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article imageOp-Ed: A horrific chapter of a post-Civil War incident examined in full Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Sep 14, 2016 in Politics
Madison - This year Drew University professor Patrick Phillips published a very detailed and horrific account of one the most brutal racial attacks of the early 20th Century.
"Blood At The Root - A Racial Cleansing of America" speaks of the life of a rural community in Forsyth County, Georgia and how it changed from an integrated society to "white only." This reporter was able to reach out to Phillips and ask him some questions. His book contains very graphic and extremely disturbing accounts of how cruel and irrational racism is, especially as it was in the Old South.
For my first question I asked Professor Phillips, when you mention in your "Author's Note" section the book would not exist if you had not been challenged by a friend Natasha Trethewey to talk about this difficult subject, what was your most heart-felt fear?
"My greatest fear was doing more harm," he said. "I am a white man with a faint southern drawl, and when I talk about race I seldom forget that I wear the face not of the victims or bystanders to slavery and Jim Crow, but of its perpetrators. So I was afraid of seeming like yet another white man determined to do all of the talking and none of the listening. Despite all that wariness, my friend Natasha Trethewey helped convince me that, as someone raised in Forsyth County, I was uniquely positioned to tell this story, and that I had an obligation to get the truth out into the world. I was greatly helped in that effort by descendants of the African American families forced out, and my interviews with them helped to remedy an inevitable bias in the historical records towards a white point of view."
I had learned about such incidents as part of a history course I had at City College, where my instructor professor Cecil Hale asked the students to look more deeply at the problem of racism in America. There are lots of incidents in American History. Yet, I wanted to know why Phillips focused on this one event in such detail.
So, I asked him. What made the incidents at Forsyth stand out more than any other for you to devote an entire book to it? And, how is this unique or different to other similar incidents in post-Civil War American history? How is this incident similar or different from the riots that happened in the Greenwood area of Tulsa, OK in 1921?
"I am familiar with the 1921 aerial bombardment of Tulsa," he said, "when whites — gripped by a hysteria not unlike what happened in my hometown in 1912 — dropped dynamite from crop-dusters and wiped an entire black community off the map. I think of that event every time I hear someone say that the Civil War was the last armed conflict fought on American soil. And there were, as you point out, many other examples of racial expulsion and attempts at racial cleansing in the 20th century."
"But I think what sets Forsyth County apart," said Phillips, "and what led me to dwell on it, is that in Forsyth the mobs succeeded in closing their borders to non-whites. The county’s racial ban remained in effect for most of the 20th century, and for all of my childhood there in the 1970s and 80s. At a time when the rest of the nation was beginning to celebrate the Martin Luther King National Holiday, and when school kids in most places were learning about Rosa Parks, I lived in a place where almost everyone used the n-word to refer to black people, and where an African American truck driver who stopped in the county for gas or to change a flat tire was liable to be attacked by white mobs. Given that the racial cleansing of Forsyth lasted for nearly a century, I became interested in the ways that it was passed down generation to generation, in a white community where people regarded even a single black face as a threat to their entire way of life."
Based on your research, I said, do you think racism and bigotry in America is based upon a sort of "caste system?" Or, is it deeply ingrained in our ignorance and lack of understanding? Our civil rights laws and quest for equality and justice, are some of the most profound, yet racism/bigotry continues. Why is this? Can you say? Or is it rooted in something else? Is it something inherent in our systems borrowed from England with is aristocracy, etc? Or is it planted in our sense of economy, going back to the days of the old South and the Plantations?
Phillips response was, "James Baldwin said that 'Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.' And I agree with Baldwin that ignorance underlies a great deal of white America’s violent past. Ignorance of our African American citizens’ long struggle for equality, ignorance of the theft and plunder (to borrow Ta-Nehisi Coates’ term) that altered the lives of generations of black people in America, and ignorance of how our own homeplaces came to look the way they do in 2016."
"Part of what fueled my work on Blood At the Root," said Phillips, "was my conviction that the plain truth, the actual facts, are kind of anti-venom against racism and bigotry. The truth can dispel irrational fear, and it was fear, above all, that led decent people to do appalling things in Forsyth in 1912."
Published in 2016   Blood At The Root  A Racial Cleansing of America  by Patrick Phillips is a detai...
Published in 2016, "Blood At The Root, A Racial Cleansing of America" by Patrick Phillips is a detailed look at the horrific account of a brutal attack on the African-American community of Forsyth, Georgia in the early part of the 20th Century.
Cover by Gregg Kulick, courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company
Phillips is an award winning author and poet. He currently teaches at Drew University as a professor of English. A Guggenheim Fellow, Phillips is distinguished among his academic peers. His "Elegy for a Broken Machine," published in 2015 made him a finalist for the National Book Award.
From his office on the Drew University Campus in Madison, New Jersey, he commented further.
"When I delved into primary records, noted Phillips one of the surprises was that similar efforts were underway in neighboring Hall County, yet there, just across the Chattahoochee river, the white mobs failed in their attempts to create another “whites county.” On Forsyth’s side of the river white vigilantes dragged a prisoner from the county jail and lynched him on the town square, then spent weeks burning black churches, shooting into black homes, and driving away every last black resident. But on the other side of the river, such “night riding” was just a brief episode in the history of Hall County, which is now home to a large black community, including the descendants of many refugees from Forsyth. What, I wondered, made the difference?"
"I found that the key factor, above all else, was whether existing laws were enforced. In Forsyth no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for crimes against African Americans, and no night riders ever found their names in the pages of the papers. By contrast, in Hall County the local sheriff arrested some of the first and boldest mob members, the newspapers printed their names for all to see, and the suspects were convicted and sentenced to prison terms by the local courts. The result, as the Hall sheriff said later, was that authorities 'crushed the thing in its infancy,' noted Phillips.
"This is all just to say that while we can speculate about sources of racial injustice in the structure of our legal system, our economy, or our class divides, in truth the remedy for racial terrorism in Hall County was quite simple: enforce existing laws, provide equal protection as promised by the U S. Constitution, and prosecute the perpetrators of crimes regardless of their race, and regardless of the race of their victims."
"This lesson said Phillips, from more than a hundred years ago might seem to have little to do with the America of today. But many of those protesting police violence in 2016 are asking for nothing more and nothing less: the fair enforcement of our laws, even when the perpetrators carry a police badge."
"I don’t want to oversimplify a complex issue," he said. "And clearly, there are many law enforcement officials deeply concerned about racial justice. But our legal system’s repeated failure to even indict police officers in the wake of killings of black citizens suggests that we, too, have a group of citizens who are operating above the law. After spending nearly a decade researching the violence that drove black residents out of Forsyth in the fall of 1912, it is impossible for me to ignore the echoes of our violent past in this violent present."
Then I asked him. Do you think there is still an invisible 'segregation' in our current American society and culture? If so, why or why not?
"I think we remain a deeply divided society, he said. And, the recent unrest in places like Ferguson and Baltimore attest to that fact. As the son of progressive, activist white parents, I was raised on a narrative that stressed steady progress, and I long believed it central tenet: that America grows progressively more just, and each year we improve upon the past."
"But I now find it impossible to ignore one of my main findings: that sometimes the gears of equality and justice are thrown into reverse, and the gains of one era are lost in the next. Many black people in Forsyth, for example, were better off in the 1870s than they were in 1912. In the years just after Emancipation, they saw black men elected to office, the Freedmen’s Bureau brought federal protection to many small towns and rural counties, and former slaves became voters, property-owners, and even elected officials. But fifty years later the codes of Jim Crow had undone most of those gains, and paved the way for the lynchers and night riders of 1912."
"So," he noted further, "I think well-meaning whites have to give up the naive notion that when Rose Parks refused to give up her seat, and when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream, the deep wounds of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation were suddenly healed. If Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconcilation hearings in South Africa provide one model for progress, they also force us to confront how little America has done to confront our own painful history. Phillips then concluded his dialog with me by saying. Many white Americans seem to want the rewards of that process—reconcilation—without undergoing the painful cost: telling the truth about the crimes of the past."
Published by W.W. Norton & Company, "Blood At The Root, A Racial Cleansing of America" is available at book stores or can be purchased directly at the W.W. Norton & Company web site.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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