremacist terrorists that she egged on to attack the Capitol in early January during an attempted coup she referred to as a “1776 moment.”
Back in Forsyth County, there have been vague gestures toward tallying the land reparations owed to Black families whose lands were stolen, though the issue, as in the rest of the country, remains unresolved and mostly unacknowledged. The 1912 lynching of Robert Edwards is finally being acknowledged in Forsyth County with a historical marker that went up in January. On its face, the marker describes the horrific treatment endured by Edwards and the despicable actions of the white crowd that took sick pleasure in carrying out his murder.
“Forsyth County would remain essentially all white until the 1990s,” the plaque states. “No one was held accountable for Edward’s lynching or the racial cleansing that followed. Like all victims of racial terror lynchings Rob Edwards died without due process of law.”
Greene should pay a visit sometime.