It was a sunny Saturday in April of 2018, and 700 law-enforcement officers in full riot gear were assembled in downtown Newnan. Members of the National Socialist Movement – the group that had brought its blazing torches to Charlottesville the previous year – had chosen to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday with a rally in the leafy city park. No one was quite sure how the neo-Nazis had picked Newnan for their gathering. Some locals guessed it had to do with the Confederate monuments in the Court Square; others had heard that the demonstrators had been drawn here by a bar in the next county frequented by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
While the Newnan city officials braced themselves for the event – the First Amendment had required that they grant a permit for the group’s rally – a crowd of over 100 protesters gathered. The Newnan residents held signs that read “Take Your Hate Elsewhere” and “Rednecks Against Racism.” Earlier in the day, children had used colored chalk to draw unicorns and rainbows on the neo-Nazis’ platform. Soon, some 50 black-shirted men and women straggled into the park. They waved their flags and shouted into a microphone their slogans about “cultural purity.” When the time designated on their permit was up, a city official cut off the microphone’s electricity and escorted them out.
Less than two miles away, a much larger group of people sat next to one another in the county’s largest black church. Organized as a multi-denominational, interracial, multicultural gathering, these Newnan residents had taken the neo-Nazi event as an opportunity to come together and begin some difficult conversations that had never been allowed to happen in Newnan.
Jimmy, a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, was among those who took the dais. At his turn to speak, he introduced himself and began to read:
I give to my wife, Lillis Lee, one certain negro woman by the name of Linda, one bed and furniture, one cow and calf . . . .
The people in the church, both black and white, began to look uneasily at one another.
I give to my son Stewart Lee, a certain negro boy by the name of Benjamin.
I give to my son Larkin Lee, a certain negro boy Jerry.
Then some of the people in the pews began to cry.
The Rev. Jimmy told the group that while doing genealogy research in a small Georgia courthouse he had found the will of his great-great-great-great-grandfather. As he read through the list of his ancestor’s possessions he learned with a shock that his family had been slaveowners. Full of shame, he sat with the information, telling no one, for a decade. Then, when he heard that the neo-Nazis were coming to town, and that the community wanted to use this event as an opportunity to begin healing the pain of the past, he decided it was time to act. He confessed what he’d learned to his wife, then to his sons, and wrote his remarks:
“I, for the first time, as a minister of the Gospel, repent of the generational curse in my family, which had such low regard for human dignity that it equated a person’s life with a possession to be passed on: a cow, a calf, a piece of furniture. The sin did not stop there. It was passed on to succeeding generations in my family, even poisoning my own young mind.” The pastor went on to describe the “sin of racism” that he’d learned from the people he’d loved, and the years it had taken to unlearn that prejudice. Then he publicly asked for forgiveness.
One woman later said, “I was so emotional, because all along that’s what we’ve been screaming: like we just want people to acknowledge what you did. Not what he did, but what his family did, what your community and ancestors did. Don’t just say, ‘It was 300 years ago – get over it.’ That’s not the case. It’s still in your family, no matter how you look at it. It’s generational, and it’s taught behavior.”
When he came to the end of his remarks that day, the pastor received a standing ovation.