They say of Wrightsville that you have to want to come here to get here because it is not on the way to anywhere.
So the civil rights movment sped right by in the 1960s, with barely a nod at the 3,000 poor blacks who make up 40 percent of the population of surrounding Johnson County.
There is still a white cemetery, maintained with city revenue sharing funds, and a lot of little black cemeteries, maintained by the bereaved. There are white roads, smooth and well drained, and there are black roads, soggy during rainstorms, potholed and rough in dry weather.
And there is a government run exclusively by white officeholders, a school board composed exclusively of whites and a sheriff who employs no black deputies. The sheriff, Roland Attaway, is the senior, most powerful politician in Johnson County.
Finally, after generations of silence, there are black protesters here now. When they met up with the sheriff about two months ago, Wrightsville took its place in the news as a small-time counterpoint to Miami. There were gunplay, beatings of blacks by mobs of angry whites, shootings by nightriders, wounded white firefighters and police and demonstrations.
Wrightsville is not Miami. But in the long run, it may take on just as much significance. Civil rights activists in the South hope it may signal the start of another generation of struggle in Dixie, this one focused on small towns like Wrightsville and small counties like Johnson, places bypassed when the storms struck Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. Wrightsville, they say, is unfinished business.
How far there is to go here was demonstrated Friday night. After the violence of the preceding weeks, the governor's office intervened and set up a meeting Friday night between the whites and blcks of Johnson County.
It was an extraordinary and historic event, for never in Johnson County had blacks and whites come together. Two hundred people turned out, about three-fourths of them black. With their county tense and inflamed, they were frightened.
About 15 blacks -- ministers, small farmers, minimum wage textile workers, the unemployed -- poured their hearts out in front of the whites. Dressed in their Sunday best, they expressed their grievances -- bad roads, brutality in the sheriff's office, no recreation facilities, indignities at local stores, and on and on -- but they expressed them almost apologetically.
And almost universally, they acknowledged their own sins:
"I know there's been some mistreatin' goin' on, but sometimes we can bring these problems on ourselves."
"We got some mean whites here and we got some mean blacks."
"We gotta put the gun down or the Lord's gonna come in here one day and destroy everybody."
The olive branch was extended.
When it came time for the whites to talk, there was silence. A single white minister spoke, hoping to bring out the other whites. And there was silence again.
Johnson County is also not Miami, for the elected officials here seem not even to make a pretense of concern. Only one showed up for the meeting at the moment of crisis. Two of the three county commissioners, the sheriff, the city council, and the mayor was reported starting the stock car races in nearby Dublin as the meeting began.
Sheriff Attaway, who has been called "the Pharaoh" by black protesters, got the message four months ago that there would be trouble in his county when local leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council -- the Rev. E.J. Wilson and John Martin -- visited him to demand more jobs for blacks in county government. (Only five or six of the 40 county employes are black.)
The session began calmly but ended in anger, with Martin threatening to have federal funds cut off and Attaway ordering men out of his office.
"We're going to run someone against you next time and beat you," Martin shouted.
"Until you do, I'm sheriff," Attaway yelled back. "Now just get out of here."
By April there were regular demonstrations in front of the sheriff's office, with Martin and Wilson daring Attaway to come out and confront them, calling him a coward as crowds of 30 to 40 blacks looked on.
Eventually civil rights activists from Atlanta joined the demonstration and just to make it official, so did the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist J.B. Stoner. Attaway stayed inside.
Things got mean on the night of April 8. About 70 or 80 blacks and about 150 whites gathered on opposite sides of the courthouse lawn as Martin and Wilson taunted Attaway.
Wrightsville Mayor Wills Wombles tried later to explain to local papers what happened next and why: "Somebody comes into your house and starts hollering at you in front of your kin and your friends and you feel bound to take a hand."
A mob of whites edged closer and closer to the blacks until the two groups were chin-to-chin. A line of whites formed between the blacks to the door of Attaway's office and began pushing the blacks back toward a nearby parking lot. There they were met by another crowd of whites who began attacking the blacks with fists and sticks.
The blacks say that sheriff's deputies helped in the beating. The sheriff says his men were just trying to break it up. No one in the mob was arrested. s
Since then there's been nothing but trouble in Wrightsville. Nightriders shot and wounded the daughter of a black farmer. Random shots were fired at a black woman in a car. Schools and factories closed briefly because of fear of racial outbursts.
Last Monday, in the space of a few hours, a black woman recently hired by Attaway as an ambulance attendand was stabbed by another black woman who accused her of selling out. A building in the black neighborhood was burned. A firefighter was shot. A black woman was shot.
And Attaway conducted a largely warrantless raid into the black neighborhood, arresting 38, including Wilson and Martin, in homes and churches.
At one of the churches, gunfire met the police, slightly injuring two officers.
The white power structure in Johnson County has reflected its family structure. The county attorney is Joe Rowland. The Wrightsville city attorney is Hodges Rowland. The local judge is a Rowland, too, and they are all said to be related.
The sheriff before Attaway was Willis D. Roland. His nephew was Roland Attaway, who has been reelected every four years for two decades.
His brand of law and order is personalized and, say whites and even some blacks, often effective. There hasn't been a major unsolved crime in years.
And some blacks remember him as the lawman who gave their kid a break, who let them off the hook on a petty theft charge with a fatherly warning not go let it happen again.
Others remember the brutality complaints, one charging that Attaway slapped a black teen-ager around for drinking from a formerly whites-only fountain in 1967. Federal charges stemming from that incident were dismissed by a judge and Attaway denies the others.
He is not, however, finicky about due process. Four of the 38 blacks arrested last Monday were still in jail four days later without having been charged with anything. "We're working on it," was Attaway's response when asked about that.
If there was black anger during Attaway's years in office -- about the sheriff, about employment, about conditions in general -- it may have been partly softened by the opening of small plants in Johnson County that employ relatively large numbers of blacks and are far ahead of the county government in that respect.
The rest of the anger, says Bo Whaley, a former FBI agent and now a newspaper columnist in neighboring Dublin, was "pushed under the rug."
Whaley personally investigated scores of civil rights complaints in the '60s when he was assigned to the area by the FBI. Reports would be routinely forwarded to the Justice Department and, routinely, the agents would never hear of them again.
At the same time, civil rights laws passed the Congress outlawing discrimination. Federal revenue sharing programs with strings attached, designed for leverage against discriminatory governments, also came into being.
Johnson County got the revenue sharing but the strings, say critics, have yet to be pulled or even jiggled. A year and a half ago, for example, Martin and civil rights lawyers in Macon filed a complaint with the Treasury Department's Office of Revenue Sharing charging discrimination in county employment.
Nothing has happened so far as a result of that complaint, though following the violence, federal investigators from that office and from the Justice Department are said to be looking into the county.
Attaway blames "outsiders" for Johnson County's current troubles. And it is true that the demonstrations, on both sides, have attracted numberous people who don't live in the county, including SCLC organizers from Atlanta. Wilson, in addition, moved to the county recently after years of experience as a civil rights activist.
The protesters and their sympathizers make no apologies for this, however. "They passed this county by the last time," said Robert Ensley, an observer here for the Justice Department's Community Relations Service, "and it's about time."