I had been told that there was an old black elite in Atlanta, a kind of black American aristocracy; that there were many established black businessmen, and a number of black millionaires; and that blacks ran the city. I booked an airplane flight; in Atlanta stood in a line at the airport to hire a car; and then drove through the mighty road-works of the city-center to the hotel. And there I was, slightly astonished that the journey, so long in the planning, should begin in such a matter-of-fact way.
And, as if answering my anxiety, all the little Atlanta arrangements I had made in New York came to nothing, one after another, and very quickly. A newspaperman had gone to another town to cover a story; a black businessman said on the telephone that he was out of touch, had lived these last twenty years out of Atlanta; and the black man whose name had been given me by a filmmaker said that almost everything I had heard about Atlanta was wrong.
The talk about a black aristocracy was exaggerated, this man said. By the standards of American wealth, blacks in Atlanta were not wealthy; in a list of the richest Atlantans, a black man might come in at number 201. Political power? “Political power without the other sort of power is meaningless.”
He sipped his wine, my informant, and seemed not at all displeased to have floored me.
I actually believed what he said. I had felt that the grand new buildings of Atlanta one had seen in so many photographs had as little to do with blacks as the buildings of Nairobi, say, had to do with the financial or building skills of the Africans of Kenya. I had felt that the talk of black power and black aristocracy was a little too pat and sudden.
I wanted to see for myself, though; and I was hoping to be put in touch with people. But there was no hint from this black man of that kind of help. I might see Andrew Young, the mayor, he said; but Andrew Young probably had about 200 interviews lined up. (So I might be number 201—a popular number.) I felt about this black man, in fact, that, sipping his wine, looking at me over the top of his glass, enjoying my discomfiture, awaiting my questions and swatting them down, I felt he was being seized more and more by a spirit of contradiction and unhelpfulness and was about to grow quite wild: that soon I would be hearing not only that there were no moneyed blacks in Atlanta, but that there had never been anything in Georgia, no plantations, no cotton, corn, or taters, that there was only himself in the wide vessel of the black Atlanta universe.
From my room at the Ritz-Carlton, the view at night of the windows of the big Georgia Pacific building was like a big pop-art print. The windows, of equal size, were all lighted. Each level was like a filmstrip, or a strip of contact prints of views almost the same. From my room the view changed level by level. At the lower levels I looked down at the tops of desks and the floor of offices. At eye level, I saw the desks silhouetted against the office wall. Level by level, then, the desks vanished. At the higher levels I saw only the lighted ceilings; and at the very top there was only light, a glow in the window. The offices were all empty; the men who sat in them during the day were in the suburbs somewhere. The paintings that hung on the walls of the offices of senior people were like arbitrary symbols of rank, mere rectangles at this distance, quite indistinct, even without color—the way great cities, from very high up, show as smudges below the earth’s swirls.
A formal society, private lives, a formal view: an introduction was needed to every one of those rooms, and the visitor didn’t know on what door to knock. Where did the news happen? Was it only a production, on the television?
But then I read in the newspaper about the affair of Forsyth County. Forsyth County was forty miles or so to the north of Atlanta. In that county in 1912 a young white girl was raped and beaten so badly that she died a few days later. A number of blacks were implicated. One was lynched; two others were tried and hanged. All the blacks of Forsyth were chased out of the county; and since then (so it was said) no blacks had been allowed to live in the county.
This last fact, about blacks not being allowed to live in Forsyth, became a public issue earlier in the year, when someone organized a “Walk for Brotherhood” in Forsyth in the middle of January, to mark the anniversaries of both the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the birth of Martin Luther King. This march was attacked by some local people and Ku Klux Klan groups; it made the news. A second brotherhood march a week later—after all the publicity—was a much bigger affair. Twenty thousand people went to Forsyth to march, and there were about 3,000 National Guardsmen and state and local police officers to keep the peace. There were protests nonetheless; fifty-six people, none of them marchers, were arrested.
The man who had stage-managed the marches, or had made the issue as big as it had become, was a black Atlanta city councilor, Hosea Williams, called simply Hosea by everyone who spoke of him. He was sixty-one, and had been an associate of Martin Luther King’s in the civil rights movement. Hosea had since brought a lawsuit against some Klan groups for violating the civil rights of the people on the first brotherhood march; and he had also come up with the idea that some claim might be made against Forsyth County on behalf of the blacks who had lost land when they had been driven out in 1912.
Tom Teepen, of the Atlanta Constitution, with whom I had breakfast one day, spoke almost with affection of Hosea Williams. “A primary force, a rabble-rouser in the tradition of the Paris barricades, and canny.”
But I couldn’t see Hosea that week.
Tom said, “He’s in jail.”
“It’s all right. He’s often in jail for some thing or the other. He’ll be out in a few days.”
When I looked at some of Hosea Williams’s own publicity material, and especially a Who Is Hosea L. Williams? pamphlet, I saw that his jail record mattered to him. There was a photograph of him in a cell. “Rev. Hosea holds the civil rights arrest record for jailings…. He has gone to jail about as many times since Dr. King’s death as during his life (a total of 105 times).”
He was born in 1926; so that for very many years his racial protests and battles would have been desperate affairs. But Hosea had won his war; and (though he was still a brave man: the first march at Forsyth had required courage) I felt that Hosea might now have become licensed, a star, a man on the news, someone existing in a special kind of electronic reality or unreality. And his political life required him to beat his own drum. In The Dimensions of the Man—Dr. Hosea L. Williams—A Chronology, with a photograph of Hosea in an academic gown, apparently receiving an honorary degree from another black man, there was this: “Today he’s not content to watch things happen. HE MAKES THINGS HAPPEN.”
The northern suburbs of Atlanta almost touched Forsyth County. The freeways, which made Georgia look like Connecticut, enabled people to work in downtown Atlanta, where there were blacks in the streets, and then to drive twenty or thirty easy miles (in air-conditioned cars) to their houses in the suburbs, where there were few blacks—this part of Georgia had not been plantation country. There were branches of famous stores in the luxurious suburban shopping malls. The white suburbs could get by quite well without the black-run city center.
There was an item in the paper one day that some of these suburbs didn’t want to be plugged into the Atlanta city transit system, because they didn’t want to be infiltrated by blacks. No Forsyth-like shouting, no Confederate flags, no white hoods and gowns—that wasn’t the way of these new suburbs. A transit official said, “It’s such a subliminal issue that it’s extremely difficult to deal with.”
A lawyer I met said that, to understand, it was necessary to remember that 120 years or so ago there had been slavery. For poor white people race was their identity. Someone well-off could walk away from that issue, could find another cause for self-esteem; but it wasn’t that easy for the man with little money or education; without race he would lose his idea of who he was.
We were having lunch, the lawyer and I, in a big club in downtown Atlanta. The club had been started in the days when there had been a general movement out of Atlanta, and business people had felt the need for a place where they might meet in the middle of the day. It was part of the bubble in which the white professional people of Atlanta lived: the house, the air-conditioned car, the office (perhaps like an office in the Georgia Pacific building), the luncheon club.
I asked the lawyer whether he personally felt threatened. He said the feeling was with him sometimes when he was out in the streets. He meant the fear of violence. But he also meant the larger fear of a world grown unstable: the more protective the bubble in which one lives, the more uncertain one’s knowledge becomes of what lies out there.
And this was why the lawyer thought it would be good if the black middle class could grow, if the blacks could become more active commercially. But—and like everyone talking about blacks now, he searched for words at once neutral and true—blacks (whatever their yearnings) didn’t have the business sense, the business vocation. In a society that was economically driven, blacks didn’t have the economic drive. But now there were immigrants of a new sort in the United States—Latin Americans, Asians. The lawyer thought that when the blacks had a better understanding of what the presence of those immigrants meant to them, black racial sentiments might change.
It was there, then, as Tom Teepen had told me, at the back of everything, however unspoken: the thought of race, the little neurosis, the legacy of slavery.
The Atlanta Constitution’s file on the affairs of Forsyth County didn’t come as a set of date-stamped newspaper clippings, but as computer printouts. The story of the events of 1912, as researched by one of the newspaper’s writers, was terrible in every way.
The white woman who had been dragged into woods, raped and beaten—and died two to three days later—was the nineteen-year-old daughter of a wellknown farmer. A hand mirror near the scene led police to a deformed eighteen-year-old black man. He confessed, and said that other blacks were also involved. Altogether, eleven blacks were arrested as suspsects. Two days after the woman’s death, a crowd broke into the Forsyth County jail, shot and killed one of the suspects, beat the body with crowbars, and hung it on a telegraph pole. Three weeks later the deformed man and another black man were tried for the rape and murder and found gulty. The sister of the second man testified against him. Both men were publicly hanged a month after the trial, before a crowd of 10,000. The few hundred blacks who lived in Forsyth were chased away.
The destroyed young woman, the deformed black, the lynching at the jail and the hanging of the mangled body, the black woman giving evidence against her brother, the public hangings (10,000 people turning up for that, in a county that fifty years later, before the Atlanta boom, had a population of under 20,000)—the story is unbearable in every detail. Yet what seemed to have survived in Forsyth above everything else was the knowledge, a cause for pride to some, that no black lived there.
The man who had sought to challenge this pride was a white Californian, a karate teacher who had been living in Forsyth for five years. He called for a March of Brotherhood to mark the anniversaries of the death of Gandhi and the birth of Martin Luther King. He changed his mind after getting abusive telephone calls and threats. But the idea of the march had been taken up by another karate teacher, also white, from the next county. This was the march—about fifty people were expected to take part—that Hosea Williams had intervened in. This was the march that had been attacked by Klan groups and others, and had seeded, a week later, the big march of the 20,000, with the protection of 3,000 National Guardsmen and state and local police officers. So that within a week what had been a brave and lonely cause had been turned by Hosea Williams and a few others into a safe cause; and it had become safer and safer.
A radio show had been taken to Forsyth. A very famous afternoon television chat show with a witty black hostess had gone to Forsyth and a program had been recorded in a local restaurant. Hosea, applying equal passion to the safe cause as he had to the brave one, had picketed this show, because only Forsyth residents were allowed to have a say, and they of course were all white.
Hosea had managed to be arrested, to add to that record of his—105 jailings at the time his Who Is Hosea L. Williams? pamphlet had gone to press. According to the Atlanta Journal, Hosea had shouted as he was being put into the police van: “This is Forsyth County! This is what you see!” And Hosea’s married daughter, who was with him, had shouted, “My daddy! I want to go with him!” And she too had been put in the van.
Tom Teepen hadn’t been able to arrange a meeting with Hosea when he had first told me about him, because Hosea at that time was in jail for a few days. And Tom couldn’t find Hosea when he came out of jail. But then late one morning Tom telephoned me with the news that if I hurried to a certain building I might see Hosea. He was being arraigned on another charge at a federal court at 11:30. It was almost that already; but Tom said that these affairs usually ran a little late.
I took a taxi. It was driven by an African, a man from Ghana. It was a short run for him; in almost no time he had set me down again. An open paved space, the big building set back; a security doorway; an elevator to the sixteenth floor. Hardwood doors, low ceilings, a brown-carpeted corridor, neat name-boards; formal, without drama, safe, even cosy. But the hearing was over. And in a room that was like a small lecture room or classroom there was a little group in one corner, like the subdued group that sometimes stays behind after a school examination to talk over the questions.
In the little group I recognized Dick Gregory, gray-bearded and white-suited, a man grown old in the wars, and now really looking quite saintlike. And there was a squatter man with a bigger beard who could be none other than Hosea himself. Even in this moment of stillness in the courtroom his eyes suggested bustle, a man with many things to do, and little time to spare. He had a toothbrush in his top pocket—a man ready to go to jail.
He also had a press officer with him, a slender brown woman. She had a handout “for immediate release.” And it seemed from what she said that my chances of meeting Hosea and having a heart-to-heart talk with him were not good. Hosea and Dick Gregory were going to fly to Washington that afternoon to picket the CIA. After that they were going straight off to Europe, to London and the Vatican, to do some work about apartheid. The handout from the press officer was about drugs: Hosea was saying that certain recent incidents were being used “to defame black leaders,” and that the Mafia and the CIA were the ones most involved in the drug trade, which was “destroying our children and the future of our nation.” That, in fact, was why Hosea and Dick Gregory were going to picket the CIA.
And suddenly, before I could fully take in Hosea’s eyes and beard and toothbrush, the little group had gone.
City politics in Atlanta were mainly black politics, and Michael Lomax was one of the up-and-coming black politicians. He was only thirty-eight; but it was said that he would be running for mayor in 1989. He was not from Atlanta, but from Los Angeles, and he had style. He was tall and slender and well-dressed and educated and softly spoken. He was of a pale complexion. He did not have a black man-of-the-people reputation, and he seemed slightly—from what I had read—to act up to that reputation. But service to the black cause was in his family tradition; his knowledge of black writing was considerable; his hero was the early black radical William Du Bois, the critic of Booker Washington. And he was a dedicated politician.
Everything about him was considered. He had the politician’s heightened sense of the self, as I was aware when, after our talk, we walked back together for a while in the city center, and on the Macy’s side of Peachtree Street: public response mattered to him.
We met in the library, for which as chairman of the Fulton County Commission he was responsible. The people he greeted so affably in front of the library were architects. He said grandly, but with a smile, “I like building things.” And in the council room upstairs there was tea: a silver service and white Wedgwood cups and a selection of pastries of small size, laid out for us by someone from the commission, a white man, young, smiling, happy to serve his elegant chairman.
Blacks had to look inward, Michael Lomax said. The need now was not for marches so much as for an internal revolution.
“The civil rights movement distorted our conception of human relations. It made it completely adversarial. In an adversarial relationship there is a good person and a bad person, a victim and a victimizer. We were the good, we were the victim.” None of the current black leaders talked of black responsibility, he said.
And yet for him, with all that he had become, and all his future, there was still the burden of being black. He spoke of the burden in this way (and he might have spoken the words often before): “There’s not a day, not a moment in my life, when I don’t have to think about the color of my skin. And being black is not just about what I see. It’s about what I feel about myself. It’s as much internal as external.
“I think sometimes that an exorcism has got to happen for all of us, where you pull out all of those evil demons of race. They’re still inside us, fighting with one another.
“Ten years ago I went to Brazil. And I went to a place in northern Brazil called Salvador which has a very mixed population and where having skin the color of mine was nothing unusual. And I felt a tremendous sense of liberation and freedom. But I also felt a sense of loss because people weren’t dealing with me negatively because of my skin. That was the freedom, but I had so many expectations inside me as a black person that I couldn’t accept the ignoring of that person—it was another kind of invisibility.
“You have to confront your own demons. For me it’s confronting the fact that I am a black person and that every time a white person sees me I may be no different for him than seeing a drunk on the street. And that colors the way I think about myself. I have been angry about being black, saddened by it. And I cannot deal with the white person or the black person until I look in the mirror and accept the man I see there.”
It was generally agreed that the correct behavior of the sheriff of Forsyth County had done much to take the poison out of the situation at the very beginning. When I spoke to him on the telephone I found him easy and businesslike; many people had been to see him. He told me how to get to his office. It was in the Forsyth County jail, he said. And that made me think of any number of western films.
It was about an hour away from Atlanta. The holiday setting, of woods and well-kept roads and an enormous artificial lake created by the Army Corps of Engineers, was hard to associate with the blood tensions of 1912: the lynching of a man in the jail, the public hanging of two others, the roving crowds giving notice to the blacks. And the county town in the midst of these spring woods was very American: the fast-food places, the banks looking like churches, billboards: ordinary.
A woman stepped out of her grocery shop to direct me to the sheriff’s office. Across the main town road, past the cemetery, and then on to a low brick structure. And there, in the busy little red-brick town, it was: a new building, not the one of 1912, but still as flat and basic looking as a sheriff’s office in a western film; assertively labeled (as in a film) FORSYTH COUNTY JAIL, but with a large asphalted space in front full of parked cars—the jail and the sheriff’s office, like the fast-food places, serving a motorized community. The United States flag and the Georgia flag hung side by side from flagpoles.
Two sets of glass doors led into the reception area, where two elderly white people were sitting on low chairs. A secretary sat at a desk with papers. And at her back, on the concrete-block wall, was a seal-of-Georgia plaque: roughly rendered motifs of civility from 1776: an arch on two classical columns, a scroll hanging loose in the space between the columns, with the Georgia motto: WISDOM, JUSTICE, MODERATION.
The sheriff was in a meeting, the secretary said. A man in blue jeans came in to talk about a parking ticket or something of that nature—giving an idea of the day-to-day business of a sheriff’s office. The sheriff himself came out after a while, jacketless, a paisley-patterned tie on his white shirt. He said, “Be with y’all in just a moment.”
And soon I was called into his office, where on an old-fashioned hatrack, at the very top, was a black cowboy hat, with the sheriff badge. The sheriff said he had worn the hat only once, on the day of the big Forsyth march. Also on the rack was the very clean pale-blue jacket of the sheriff.
He was in his forties. He said he had been twenty years in the county. He had “taught school” for some time; he had been sheriff for eleven years.
Years ago, he said, Forsyth County had been isolated, and the folks were very clannish. The same thing could be said of “the entire north Georgia area.” “The liquor industry came along and a few folks made moonshine here because it was very isolated. And that was the only means of income.” Later there came the Lockheed and General Motors plants; and there also came the poultry industry. “The poultry industry brought our community out of its low socioeconomic situation. You began to see better roads, a great influx.” At the same time there was the Atlanta boom. “What we are attracting now is a lot of people.” Land had tripled in price. In 1970 there were sixteen thousand people; in 1986 there must have been forty thousand people. “We are becoming an affluent suburban county of Atlanta. So we are in a boom growth situation.”
So, though “folks threw rocks” at the first brotherhood march, the cause of the rock throwers couldn’t really succeed in the new Forsyth. The second march, of the twenty thousand, wasn’t a racial occasion, the sheriff said. The marchers were white as well as black, and they were making clear that they didn’t want to see violence. “The American public will not tolerate violence.”
About race as race, the sheriff said, there was nothing that could be done. “The real problem is social and economic…. There’s nothing you can do, because people migrate where they feel comfortable. They migrate to their social-economic status.” A black doctor who wanted to settle in Forsyth County might fit in. But it would be different for a lower-class black. People needed to feel comfortable with people. “If you have two sorry black folks and two sorry white folks they’re gonna fight because they can’t get along.”
About the big march itself, it had always been a media event, the sheriff said. A lot of people came to that march because it was the first march in twenty years. People who had missed out on the marches of the civil rights movement in the old days wished to take part in one now. “It gave a lot of people an opportunity to take part in something they thought was going to be historical.” So there were these two “volatile” groups—the marchers, and the people who were opposed to them. What sort of people were opposed? “A lot of the people I deal with on Saturdays. Law enforcement deals with 10 percent of the population 90 percent of the time.” This was how the sheriff talked: he was as much sociologist (and former teacher) as law enforcement official. He made the affairs of Forsyth County seem much more manageable.
And though he didn’t say so, there came out from his talk the idea of two sets of people looking for attention. The civil rights groups, their major battles and indeed their war won long ago, now squabbling, and looking for causes; and the white supremacists looking in almost the same way for publicity and patronage. The great Forsyth march, as the sheriff described it, was like a ritual conflict, played out before the cameras, and according to certain rules. Out of this formalizing, the issue had died. Over-exposure was a very American aspect of this formalizing, I also felt. Everyone had been interviewed and interviewed; everyone, including the sheriff, had become a personality; everyone had now exhausted attention.
So, as the sheriff said: “The issue is dead.”
And the sheriff made a further point. The marchers had won, but in the three months since then no black had moved into Forsyth. The county remained all white, he said, proving the first point: that the issue now wasn’t racial, but social and economic.
He was impressive, Sheriff Walraven. He was an elected official, and he saw himself representing the will of the American people—who had turned their face against violence. And though he wasn’t willing to play up this side of things, he was also doing his Christian duty, Christianity being a religion that taught love and peace. (Christianity, at one time, in this setting, stood for other things; the Christianity of the Ku Klux Klan still had to be taken into account. But the sheriff saw the events of 1912 as historical, seventy-five years old. He represented the current will of the American people. There was to be no violence; it was his duty to see that there was none.)
Did he see a situation where that might change?
He thought for a while and said, “If the system falls down.” But then almost immediately he added: “The system can’t fall down. Individuals might fall down.”
To meet this educated man with an almost philosophical idea of his duties was to see how far away from the center the Ku Klux Klan groups of Forsyth were. The point had in fact been made by the black mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young.
“I don’t view the Klan action as just racist,” the Journal reported him as saying three days after the big march. “These are the desperate acts of people who find that history is leaving them behind. Basically what we need are some job training programs that help people get into the mainstream. What we are dealing with in Georgia now is a problem of the underclass—black and white. The black underclass gets caught up in drugs and crime. The white underclass gets caught up in drugs, crime and Klan. You can march until your feet drop, but you ain’t going to change it that way.”
The point wasn’t taken up. It wasn’t made again; it was lost in the good, safe cause.
A kind of victory had been won. But little had changed. The message of Forsyth County was also the message of black Atlanta. It was of this special frustration that Marvin Arrington, president of the Atlanta City Council, spoke or appeared to speak.
Our meeting was not a good one. I had telephoned his law office just before going over and he had said I was to come right away. But when I got there he wasn’t in. He was said by his secretary—who gave me a Coca-Cola—to have stepped out. And he didn’t return for half an hour. The offices of his firm were impressive. They were in a nicely refurbished old townhouse in downtown Atlanta; an article in the Constitution had said that the building had cost a million dollars.
When he came back he took me into his own office. It was sunny, overlooking the street, and warmer than the inner rooms. It had many diplomas and family photographs on the wall; and African statuary, tourist curios, on the window sills.
The failure of the occasion was partly my own fault. Because when Arrington took off his jacket and urged me to begin, just like that, I could think of little to say. I had been hoping for a little chat beforehand; and hoping that during this chat I might see ideas or themes I might want to follow up. But this blunt request to get started filled my head only with what was most obvious. It didn’t help that he was restless. He often got up and walked about; often spoke to his secretary through an open door; looked through papers on his desk. He said he did forty things at once.
And all that came out of this unsatisfactory meeting was what might have been gathered from the Constitution and Journal file and from his own publicity: a man of the inner city, growing up when all facilities were segregated, father a truck driver, much of the ambition of the children being derived from their mother. “I broke out.” An athletic scholarship helped him break out; he thought of all those who couldn’t get such scholarships. And little had changed. Little economic power had come to black people with their political power; even the black business street, Auburn Street, was now neglected. Black people needed opportunity; opportunity could be provided only by the system. So that he seemed still to be laying responsibility on others. No thought here of the internal revolution Michael Lomax had spoken about. Still the rage.
When I said that there had been movement for black people, he said, “Wait for another 350 years?”
He smoked a big cigar; stubbed it out and created a cloud of aromatic smoke near where I was sitting. He apologized for that; there were, with his brusqueness, always these little moments of concern for me as a visitor. A colleague came in and was more interested in me than Arrington had been. His son came in and Arrington momentarily softened at the sight of the big, confident boy, who told me he had been to England and had spent two and a half weeks there. After a time the boy went out. Arrington later referred to him. The world would be different for people like his son, he said. But that was the one touch of softness and optimism in his general spikiness.
A spikiness about race. About the Atlanta newspaper that had tried to destroy him, he said—and he took me to an attached room to show me the attack on him in the Atlanta Constitution: he had had it framed, together with a printed protest, signed by Martin Luther King’s father among others, about the attitude of the press to black elected officials. And there was a spikiness, above all, about Michael Lomax, who was his opposite in so many ways: Arrington big, heavy, strong, brown-black, self-made; Lomax slender, light-complexioned, of an educated family, and conscious of his charm.
Arrington had defeated Lomax for the Atlanta City Council presidency some six years before. And it was said that if Lomax ran for mayor in 1989, Arrington intended to run against him. He wanted me to read a profile of Lomax that had been written for an Atlanta paper. He spoke to someone in his office on the telephone and asked for a copy of “the Lomax profile” in an executive way. Later again he spoke on the telephone to someone in his office to ask for a copy of his own publicity pamphlet, The Arrington Commitment. Eight pages, sixteen photographs; professionally produced.
He made other telephone calls. And once, while I was reading something on the wall—the past laid out in diplomas and photographs and newspaper columns—I heard him talking firmly to someone on the telephone, perhaps about the thing that had called him out of the office just after he had told me to come over. It was as though that day he had found many things to abrade him.
He spoke again about his son. That softness led him to thoughts of London, where his son had been. But: there were riots, he said. And when he was there: “I didn’t feel at ease in London.” He added: “I went to the Shakespearean theater. Didn’t understand it, but I went for the culture.” I would have liked to know more. But this was one of the many threads that were broken by his getting up and walking, his looking for papers, his smoking, his little bursts of courtesy. This trip to England—it would have been interesting to see the country through Arrington’s eyes—was something we never got back to.
I felt soon that there was nothing new for me to ask; that all the points I might raise would founder on the subject of black disadvantage.
It was something I had worried about: that these figures of Atlanta, because they had been so often interviewed, and though they might appear new to the out-of-towner, might in fact have been reduced to a certain number of postures and attitudes, might have become their interviews. Like certain writers—Borges, to give a famous example, who had given so many interviews to journalists and others who, in the manner of interviewers, had wanted absolutely the set interview, the one in the file, had wanted to leave out nothing that had occurred in every other interview, so that Borges had finally become nothing more than his interview, a few stories, a few opinions, a potted autobiography, a pocket personality. Which was the way, I had been told, the media created two or three slogans for a politician and reduced him to those easily spoken words. I had worried about this, about not being able to get through the publicity; and with Arrington it had come to pass. I had not been able to go beyond the file.
On the wall was a framed saying of Abraham Lincoln’s: a lawyer’s time and advice are part of his stock in trade.
I got up to leave. He was courteous; and as a farewell offering he gave me a little tour of his firm’s offices. The people I met were friendly and attractive; there was a white office manager. The quality and mood of people in an office or in any organization tell you immediately about the employer or management. So there would have been a much better side to Arrington than the side he had shown me that afternoon.
And going down into the street, where the people were black, and Atlanta as a result appeared different from the areas I had so far seen, with a Caribbean, Latin American aspect to the crowd—and even to the city, since downtown Atlanta is not a city of solid built-up blocks, but rather a city of tall buildings and empty spaces, car parks, so that it quickly acquires a semiderelict look—going down into the street, I was assailed by a very old feeling of constriction and gloom.
I was taken back to some of the feelings of my childhood in Trinidad. There, though most of my teachers were Negroes (brown rather than black) and though for such people (as well as for policemen, Negroes again) I as a child had the utmost awe and respect, and though in my eyes people like teachers didn’t really have racial attributes but were their professions alone, yet the minute I found myself in an out-of-school relationship with them I became aware (a child from an Indian family, full of rituals that couldn’t be transferred outside the family house, rituals and attitudes that had day after day to be shed and reassumed, as one went to school and returned home), I became aware of the physical quality of Negroes, and of the difference and even, to me, the unreality of their domestic life.
Something like that had happened in Arrington’s office. His spikiness, his stress on race and the inner city (“Inner city is my ball game”), and the strength he drew from the poor among blacks had put up that old barrier around him.
The spikiness was understandable; rage was understandable. But I also felt that rage and spikiness could make demands on other people that could never be met. He had said, “I’d like to be free. I cannot fly like the bird.” Many people could say something like that; not everyone could make it a political statement. And I felt, especially in the Caribbean-seeming streets outside, as I walked back to the hotel, that there were two world views here almost, two ways of seeing and feeling that could not be reconciled. And this was depressing.
I had with a part of my mind been trying to find in the black politicians of Atlanta some of the lineaments of the black politicians of the Caribbean. In Arrington, for the first time, I thought I had found someone who might have been created by Caribbean circumstances. In the Caribbean such a person, proclaiming his origins in the people (like Bradshaw of St. Kitts or Gairy of Grenada) and claiming because of his early distress to understand the distress of his people, might have gone on to complete colonial power, might have overthrown an old system and set up in its place something he had fashioned himself.
But here in Atlanta—though as president of the City Council Arrington had power of a sort, the power to say no—the power was circumscribed. And perhaps the very dignity that the politics of the city offered a black man made him more aware of the great encircling wealth and true power of white Atlanta. So that the politics of Atlanta might have seemed like a game, a drawing off of rage from black people. Just as civil rights legislation gave rights without money or acceptance, so perhaps city politics gave position without strength, and stimulated another, unassuageable kind of rage.
Hosea Williams, after picketing the CIA in Washington about drugs, was to have gone to Europe to do some work about apartheid. Either he didn’t go; or the trip was very short. Because a few days later Tom Teepen arranged a meeting for me with Hosea in Atlanta. The meeting was to be in east Atlanta, in one of the “neighborhoods,” Tom said; and he drove me there to introduce me.
The building we stopped at looked like a small factory or warehouse, and it stood next to a broken, three-walled shed. There was a central corridor, with people sitting at a desk. Stickers printed HOSEA were on walls and doors, and gave the place the feel of an election campaign headquarters. We were shown into an inner office past a room with a secretary at a full desk.
The walls of the inner office were hung with many big black-and-white photographs of the civil rights marches: Hosea, much younger, in some of the photographs, with his amazingly young leader, Martin Luther King. There were photographs of arrests by police. But the most moving photographs were those that stressed simpler things: the overalls of the marchers, and the mule carts, the twin symbols of the movement: affecting, and inevitable and right, like the Gandhi cap and homespun of India. Tom Teepen, looking at the photographs with me, said that when Martin Luther King was killed it was decided to carry his coffin on a mule cart; but the only one that could be found—and was commandeered—was in a museum or fairground.
Also on the wall were many shields and plaques given to Hosea for various things. And there was a poster with a black-power twist on the Aunt Jemima theme. The big black woman didn’t smile; she offered a big black fist; and the words were “No More” and “Net Weight 1000 lbs.”
Hosea (he had been busy somewhere in the building) finally came in, a man in his own place now, deferred to by the people there, and stiller than when I had seen him, in the federal courtroom.
Tom Teepen introduced me; told him of my interest in Forsyth County. I saw in his eyes an immediate acceptance. And right away, even before Tom left us to go back to his paper, Hosea began to talk, began unaffectedly to act out the story, giving off energy, walking about, coming right up to me sometimes, while I sat at the long board table which was there in the big office in addition to the office desk.
He took the story of Forsyth back to the beginning of the year, when the karate instructor from California had decided to have a Walk for Brotherhood to mark Martin Luther King Day in Forsyth. Hosea heard about that on television, and became interested.
“He didn’t know that violent and rabid racism existed up there. They came after him so vicious he began to realize: ‘I mightn’t get out of this town alive.’ In places like that the major weapon is fire. Burn them out, burn down their houses. A martial arts student from the next county came forward to help this fellow. The martial arts fellow has the reputation of being a tough guy. He said to the Californian, ‘We are white males. They can’t do this to us.’ He’s a tough guy. But they not going to go after him. What they’ll do is go after his family. So he began to reach out for black help. He became more shaky.
“When I heard of this the first thing that hit me was this: ‘Every movement we have ever been in some whites came to our defense. Here are these white boys in trouble. If Dr. King was here, what position would he take?’ I said, ‘Hosea, pack your bag. We’ve got to go to Forsyth.’
“I finally got the name of the martial arts guy through a newspaper. I called the guy. ‘My name is Hosea Williams. I offer you my help.’ He was overwhelmed. He said, ‘I know of you. Before I accept your help I want to talk face to face with you.’ But I wouldn’t drive to Forsyth that night. He said, ‘I’ll drive down to Atlanta.’ I was afraid of him. I didn’t know who he was. He might have been from the Klan. I staged a meeting in the lobby of a big hotel. He drove down that same night, he and his father-in-law. He said, ‘I know you. I know your reputation. I know you’re a tough man. But I tell you one thing. If you come to Forsyth and march with me you ain’t gonna leave that place alive.’
“I know how tough Forsyth is. But I thought he was being too pessimistic. I called a press conference. I announced that we are leaving from Dr. King’s grave at nine o’clock and we are going to Forsyth. I didn’t think nobody was going with me. Black people are afraid of Forsyth. They know the reputation. Black people don’t even like stopping for gas at Forsyth.
“Dean Carter, the martial arts man, said: ‘These people are ignorant. They are told to keep niggers out, don’t care what it takes. They are taught from the cradle to the grave to keep those niggers out. You do whatever you have to do—you beat them, you kill them—to keep niggers out of the county. It’s like their culture.’ That’s what Dean Carter said. It’s like their culture.
“I thought I knew how bad the place was. I didn’t know how bad it really was.
“The next morning there was about thirty-five, forty people.
“I sensed going up that these people had a deep frustration. I got up and taught and talked and taught and talked and preached all the way up there. When we got there there was about thirty or twenty people waiting to join us. One or two was the Ku Klux Klan waiting to infiltrate. But at the same time there were about fifteen hundred people all around—the papers say two hundred, but I say fifteen hundred—and they were having a Ku Klux Klan rally and they were shouting: ‘Kill the niggers! Kill the niggers! Run the niggers back to the Atlanta watermelon field.’ Fifteen hundred. All around.
“The sheriff tried to discourage us getting off the bus. I said: ‘We are Americans. Marching is a matter of free speech.’ I wasn’t going to let anybody stop us marching.
“Those people all around were so souped up they were diving and running over four-feet fences like Olympic hurdlers, shouting, ‘Kill the niggers! Kill the niggers!”‘
When I had seen him in the courtroom—doing nothing, saying little—he had seemed harassed, agitated. Yet now, though he was walking around my chair and acting out his story, stamping his feet, jabbing his fist down, he seemed lucid. His talk didn’t seem exaggerated or quirky. And what increasingly came out was how practical he had been. Like the Indian mahatma, he knew how to organize things, how to use the institutions of the society: the law, the press.
The opponents of the march had also organized. According to Hosea, they had laid by stores of missiles.
Hosea said: “The press kept coming up to me”—odd, this description of a dangerous march, with the press on hand: How had he got them there?—“The press kept coming up to me and saying, ‘Is this bad? Is this bad, Hosea?’ And I said, acting, ‘No, it ain’t so bad.’ And one of my own staff members came and said to me, ‘Reverend, it’s bad.’ And he was right. It was bad.
“One man, one of the Forsyth crowd, was running up to the front of our bus and then to the rear of the bus—the bus that had brought us to Forsyth, the bus I had rented—running back and forth trying to get to me. I realized what he was doing. He seemed to be a leader, and I thought I would try to communicate with him through the eyes. And when he came back up to the front of the bus, I smiled at him. He went berserk. He started screaming, ‘The nigger smiled at me! You gotta kill these niggers! I don’t want these niggers march. But the nigger smiled at me!”‘
The sheriff then asked Hosea to get his people back on the bus.
“I got the people on the bus and take them down a lil’ ways to give him a chance to contain the Ku Klux Klan.”
Hosea drew up the bottom of one trouser leg and showed the dark-red bruises on his pale-brown shin and calf. He said the bruises had been caused by a brick thrown during the march.
That was the end of the march. On the bus going back to Atlanta a thought came to him, and he began to smile. His son asked why he was smiling, and Hosea said to him: “I feel like I’ve really celebrated Dr. King’s birthday.”
It was his storyteller’s way of rounding off the story, which had begun with his strictures of the false ways people, and black people among them, had begun to celebrate the birthday of “Dr. King”—which was the way Hosea invariably referred to Martin Luther King.
Hosea said: “On the bus coming home I told my son, ‘Them’s some of the baddest white folks I’ve ever seen.’
“I’ve faced mobs before. But they usually were older white males. If there was any women they was only one or two and they was quiet. But at Forsyth, oh God, they had a large number of women, many holding little babies in their arms, and screaming all kinds of vulgarity, especially hatred. ‘Kill the niggers! The niggers get AIDS!’ The number of young people, the teen-agers! I thought: ‘Oh my God, we got sixty more years of that kid standing over there.”‘
After that first march, Hosea said, some newspapers had reported that he had been run out of Forsyth County. That had encouraged him to organize the second march. Forty thousand people had marched then. The newspapers said twenty thousand, but he thought forty thousand.
“Racism is coming back, man. Just like it did after the Civil War. They described that then as the ending of the reconstruction. Well, we’re now at the ending of the second reconstruction.”
But the Forsyth issue was dead now, as the sheriff had said. Had anything been served?
Hosea thought that, though no black had moved to Forsyth, a lot of good had come out of the affair. He offered a list of the good things. One: the good white people up in Forsyth had been able to stand up to the Klan. Two: the fragmented civil rights groups had come together, in a way they hadn’t been together since the death of Dr. King.
“Three: Forsyth kind of forces so-called leaders to stop jiving and lead, not to wait for things to happen naturally. Forces leaders to go out and initiate and provoke confrontation. Four: the greatest thing. It proved that Dr. King’s strategies didn’t become obsolete with his death, as other people say. They say to me: ‘Hosea, you’re just a battle-fatigued old general. It’s time to stop demonstratin’ and start negotiatin’.’ They’ve taken the movement out of the street and into the suite. Out of the street and into the suite. That’s what they spin around doing. But they have to come back to my position and admit that the street is where it’s happening.”
“A primary force”: that was how Tom Teepen had described Hosea. But I hadn’t seen it like that. I had seen him more as a performer, acting up to the public character he had created for himself. I didn’t think so now. The city council politics he was engaged in required him to be a showman; but through his showmanship—now, in the privacy of his office—I was aware of his lucidity and goodness; and I felt that the Mahatma himself—with all his own awkwardnesses—might have radiated something of that quality.
As it happened, among the books on a bookshelf against the wall there was one with Gandhi on the spine. And when Hosea had to go out of the office to talk to someone who had arrived, I went and looked at it. It was a paperback. It wasn’t the Mahatma’s autobiography, as I had thought; it was the screenplay of the film Gandhi, and on the flyleaf there was a dedication to Hosea from the writer, Jack Briley: a dedication which was (as I remembered) from a man who “wrote words to a man who took the blows.” The dedication, it seemed to me, did honor to both men, and hinted at one explanation (out of many) of the extraordinary power of that film. And the story Hosea had told (and I was an audience of only one), the energy he had given off, added a new meaning to the big photographs on the walls: the mule carts and overalls, and the young Martin Luther King, whom Hosea honored and adored.
When he came back to the office a little of the energy that had come to him during his telling of the Forsyth story had gone away. In its place there was authority; he was now in my eyes absolutely lucid.
I asked him about his recent campaign about drugs, and his picketing of the CIA.
He said, “The drug thing, it’s bad. Drugs are destroying our people more than anything—segregation, racism—since slavery. The fear of the drug traffickers, the fear that results from the drug trafficking, is worse than the drug. Nothing have they feared like those drug people. I was born in the streets. I was raised in the streets; I still live in the streets. And even I have just discovered how bad the drug business is.”
So there was logic in his behavior, as there had been in the Mahatma’s, the switching of reforming attention from public issues to private, from the external foe to the internal. And the impression he gave of being a very practical man was added to when I asked him about the building where we were. Was it his political headquarters in a “neighborhood,” or what? He said it was his business place. He made chemicals. This was unexpected. I must have read about it somewhere, almost certainly; but it hadn’t registered.
He said with as much gentleness as pride, “Come, I’ll show you.”
We went out into the corridor, and went past the desk where, ever since I had come, there had been two young people, a young woman and a young man, as still as students, serving some purpose in Hosea’s affairs. At the end of the corridor Hosea pushed a door open, and there, attached to his office building, was a warehouse with barrels and on one side stacks of cardboard which would fold into cartons.
“I make janitorial chemicals,” Hosea said. “Floor cleaners, window cleaning fluid. Everything to do with janitorial cleaning. I had to make myself independent of those people downtown.”
He employed twenty people. The business was bigger than I thought; and in this business side of the man there was again, and more than ever, something of the Indian mahatma, who had started his professional life as a lawyer, was scrupulous about accounts, was careful about things like newspaper presses, and in South Africa in the 1900s, for this very purpose of independence and Ruskinian virtue, had started a farm. Strange fulfillment sixty years later of the Mahatma’s creed, and perhaps the achievement here had been bigger than the Mahatma’s in India: the winning of legal rights, against a background of slavery and violence, for a people long humiliated and disenfranchised.
He took me outside, to wait for a taxi. There appeared to be none. He said, “I will stop someone I know and make him take you back.” But no one he knew came along. In the end he asked two of his people, waiting in a shabby van, to drive me back. “Give them something for the gas,” he said. And driving back along Highway 20 to Atlanta, in the company of these followers of Hosea’s, poor people, in their littered van (the radio turned on), I felt myself in another atmosphere, and felt the distance between the people Hosea led or spoke for and the setting, the towers of central Atlanta appearing in the distance above the freeways.
January 19, 1989