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Georgia County Draws Minorities 24 Years After Oprah Fought KKK

Alanda Waller admits she had some explaining to do three years ago when telling friends she moved her black family to a Georgia suburb once known as the picture of Southern racism.

Twenty-four years ago, Forsyth County introduced itself to the world as Ku Klux Klan-led protesters hurled rocks and racial epithets during a civil rights march, just after the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. The New York Times headlined the clash and Oprah Winfrey came to town to tape an episode on race relations.

“People still ask to this day, ‘I can’t believe that you live in Cumming,’” said Waller, 33, a retail sales consultant for AT&T Inc. “I say, ‘I can’t believe you still think it’s like that after all these years. I’ve never run across anything that’s made me feel uncomfortable.”

Today, the community 30 miles north of Atlanta is one of Georgia’s most rapidly diversifying counties. Forsyth, with a population of 175,511, saw the fastest growth of blacks in the state with a nine-fold increase to 4,287 in 2010, compared with 426 a decade earlier, 2010 Census figures released yesterday show.

Blacks in Suburbs

Suburbs in the south of the U.S., and among the region’s 34 largest metropolitan areas in particular, experienced a migration in black population over the past decade. An analysis of census estimates through 2009 show that 58 percent of blacks lived in suburbs in 2009 compared with 52 percent in 2000, said William Frey, a demographer at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

“We have new generations of middle-class blacks who want the community school systems and resources available in the suburbs,” Frey said in a telephone interview. “The suburbs still have this aura about them of having achieved the American Dream.”

Georgia, the ninth largest state, saw its population grow to 9,687,653, an 18.3 percent during the decade, compared with 9.7 percent in the U.S., census data show. Its black population rose to 2,910,800, a 24.8 percent increase from 2000. Blacks now account for 30 percent of the state’s population, compared with 28.5 percent in 2000.

The percentage of blacks in Southeastern states held relatively steady over the last decade, according to census data.

Forsyth’s Newcomers

Although they still make up less than 2.4 percent of Forsyth’s population, blacks like Waller were among a flood of newcomers since 2000 attracted by inexpensive real estate, a vibrant job market and good school test scores. Forsyth’s total population surged 78.4 percent from 2000 to 2010, census data show.

Asians increased rapidly in Forsyth to 10,875 in 2010, compared with 771 in 2000. The number of people who identified themselves as mixed race grew to 2,124 from 653 in 2000. The Hispanic population grew to 16,550 in 2010 from 5,477 a decade earlier. The white non-Hispanic population rose to 140,943 from 90,820 in 2000.

“Forsyth is open to all and everybody knows it,” said Brian Tam, chairman of the all-white county commission.

In 1987, the year of Forsyth’s infamous race march, whites made up 99 percent of the county’s population, according to a U.S. Supreme Court case stemming from the event.

‘Brotherhood March’

The “Brotherhood March” through Forsyth was organized by Atlanta City Councilman Hosea Williams, who was with Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968. Williams led dozens of black and white activists to Cumming, the county seat, to recognize the King holiday.

Counter-demonstrators threw rocks and beer bottles, turning back the group. Williams returned a week later with 20,000 marchers carrying signs saying “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around.” Jeering opponents waved Confederate flags. Police arrested sixty people and this time, the marchers reached Cumming.

The controversy drew television talk show host Oprah Winfrey to Forsyth to film a town hall meeting on race relations. One man in the audience used racial slurs and said he feared blacks coming to the county.

In the years since, Forsyth’s old guard has been diluted by tens of thousands of newcomers who may not know the county’s racial history, said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens. Still others have died off, he said.

Racial Attitudes

“Racial attitudes there now are pretty much in line with any place else in the metropolitan area,” said Bullock, who has written more than a dozen books including some on the politics of race. “When you get out there you don’t see Klan crosses or anything, even though you may have heard terrible things happened.”

Waller said she was loosely aware of Forsyth’s inglorious past when she moved to Atlanta eight years ago from Buffalo, New York, to take advantage of the region’s robust job market.

More than 40 international companies have operations in Forsyth, including Paris-based concrete maker LaFarge SA and Germany-based Siemens AG, which manufactures power plant control systems in the county. Tyson Foods Inc., based in Arkansas, processes chicken in Cumming.

An even bigger draw to Forsyth was the school system’s high test scores, said Waller, who has three children from age 6 to 11. Still, the schools’ low percentage of black students -- less than 3 percent -- held her back. After a few years in nearby counties, Waller said couldn’t resist Forsyth’s attractions: inexpensive housing and progressive schools.

State Standards

In the 2009/2010 school year, 97 percent of Forsyth schools met state progress standards based on how students performed on yearly achievement tests. That compared with a statewide average of 77 percent. Waller said the schools remain a drawing card.

“Little things happen because kids are kids,” said Waller when asked about how her children have adapted. She recalled her daughters mentioning white classmates who said they wouldn’t vote for President Barack Obama because he is black. “That’s the worst that they have experienced,” she said.

Travis Taylor, another black resident, said he sees few signs of Forsyth’s racist past, save the occasional Confederate flag bumper sticker.

‘Everything Changes’

“With time, everything changes,” said the 31-year-old renovator, whose Cumming neighborhood is home to Africans, Indians and Muslims. “Forsyth still has that stigma as a racist county, unless you spend time here.”

The Oprah Winfrey Show took a look back at Forsyth on the King holiday this year. The show noted that “residents there -- both black and white -- say it’s a great place to live and raise a family,” according to the Oprah Winfrey website.

Both Taylor and Waller say they still hear remarks from friends visiting from Atlanta, who tease them about returning home before dark. It’s a reference to past threats by whites that blacks shouldn’t be caught in Forsyth for fear of harassment, Taylor and Waller said. These residents say they know better.

“I am the treasurer of the PTA,” Waller said. “Come on, that should tell you something. They’ve come a long way.”

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