The Correlation Between Sundown Towns and Book Bans: Forsyth County, GA

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Disclaimer: due to the topic of this article, there will be some mentions of racial violence and a brief mention of sexual assault.

There has been a massive uptick in book banning in this last year, starting in July 2021. Now, this trend has been going on for a while, in clear view if you’ve been paying attention. But recently? It’s gone from a few instances here and there, queer books being quietly removed from school shelves, to city governments firing librarians for not pulling queer books from their shelves, parents demanding schools not use books with the barest hint of anything resembling CRT in teaching, even private companies like Barnes & Noble getting pressured to not sell certain books. All in the name of “protecting children.” But there’s another trend, one that is clear if you’re paying attention and far too obvious once you realize it: a lot of these towns pushing book bans are historically linked to being sundown towns. Especially in Forsyth County, Georgia.

What are sundown towns?

If you need a refresher, or like me grew up in a Southern/very conservative area (the two are not synonymous) and they just didn’t get to this in history classes, sundown towns are pretty close to what it says on the tin. During the Jim Crow Era, if you were not white or Christian, though these towns usually focused on Black individuals, you best be out of town before the sun sets. Sometimes, it wasn’t just a town, it was an entire county. If a Black family tried to move into the area, they would be harassed until they had to move out for their own safety. If you were passing through, you would be watched until you left, and if you didn’t make it out before the streetlamps came on, I hope you had some way of protecting yourself. Most of these towns or counties didn’t have ordinances on the books calling for this, the vast majority of the time it was the community coming together and collectively deciding that folks that didn’t look like them were not welcome and could not stay. With, of course, the exception of maybe one or two black families who were in service to white folks living there, and any interracial children that happened. They could stay, but that does not mean they were welcome.

If you’ve heard of the green book, it was probably in this context. The Negro Motorist Green Book listed towns that were safe for Black road-trippers to visit, where they wouldn’t be denied food or accommodation at restaurants and hotels, and won’t have to fear for their lives. It covered not just the United States, but also Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. It became known as “the bible of Black travel during Jim Crow,” and remained in publication, getting regularly updated, until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

If you’re interested, there’s actually an online database, started by James W. Loewen of Lies My Teacher Told Me fame, where you can click on a state and see a list of what sundown towns or counties have been recorded thus far in that state. There are only two states not listed on the map, those being Alaska and Hawai’i. Every other state has at least a small handful of sundown towns in them. Even your super liberal state. Some places like Texas and Kentucky have a lot. This is a living database as well. It is not complete and only lists those that have enough information to confirm it as a sundown. They also track what towns have worked to rectify the past and do better. I highly recommend clicking through and checking out their other resources, as there is a lot more than just a database.

What’s that got to do with Forsyth County, Ga and book bans?

Forsyth county (not the city, that’s in a different county) is one of my county’s neighbors in Georgia, and the entire county was sundown. To an extreme amount. In 1912, in Oscarville, a white teenage girl was found beaten in the woods. Some local newspapers reported that she was raped. She ended up being in a coma for two weeks before dying from her injuries. One Black man was arrested for the crime and confessed (after being threatened with drowning and subjected to “mock lynching”) and four other Black men were arrested as well, three as suspects and one as a witness. Later the same day those four Black men were brought in, a white lynch mob broke into the jail house, shot one of the Black men in his cell, dragged his body through the streets and strung him up from a telephone pole. And that was just the beginning.

Following the girl’s funeral, over the course of a couple months, white mobs started forming called “Night Riders,” with participants not just from Forsyth county but from neighboring ones as well (including my own, which was not considered sundown). These Night Riders terrorized the Black citizens of Forsyth county, telling them they had 24 hours to get out of town or they would die. Their houses, churches, and banks would be burned down, livestock killed, and would randomly fire into cabins owned by sharecroppers or other Black renters. About 98% of the Black community in Forsyth county fled, most of them losing their property to the white community. To this day Forsyth county is majority white, with the next largest demographic being Asian. Only 4.4% of the population was Black at the last census. If you want to read a more in depth history of what happened here, and the lead up of racial tensions to this incident, there’s Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips, a resident of Forsyth county.

And would you believe that Georgia currently has 13 book bans in place, placing it 12th out of 50 for school book bans, and all those bans have come from a singular county: Forsyth? Texas takes the cake at 713 bans though.

Forsyth County’s Book Bans

The books currently banned by Forsyth county, according to PEN America’s tracker, are as follows:

If you look closely, you can notice a trend with these books: they all contain content that goes against the most stringent of Evangelical Christian beliefs, beliefs that were usually held by sundown towns. These books point out that life may be more difficult for individuals who aren’t white (otherwise known as critical race theory), feature queer content like same sex relationships or transgender individuals’ memoirs, and women’s reproductive rights, along with the standard reasons of having any sexual content or violence/bullying in them.

Essentially, books that could possibly cause kids to consider disobeying their parents in some way and question their currently held beliefs. Because if your kids start to question your beliefs, especially beliefs based in hatred, then you have to start looking into your beliefs more and then you might discover that you’re not as good of a person as you once thought, that the harmful stereotypes you believe about others are just that, harmful stereotypes. And maybe then the people who taught you these things weren’t as great as you thought, and your entire worldview ends up being called into question. Doing all of that is difficult, there’s no denying that, and therefore not a lot of people are willing to do so. It’s much easier to ban books that cause your kids to think differently than you and just ignore the fact that you are hypocritically trying to rewrite history in some cases.

This is the case across the board. The books are being targeted in the name of “protecting children,” but they’re all books that call into question the worldview held by these deeply conservative communities. PEN America goes into this more themselves, tracking the trends of books getting banned in schools, what books get banned the most, even the political action being taken to enforce these bans. For instance, Forsyth county only has 13 books banned currently, all from January 2022.

But Georgia just passed SB226 in April 2022, which extends Code Section 16-12-103 (which covers the sale and distribution of harmful/obscene material to minors) to school libraries, so that school principals have 10 days to remove books that have been called into question in some way and determine how obscene these books are. If they, the principal or school librarians in some cases, fail to do this in 10 days, they will be convicted “guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.” Before, administrators and librarians could say they’ll look into it, and then just blame bureaucracy or any other excuse they wanted, keeping the book on the shelves. That loophole is no longer there. I’m surprised the list for Georgia hasn’t expanded more already, though I doubt that it will get close to the number of bans Texas has, which again is 713 books. 713 books are banned from schools in Texas, a state that has a serious impact on how textbooks are written.

So What?

I’ve written on book bans and the effects they have, especially on their authors, as have others, to the point where reiterating it is either beating a dead horse for those who have been paying attention, or just falling on deaf ears of those who don’t care. So instead I’ll leave you with this: a call to action.

Check the PEN America index of school book bans. See if your school district is on there. If it is, fight against it. Attend school district meetings and push back. If you live in an area where you know you’ll get drowned out (as a queer in a deeply red area my commiseration), make sure your kids and your friends’ kids have access to these books, provide supplementation to their education, filling in holes you know are purposefully being left. Set up a Little Free Library near you (or find your local one!) and place books like the ones banned in there. Keep access to these stories open. And if your area hasn’t started implementing bans, make sure it stays that way. There are things you can do, things that may seem small or insignificant in the grand scheme, but it’s something. It’s always better to do something.

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