Patrick Phillips has written a century-long history of racial violence and suppression in a Georgia county that, at every level, seems to mirror contemporary politics and social unrest in America. Forsyth County was like many places around the South after the Civil War. Its diversity comprised both economic and racial hierarchies in a rural setting where self-governance and secrecy bred by the community’s isolation allowed white residents to force black landowners and laborers out of the county or face the promise of being murdered. In the decades that followed, the “whites only” attitude continued a culture of intimidation.
Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America demonstrates an environment that allowed hate and fear to become the norm. It covers many stories of personal experience as well as public acts of terror and hatred. Instead of focusing on the details of the book, this article focuses on broader elements readers can relate to within the contemporary political climate in the US.
Like many civil rights violations of the era, the unrest started with the accusation that black men defiled and murdered a white woman. This commonly held rhetorical frame, promoted widely during the Jim Crow South, cultivated easy scapegoating because the community’s belief in the rhetoric would allow motive to be placed on any man with potential means. Phillips’ history describes a moral panic that leads Forsyth to a complete disavowal of the law by the community. From the opening example of a lynching that began by a woman claiming to have awoken with a black man in her bed through the January 1987 civil rights marches, Phillips shows a white culture that fears both the individual black man and the perceived threat of a violent population of black men rising to destroy it.
Much like Alabama’s contemporary Roy Moore, Forsyth had Sheriff William Reid, who defied the courts through public spectacles he used for self-promotion. Operating with a populist agenda, Reid not only allowed a mob easy access to his deputy and the black man in custody, he later defied a judge and allowed a public hanging before a crowd of thousands. Phillips describes a sheriff so focused on his own political career that he was willing to allow murder and defy the outsiders imposing the law that went against his voters’ desire for a pound of flesh. The fact that he was a charter member of the local Ku Klux Klan will not surprise any reader.
Reid was the leader in the primary spark that led to the expulsion of blacks from Forsyth in 1912. When a local white woman, Mae Crow, was found unconscious with a head injury, the investigation quickly turned from a hunt for a perpetrator to a desire for vengeance when a young black teen claimed ownership of a mirror found near the victim. What follows is a series of escalations of the illegal action. Some acts were done in the blasphemed name of justice, but most were terrorist acts carried out by the common people who tormented and stole property and land from the people who were being threatened out of their livelihood. While Phillips outlines a complex set of occurrences, the key to the violence from the beginning was a desire to punish blacks and explicitly act against the state government. In other words, they were an early group of populists who had no tangible objective beyond forcibly isolating themselves from the rest of the world.
One questionable element in Phillips’ narrative is how the economic classes were divided in the original expulsion. For much of the book, Phillips places responsibility on poor whites for being the instigators of the night raids that terrorized the black population into leaving. Readers only get acquainted with the very wealthy of Forsyth, who wanted to protect their cheap labor, and the educated man who tried to bring the railroad to the county in order to build the local economy. The terrorists seem to be the poor who came to see anyone with dark skin as a problem that must be removed. While very likely, the book does not demonstrate the involvement or resistance of those who fell somewhere between.
Forsyth County seemed to be a dormant place for nearly 70 years. It stayed all white, but left to their own devices, the population didn’t promote any public displays of defiance. That changed in 1980. An Atlanta company held a picnic, and a black employee and her boyfriend attended. When a local man saw a black couple enjoying Lake Lanier, he enlisted a buddy and shot the man in the head as he was driving out of town. Both men were found guilty of aggravated assault. Seven years later, a local business owner enlisted civil rights activist Hosea Williams to lead a Brotherhood march in Forsyth.
Much like the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, many of the people who turned out to counter protest the marchers were armed. As they yelled racist chants, the marchers were pelted with debris. When the danger became too great for the police to protect the group, they were bused away from the mob. They came back a week later with 20,000 Brotherhood marchers, but change was slow to come.
Scholars and academics will find a good notes section with citations. While much of the history is laid out in facts and document research, there’s a narrative tendency to imply how someone thought or felt. This might be enough of a problem for some professors to avoid assigning the book for a class. Phillips uses hedging language in these sections, so it shouldn’t be a deal breaker for someone willing to give a basic warning to their students about this potential scholarly issue.
Blood at the Root is timely. In 2017, Georgia state Representative Jason Spencer posted a threatening message on Facebook to LaDawn Jones, a black lawyer calling for Confederate monuments to be removed from state property. It could have come straight from Forsyth in 1912. He wrote: “The truth. Not a warning. Those folks won’t put up with it like they do in Atlanta. It best you move on.” History does not exist as a separate past form today’s reality, and Phillips demonstrates how a culture based on fear can persist through generations. While an exceptional history of a specific rural Georgia community, Blood at the Root demonstrates the machinations of history’s ghosts and the fear that feeds hate — and grows in isolation.