Sanders versus Trump in the Sun Down County
A novel political moment in the deep south as the Republican Revolution meets the Political Revolution.
““We white people won,” crowed the head of the Forsyth County Defense League to The New York Times, “and the niggers are on the run.”
Excerpt from The New York Times Review of “Blood at the Root” by Patrick Phillips.
It has been nearly thirty years since Oprah Winfrey held her now infamous town hall in Forsyth County. The heart of southern conservatism and the financial backbone of the Georgia Republican Party, Forsyth and its neighbor Hall County represent the top half of a backwards crescent through the Northeast Georgia region where the majority of the Republican leadership resides. Forsyth is one of the wealthiest and fastest growing counties in the entire United States, and yet even today Georgians know of the “sun-down rule”.
The rule refers to events that transpired over one hundred years ago. A white woman, 18 year old Mae Crow, was found beaten in a field in 1912. Barely alive, the locals say that it was exposure which did the most damage. It took less than twenty-four hours for the sheriff to arrest three black men. It took less than two days for the first of them to be hanging from a lamp post in town square. White residents of the county fanned out with clubs, dynamite, guns, and horses and issued the now legendary proclamation: no black man, woman, or child better find themselves within the county borders come sun-down the next day, or they’d pay for it with their life. To this day, there are African Americans in Georgia who know the rule.
“People, white and black, used to just tell me “If you have to go to Forsyth, get out of there before the sun goes down,” said Gwinnett County resident Joshua Bolling. Gwinnett, incidentally, currently faces a lawsuit by a coalition of civil and voting rights groups for minority-voter disenfranchisement. Adjacent to Forsyth, just to the south, it’s one of the most diverse counties in the entire Southeastern United States.
Here in Forsyth, for a span of almost eighty years, the county was proudly and openly “all-white”. It took a massive brotherhood march to open the doors to the wealthiest county in Georgia, and those present that day withstood more than a few rocks thrown and racial epithets hurled at them to do it. Patrick Phillips, author of the new book “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America” and a former finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, describes growing up in Forsyth in no uncertain terms.
“”Nearly everyone I knew, adults and children, referred to black people as ‘n — — — , and for the entire time I lived there in the 1970s and ’80s, ‘white only’ was still the law of the land.”
Today, the first cool flutters of a fall breeze give local canvassers occasion for gratitude. They represent the first Democratic campaign for State Legislature in these parts since “the Switch”. The Switch is a colloquialism for the state-level effects of Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in the mid-nineties.
“Remember, you are almost guaranteed to be the first Democrat to come to their door and ask for their vote in at least twenty years,” a young man in khakis warns the group. “So, however you act is their only impression of how we operate. Be polite. Smile. It’ll help later on.” His red plaid shirt, looking like the kind of picnic tablecloth one might find at a park on nearby Lake Lanier, draws the eye and reminds you more of a barbecue than a political campaign.
“Today, we’re only knocking on independents and left doors.”
Wilma Turner, the weathered chair of the local Democratic Party and a staunch Sanders supporter in the primaries, says what’s on everyone’s mind.
They have gathered to support Daniel Blackman, the former Political Director for the Sanders Campaign in Georgia, and the first African American to ever even qualify for state office in Forsyth County. Blackman got his start in Atlanta as a climate change activist after Congressman John Lewis opined that there weren’t enough black americans in the environmental movement. Today, he has traveled to the White House and the United Nations, and even the Vatican once, to advocate for the type of progressive policies championed by Senator Sanders in the Presidential Primaries.
“I’m running because it feels like, in this area, that people have not been challenged. People see politics as a closed-system which only benefits those inside of it, and conservative candidates here have not been held accountable even as they fail to accomplish the basic promises they ran on. Their ambition outweighs their concern for their own constituents.”
Progress, it seems, comes even to the deep south eventually.
His opponent, Sen. Michael Williams, was the first elected official in the state of Georgia to endorse Donald Trump for President. Currently, he chairs the Trump Campaign’s State Committee. On the subject of the Governor’s proposed education reform, which amounts to a state takeover of local schools and is likely the most heated debate in the state today, Williams continues to support the legislation despite the unanimous disapproval of his own Board of Education. He envisions a Trump-Conservative takeover of Georgia and has personally gone on the record as being interested in the Secretary of State position currently held by Brian Kemp. Kemp hails from Athens, the southern tip of the Northeast Georgia GOP Crescent, and is known in Georgia mainly for losing the personal information of six million residents. He’s considered a front-runner for the Republican nomination for Governor.
Together, the two create a parallel universe in which the progressive values of the Political Revolution that Sanders espoused hit the remnants of Gingrich’s Republican Revolution and the xenophobia of the Trump Conservative model. We’ll never know what might have happened had Sanders won the democratic nomination, but here, in the sun-down county, a culture clash is taking shape.
Bill Evelyn is not an establishment Republican. One of the founders of the Tea Party movement in Georgia, itself a right-wing echo of Gingrich’s “Contract with America”, Evelyn prides himself on his conservative bona-fides and lambasts the “false conservatives” of the Georgia Legislature including Speaker of the House David Ralston. Ralston represents Blue Ridge; a town in the very north and center of the state. On the crescent, it sits on the top edge. He made waves in 2011 by calling for a mass mobilization of the movement to rid the GOP of so called “RINOS” (Republicans in name only). Ralston survived the effort and continues to serve in the house, but today Bill hosts a local tea-partier podcast that Daniel is calling into. If it seems like strange territory for the political director of a campaign for a democratic-socialist to wade into, Evelyn made it clear early in the interview that it was novel for him as well.
“You say on your website that ‘The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.’ That strikes me as a very Marxist statement.”
That was the first question of a half hour exchange that would culminate in Evelyn asking Blackman how he could go home to his wife and children, the words “as a black man” clearly implied, and tell them he was a Democrat given the party’s historical racism. In following up with Blackman after the interview, it was clear that a nuanced conversation on the legacy of white supremacism in the Democratic Party wasn’t a taboo conversation. Only that Evelyn wasn’t someone able to foster the environment in which it could occur in a respectful manner. This is Forsyth County. The better question to most Georgians would be what is Blackman doing here at all.
The “gotcha” questions continue in fumbling attempts wherever the campaign goes. A staunch conservative wonders whether Daniel thinks labor is a commodity or not. The word “socialist” is in half of Michael Williams’ fundraising emails. One blog-post questioning how a conservative in Georgia could support the creation of a state-run school-takeover bureaucracy was enough to send the Senator shouting from the rooftops of a Democratic Party “sneak attack” in one of the most conservative counties in the nation.
In truth, the relationship between the State Party and the Campaign is friendly but distanced. The Democrats outside of Atlanta and a few other cities have been mostly diminished for two decades, to say nothing of true leftists. In the north of the state, however, the Republican kingdom has grown bloated and created an untenable situation that threatens to ferment into a true wing of the party — if it doesn’t break off into something entirely new.
Michelle Jones doesn’t take no for an answer. When the latina mother of three decided that she wanted to run for House District 30 in South Hall County, no one could talk her out of it. She had been a staunch Sanders supporter, hosting phone banks, knocking on doors, and attending rallies. Now, she runs for state legislature against an incumbent from the county seat of Gainesville. The home of Governor Nathan Deal, Gainesville has a long history as a touchstone of the Southern bourgeoisie. The “Poultry Capitol of the World”, 1.3 billion chickens meet their fate in one of the factories that dot the outskirts of the city every year. It’s easy to tell if you’re near one. Anyone within a mile and a half can smell the familiar odor that comes from the constant blend of Purina Mills and Fieldale. Not quite commercial dog food and not quite chicken, it pervades car windows and storefronts and no amount of febreeze can shield a passerby from its reach. The odor always wins. Jones describes campaigning here sometimes as “banging your head against the wall and then going back for more”, but there’s more to it than that.
“We haven’t had many, if any, voices in local and state governments that listen to us,” she says. There are plenty of reasons why.
The poultry industry has been the economic driver behindGainesville for almost one hundred years now. Jesse Jewell, for whom the main thoroughfare is named, invented the vertical integration model now standard in the industry when the Great Depression hit. Unable to continue business as usual, he went to local farmers and convinced them to raise chickens which he would buy back when fully grown. This method quickly became the backbone of his company, and soon he would find himself the most successful entrepreneur in the city. Central to the profitability of the company was the use of low wages. Where the labor movement had scored massive successes across the United States, in the deep south it stalled in the face of brazen violence and disdain for the law. The first attempted unionization of the mostly female workforce was being organized under the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America in the late 1940s. In response, the management of the Jewell Company instigated a violent riot against the women; attacking them with blackjacks and rubber hoses.
Later on, faced with a labor shortage due to their expanding factories and poor working conditions, the company would label itself progressive for being one of the first companies in the area to hire black workers. Not included in this history was the fact that the black community in Gainesville had been ghettoized into a specific area of town years earlier after a tornado had ripped through the city in 1936. Built as the “Newtown” for the African Americans of the city, it was constructed on top of an old land-fill. In the 1960s, it was consistently coated in grain-dust from a nearby factory. Today, Newtown is a food and bank desert on the south side of Gainesville. It has endured throat cancer outbreaks and lawsuits, but it carries on.
Eventually, the factories turned the area into the largest poultry producer in the world, and the need for cheap labor required a creative solution. That solution was to exploit the dysfunctional United States immigration system and import workers from south of the border. In ‘Southern Changes’, the now discontinued journal for the Southern Regional Council, Greg Guthy wrote of the industry sanctioned worker-demographic shift back in 1997.
“Historically, the migration of workers from Latin America to the poultry processors in Georgia has been in part industry-led. As the industry developed over the past fifty years into a transnational food production system, it needed to find more workers to meet rising demand for poultry products and to replace workers who moved on to better and better paying jobs in Georgia’s growing economy. Poultry processing is hard work. The national injury and illness rate in the industry is 22.7 per 100 workers and the average national poultry production wage has declined about 8.5 percent in real terms between 1972 and 1996, according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “At the beginning, we had only white folks, “another manager explained. “Then blacks. Then Vietnamese people. They are [mostly] gone now. They realized they can do something else and now we have Hispanics.”
Although outdated, the journal serves as a useful reminder that the issue is not new. It is simply evolving. The poultry companies have managed to prevent OSHA from determining the safety of their work environments for years. They even used to give out bonuses to workers who referred new hires to the factories, but, after the successful establishment of an immigrant community, that ceases to be a necessary, or in other terms, profitable endeavor.
Since 1997, the Latinx population in and around the Gainesville area has blossomed into a major cultural force. Today, 42% of the city is hispanic and whole segments of the economy operate according to the rhythms of that community. Not only Mexicans, but Colombians, Hondurans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and the entire gamut of the Americas is represented in what has become one of the most polyethnic areas in the region. This community, though nearly half of the population of the city, wields little to no political power due to a myriad of factors. One is that many families are comprised of citizens and undocumented immigrants both whom fear that civic engagement will draw the ire of ICE forces and endanger their families during the Obama age of mass deportation. Another is that the voting laws in many cities and counties are designed to dilute the minority vote. Nonpartisan organizations like GALEO, the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, and the NAACP have teamed up to challenge such policies. In Gainesville, this primarily takes the form of At-Large Voting.
At-Large allows citizens from every district in the city (known as Wards) to vote for the representatives on city council of every other district. With the African-American population essentially ghettoized for decades, there is a longstanding tradition of Ward 3, encompassing the majority of the black residential zone, voting dominantly in the favor of losing candidates year after year. The more moneyed, white Wards 1 and 2 (located on the banks of nearby lake) collectively overwhelm their preferred candidate. In practice, you could win a city council seat without a single vote from the district you’re running to represent. This policy is a holdover from the Jim Crow era South, and the African American community in Gainesville, under the indefatigable leadership of the Newtown Florist Club, the oldest civil rights organization in North Georgia, and Rose Johnson, its Executive Director and a local titan of advocacy and civic engagement, have sued the city multiple times. Every time they have either lost or had to drop the suit due to their community lacking sufficient numbers to prove every plank mandated by the Voting Rights Act. The Poultry companies, however, have unintentionally altered this dynamic.
Due to the massive influx of immigrants to the community, and a renewed effort on the part of civic organizations to build Black-Brown alliances, such a suit now could very plausibly satisfy the requirements for procedure and begin the fine-grain work of political power-sharing in this, the nerve center of the Republican establishment. Indeed, it is a very similar confluence of events that led to the current lawsuit against nearby Gwinnett County mentioned earlier. The effort has been bolstered by the energies of a group of dedicated young DACA and DAPA recipients; dreamers who have taken the title and run with it. The state government has attempted to slow their progress by using duplicitous legal wording and loopholes to deny them access to in-state tuition as well as some of the best universities in the state. It isn’t uncommon for these students to take eight years to achieve a bachelor’s degree. They take jobs in the poultry factories or the carpet factories or at area businesses and attend school one semester on, one off. Even at “Access Institutions”, schools designed to be accessible to students from any economic background, the out of state tuition can easily be prohibitive, but that hasn’t stopped the Dreamers from rising in their home state and helping forge what might be a new political coalition to challenge the nativist sentiments that continue to linger here. They work in massive educational initiatives, like HOPE — The Hispanic Organization Promoting Education and U.S. Senate Campaigns.
Alejandro Ramirez, an Army Reservist and the Latino Outreach Coordinator for the Jim Barksdale Campaign for United States Senate, met Michelle Jones and Daniel Blackman through the Sanders movement. An activist in Gainesville against at-large voting and in support of increased civic engagement among the Latinx population, he has seen firsthand the growing coalition in Georgia politics and how it’s interacted with a two-party system increasingly disconnected from younger generations. After his army benefits kept mysteriously failing to register with the local college, he protested by living in the woods around campus. During this time, he began to learn of the struggles of friends of his that he had never known. One had been illegally detained for thirty days for not having a driver’s license. One, the valedictorian of her Hall County high school who had been recognized in the State Legislature, found herself at a community college while her friends left for Georgia Tech and Emory. Today, as the Barksdale campaign struggles to attract the same following as Senator Sanders, Ramirez wonders whether his alliance with the Democratic Party isn’t just a marriage of convenience.
“After this election, if there were a party that more readily advocated for a more democratic electoral process,” like ranked-choice voting, “I would definitely consider supporting them.”
As it stands, outside of the Libertarian Party, no such group has been able to take shape in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Outside of Forsyth and Hall County, dominantly Republican areas, there simply isn’t the money or support for such an endeavor, but with fresh cooperation with anti-drug war activists and civil liberties groups, a new coalition might be able to offer a broader base of support for progressive groups in friendlier places like Athens, home of the University of Georgia and organizations like the Economic Justice Coalition and Athens for Everyone, or Atlanta, where the Black Lives Matter Movement has successfully mobilized ten thousand people at a time.
In a surprising statistical blip that few took note of, the 9th Congressional District in the north of the state, home to many of the most right-wing voters in Georgia, went 12 points higher than the state average for the Vermont Senator. This suggests that there may be more to the underlying Trump-Sanders crossover conjecture than has been previously entertained. While writers such as Luke Savage have railed against the vapid characterizations and false-equivalencies peddled in even leading media outlets (more notable in the primary season when Clinton felt threatened by the Sanders insurgency) some have speculated that the Trump ascendancy may be a harbinger of rising class consciousness amongst the lower-class white population and that that, however it comes, is probably beneficial for long-term leftist politics. Though misguided, certainly racist, and fumbling in its attempts to reach out to broader society, there is an undeniable element of populist anger at an elite class that has brokered enormous gains for itself and has yet to transfer much, if any, downwards. Some of these voters, like the kind you find in the northern half of Forsyth County, don’t deny the existence of racial discrimination in the country. They are even correctly able to conceptualize it as a divisive tool of the ruling class, but locked in the bootstraps philosophy of the capitalist south, it doesn’t appear likely that their energies will be turned to anti-racist activities anytime soon. One campaign associate of Mr. Blackman, Melissa Clink, who works at the Hall County Boys and Girls Club among two other jobs, took a rock to the face on the Fourth of July; a venomous reminder of the riptides of fear underpinning the election season. Of course, that only happened after sun down.
Daniel Blackman wouldn’t let you know if any of this bothers him. Clearly, the prospect of a real choice in Forsyth County is more important to him than fatigue. For the first time in twenty years, the citizens of the area will have the ability to consider an alternative. It may constitute the crucial difference between folks like Blackman, Jones, and Ramirez and some of the Democratic Party establishment; they know that true freedom is contingent upon having actual choices to choose from. In the forgotten segments of the south, places abandoned by the liberal and moderate left, the Democratic Party is useful in so far as it is a recognizable entity that might open a door or two, but without a real, long term commitment to the rural poor and fighting the systems by which they are manipulated, it’s unlikely to survive long. The Democratic Socialists in Atlanta have experienced an uptick in support. Local Green parties are springing up across the state. There’s even talk that Socialist Alternative is starting an Atlanta chapter. With the state set to become majority-minority by 2025, the racial segregation of the city of Atlanta and the public school systems at alarming highs, and the growing income and wealth inequality pervading the country, the stage may be set for a renewal of the type of fundamental debates needed to encourage a progressive left.