FORSYTH, Ga. — He was a Democrat in Republican territory, a citizen of a rural Georgia town that people tended to pass by on the way to someplace else, including politicians running for high office. But this election felt different to John Howard, so one morning in August he began writing a letter.
“I am reaching out to you all, to inquire about the possibility of Stacey Abrams coming to Forsyth,” began his email to the campaign of one of those politicians, who in November could become the first female governor of Georgia, the first black governor of Georgia and the first black woman to govern any state in America.
He introduced himself as the former mayor of Forsyth, and the first African American elected to the job. He explained that he was interim chair of the local Democratic Party, which was “in serious need of being shown the way.”
“We understand that our county of Monroe, does not have a strong showing of Democrats,” he typed. “But never the less, we are here!”
Outside his front door was a town of 4,000 people that appeared on electoral maps as a small blue dot in a sprawling sea of red — the red of rural Georgia, the red of the rural South and the red rest of America that had elected Donald Trump president.
Now Georgia’s campaign for governor was underway, and huge signs for Abrams’s opponent, a self-proclaimed Trump acolyte named Brian Kemp, were starting to appear in yards and fields encircling Forsyth. John figured Abrams had blown by Forsyth multiple times heading south on I-75 to campaign stops in Macon or Valdosta or somewhere other than this town where he’d spent most of his life. She had probably seen it through her window — the DQ off Exit 187, the Waffle House off 186, the little brown sign pointing to the historic courthouse square, which was not far from the church by the railroad tracks where John envisioned Abrams addressing a crowd.
“In Abrams taking the time to appear in our city, and actually speak to us, I believe it would bring on the much needed spark to ignite some serious hope! And believe me, when I tell you that is definitely something we need in Forsyth, Monroe County at this particular time . . .” his email continued. “It is MY HOPE that this request, I am making to you, is strongly considered.”
He read it over, hit send and began waiting for a response.
As the midterm elections come down to the final weeks, so many campaigns across the country are unfolding the same way — not just as a choice between Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives, but between mini-versions of Donald Trump and candidates representing an opposite vision of America.
In Florida’s race for governor, one candidate is a white Republican running ads that show him teaching his kids how to “build a wall” and say “You’re fired,” while his opponent is a black Democrat arguing Trump should be impeached. In Virginia’s U.S. Senate race, one candidate is a white Republican who has openly associated with white nationalists and describes himself as “Trump before Trump,” and the other is a white Democrat known for being Hillary Clinton’s former running mate and at times delivering stump speeches in Spanish.
In races in California, Indiana, Mississippi and elsewhere, the choice is Trump or not-Trump, a polarized dynamic that has been especially apparent in Georgia, where Kemp is courting Trump voters by calling himself a “politically incorrect conservative” in ads featuring explosions, chain saws, rifles and a pledge to “round up criminal illegals.”
Abrams, meanwhile, is courting everyone else — not just the reliable Democrats of Atlanta but all the forsaken voters in blue-dot towns across rural Georgia.
“We have to reach out to those who do not believe their voices matter . . .” she said in her victory speech on primary night. “We’re going to search out those we don’t know yet and prove they matter to us, too.”
It was a message that resonated across Georgia, in places like Pearson and Moultrie and Sparks and so many other small towns where people were sending off speaking requests to the campaign every day. And in Forsyth, too, where John wasn’t the only one hoping Abrams would come.
“She should hit all these little towns around here,” said a friend of his, James Green, sitting one evening outside his auto repair shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
“They assume it’s all red,” said Green’s friend Kendell Thomas.
Green pulled out a folder of voter information he had just gotten from the NAACP titled “Defeat Hate: Vote!” He was starting a Forsyth chapter ahead of the election, and he knew the numbers. Hillary Clinton had won Forsyth with 1,486 votes to Trump’s 1,044 — 58 percent to 41 percent, which almost exactly mirrored the town’s racial breakdown. Trump won surrounding Monroe County, which is roughly 73 percent white, with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
It was same the story all over the rural South. Blacks were often the majority in small towns, but whites remained the majority overall, their power visible in the names of white families chiseled on buildings and in the framed portraits of white faces in town halls, courthouses and the office of the governor, where an unbroken procession of 75 white men had held the job for the past 243 years.
“She could come to the arts center,” Green continued.
“It’d be big,” said Thomas.
“My thing is, if you see a young black woman running as governor, a young person seeing that might think, ‘I can be governor, too,’ ” said Green.
“People would get motivated,” said Thomas. “Stacey Abrams could do that.”
John felt the same way, and a few hours after he sent his email, he got a response from the campaign.
“Good Afternoon Mayor Howard — Thank you for reaching out . . . ” it began, explaining that all speaking requests for Abrams needed to be submitted to the campaign scheduler, who was fielding hundreds of requests every week. John sent off another email.
“We already have the venue approved, which is our church of course!” he responded. “We are here!”
He was currently reading a book called “The Magic of Thinking Big,” and another called “The Hope Quotient,” which a friend had recommended, telling him it might help him get “re-energized on things you’re about to give up on.” A 48-year-old life insurance salesman, his once-natural optimism lately required effort, and part of the reason was all that had happened when he was elected mayor of Forsyth seven years before, a moment when he had felt so full of possibility.
There had been a few African Americans on city council over the years, one of whom had been appointed in 1991 to finish the term of a mayor who died. But now it was 2011, and Barack Obama had been elected president, and it struck John as odd that no black person had been elected to the top city job.
“I just felt someone should have been qualified,” he said.
His own qualifications at the time were that he had grown up in Forsyth, served in the Air Force, had a business degree, and was working as a network administrator for a hospital. He had never been in government before. He thought he was too inexperienced, but his friend James Green had encouraged him — “You’re a smart young man, you’ll stand up for yourself and that’s what we need,” he had told him — so he decided to try.
Out he went campaigning, focusing on infrastructure and job growth, and when he knocked on doors, he told people that he wanted Forsyth to become “a known place in Georgia,” that he wanted everyone to “feel included,” and that “I’d like your vote if you think I’m worthy.” He remembered many white residents being friendly and others staring at him through their curtains, and many black voters being supportive while others asked whether he was “moving too fast.”
He won by 151 votes — 549 to 398. He remembered how exhilarating that felt, and what had happened right after: His opponent filed a voter fraud complaint with the newly elected secretary of state, who happened to be Brian Kemp. Kemp sent investigators to Forsyth to knock on the doors of black voters who had cast absentee ballots, which turned up a few that were improperly filled out but did not change the outcome of the election.
John understood Kemp’s job was to investigate such complaints. At the same time, he felt the episode set the tone for all that followed, including what a white woman told him not long after he took office.
“She said the town probably wasn’t ready for me yet,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m sorry you’re not ready. I’m what you got.’ ”
As the months went on, he said, there were meetings about “the future of Forsyth” that he was not invited to attend. A white Republican congressman visited town and didn’t come by his office to shake his hand. He began sensing resistance to all his ideas, he said now, driving home after church one day, still remembering all the things he perceived as slights.
He drove past the old courthouse square where there was a Confederate statue landscaped with shrubs. He continued past the broad lawns and old Victorians that signaled the still mostly white side of town, through a middle-class, more racially mixed subdivision of small brick ramblers, and turned into a neighborhood of shotgun houses and worn-out churches that remained the mostly black side of Forsyth. He pulled into a cracked parking lot in front of a strip of grass with two picnic tables and playground where a swimming pool used to be.
“This is our version of a park,” he said.
It had been the park designated for African Americans during the era of segregation, and it was pretty much still the park where black kids played. John had promised voters in the neighborhood that he was going to try to bring back a beautiful new swimming pool and make it all as nice as the larger park across town, which had a golf course, a gazebo, a larger playground and a sprawl of landscaped grass. But city officials raised liability concerns, and a committee made a decision John said he did not know about, and then one morning he woke up to his phone buzzing with messages from angry voters that city workers were over at the pool, filling it in.
“They filled it with dirt,” he said, looking at it now.
He knew he had made mistakes as mayor. But it was hard not to feel like his tenure was somehow a miniature version of what he saw as the knee-jerk resistance Obama had faced, or what he had come to see as the resistance any black person faced when they violated certain unspoken rules that kept things the way they’d always been, especially in small towns like Forsyth.
“I felt like the message was I needed to stay in my place,” he said. “It was, ‘How in the world can we make sure this guy — and I’ll be honest, this n----- — won’t be elected again.”
He shook his head. He drove toward home, still thinking about the dirt.
“It pisses me off, people telling me how far I can go,” he said. “I got every right to be anything I want to be — no man can tell me what I can and can’t be.”
He turned into Brookwood, the middle-class part of town where he lived in the same brick house in which he’d grown up with his widowed mother, with many of the same neighbors, including some older black leaders who blamed John’s inexperience, not racism, for what had gone wrong.
“They want to crucify me, but I feel like, where were you?” he said. “There was nobody in my corner. It was like a boxing match, and nobody in my corner. It was like they were waiting for me to fail.”
When reelection time came in 2015, he lost by 53 votes to a white city councilman named Eric Wilson, who’s the type of mayor who talks about “synergy for economic development,” and his good rapport with state officials, and how he and John, a city councilman now, “work well together, though now in reverse roles.”
To John, though, it all felt like a great white restoration was underway. If Obama’s victory had flung open a brief window of hope for people like him, Wilson’s win felt like the window closing, and Trump’s win felt like the window locking, and the prospect of a Kemp victory in the governor’s race felt like sealing the window shut, and all of this was why he had emailed the Abrams campaign.
“I would be enthusiastically inclined to make this request via phone, or in person, should it be necessary!” he had written to the scheduler, and when he didn’t hear anything back after a few days, he called a friend who had a connection to the campaign and made another pitch.
There were other African Americans who had held office in Forsyth, and one of them was John’s neighbor Rosemary Walker, who served three terms on the city council until 2009. She had watched Abrams’s speech on primary night, too, and when she started seeing Kemp signs going up around the county, she called the Abrams campaign and put in her own request that she visit Forsyth.
“We’re right off I-75!” she told them.
She asked for yard signs and when they came, she put them in the same spot she’d put the ones for Obama. She had gone to both of Obama’s inaugurations, and taken photos she’d added to a vast collection she kept locked inside a rusted-out storage shed by the highway, where one day she pulled up and opened the door, releasing a warm rush of mildewed air.
Inside were hundreds of old frames leaning and stacked high against the walls, each one holding a photo or old newspaper story about a local black person who had somehow made their mark. She began rummaging through them, searching for a few specific ones.
“This was Rita Samuels,” she said, flipping past a photo collage of the civil rights activist who grew up in Forsyth and worked for former president Jimmy Carter.
“This is a lady who was a doctor, Luetta Boddie, in 1927. People always ask me if she’s white, and I say, no, black,” said Rosemary, who was old enough to remember separate black and white waiting rooms at her dentist, and how all of that had ended in Forsyth quietly and without much conversation.
She walked over to another stack of photos piled on the water-stained carpet. Here was the pastor of Mt. Gilead church. Here was Harold Moore, an actor who was in plays all over the country. Here was an NFL player who graduated from the local high school. There were so many photos to frame that at one point she began buying thrift store frames because the glass alone for a new one cost $25, and at another point — the year after Obama became president — she decided to start showing her collection to the public.
Once a year, during Black History Month, she hauled all the photos out of the shed and set them up wherever she could find a place, which was lately inside an old train depot downtown that was used by the county historical society, and had portraits of early white county settlers on the wall. She set up the photos on easels her husband made. She staffed the exhibit herself every day including Sunday. She had banners hung all around Forsyth — “Celebrate Black History!” — and did all of this without asking the city for help.
“You can’t wait on people,” Rosemary said, and found one of the photos she was looking for.
“This was Paul James,” she said, explaining that he had managed as a black man in the 1930s to buy a row of buildings off the courthouse square, where he opened a barbershop, a pool hall, a record store, a cafe and a dry cleaner that served the black side of town.
“It was little stuff, but he owned it,” she said, looking at the photo.
She went through another stack, a chronicle of a small Southern town’s progress toward racial equality. The first black postman in 1966. The first black principal of the high school after integration in 1970. And another photo she had been looking for.
“This is me,” Rosemary said, holding up a front-page newspaper photo of the first black homecoming queen, beaming in a sash and crown in November of 1972.
She remembered how shocked she was when she found out she’d been elected by students of the newly integrated high school, and how she had felt standing on the football field, the crowd cheering her on.
“I was dumbfounded,” she said. “I did not think it was going to be me.”
People called her “Queen” for a long time after that, and some still did. She knew that some of her white classmates later helped her get elected to the city council, and that some of them became people who voted for Trump, whom Rosemary called Trunk, not as a joke but as a matter of complete disregard. She kept searching through her photos. The first black city councilman in 1978. The first black police chief in 1980.
“And that’s John,” she said.
She held up a smiling photo of the first elected black mayor of Forsyth, his hands clasped together and resting on a wood desk. She looked at it for a moment, then put it back in the pile on the floor. She closed the door of the shed and locked it shut.
For a week, John didn’t hear anything from the campaign. Then he got a call from his contact saying that Abrams was considering a visit to one of three towns in middle Georgia, and Forsyth was one of the possibilities.
On Sunday, he went to church. He was a deacon at St. James Baptist, and after the choir sang “Come to Jesus” he went to the front to deliver the opening prayer.
“Father, we understand what really makes us free,” he began. “We understand you provided everything for us — everything, everything you want us to have it . . .” he said. “Father, we need you. It’s been a rough week, Father . . . We need to see something going on this week . . .”
Meanwhile, Abrams was two hours away at an event in Augusta. All week, she had been crisscrossing the state. She had been three hours away in Donalsonville. She had been three hours away in Savannah. She had been two hours away at a barbershop in Albany called Kut N Edge, where the owner, Lerron Lee, had said he could hardly believe it when he found out she was coming. A person on her campaign staff happened to get his hair cut at the barbershop and had suggested the venue, but Lee never thought it was really going to happen.
“That’s big — I never had anyone that important want to come by this shop,” he had said in the hour before Abrams was to arrive, when volunteers were setting up rows of chairs and people were filling them in.
“She’s coming to the real grass roots,” said a man who was standing near the door as the shop got more and more crowded. Someone set up a podium. A television crew arrived. A state senator arrived.
“Did she get here?” someone asked when a campaign staffer walked in.
Lee was watching through the window.
“Stand by!” he said as a black SUV pulled into the cracked parking lot of the old strip mall and stopped in front of the barbershop. People hoisted their cellphones. Someone called out “next governor!”
Abrams made her way inside, shaking hands and touching shoulders, and as she began talking about those who had been “left out and left behind,” people nodded and said “all right.”
She talked about growing up in Mississippi. And she told the story she had told many times by now, about her father, a college graduate who could only get work at a shipyard because of the racial barriers at the time.
Her family had only one car, she began. Her dad would often hitchhike home at night. And one of those nights, she said, the family was waiting for him as it got later and colder and finally they decided to drive out and find him. When they did, Abrams continued, he was half-frozen and without his only coat. He told his family he had given it to a homeless man. When they asked why, Abrams said, her father told them, “Because I knew you were coming for me,” and her voice rose as she delivered the signature line of her campaign.
“I’m coming for you, Georgia!” she said, and now people were clapping. They were cheering. They were taking photos, and as they left, they were signing up to register voters, knock on doors and make phone calls on election night.
In Forsyth, John was still waiting. He got an Abrams sign and put it in his yard. He called the campaign again. He contacted a Democratic Party field director, who told him she would do all she could. He thought about driving to some other campaign appearance to make his request face to face.
One day, sitting at the Waffle House by I-75, he remembered the last time something inspiring had happened in Forsyth, which was an event celebrating Paul James, the man who had bought the row of buildings in the 1930s and opened the barbershop, the pool hall, the record store, the cafe and the dry cleaner.
Rosemary had petitioned the city to rename the short block in James’ honor, and on a sunny August afternoon when Obama was still the president and John was still the mayor, there had been a dedication ceremony. There were yellow and black balloons tied to the railings outside all the old shops. Rosemary had brought a red carpet she used at Christmas and rolled it out in the middle of the street. Members of the James family, who still owned the buildings, came from Atlanta and other people came from all over, and John had stood in front of the crowd and talked about a man whose name had loomed large in his childhood.
He recalled how he heard his mother on the phone one night, speaking quietly about a relative who was in trouble, and saying that what they needed to do was call Paul James. He’d heard adults saying the name all the time growing up. If someone needed help, the solution was to call Paul James, and on the day of the dedication, John had talked about what it meant to have a powerful person paying attention.
He thought about that now, about how it would feel for the person who could be the first female governor of Georgia, the first black governor of Georgia, and the first black woman to govern any state in America to come to Monroe County, to Forsyth, to here.
“I mean, to actually see this person?’ he said. “To actually have her show up?”
He checked his phone for messages. He saw a news report that Abrams was now tied with Kemp in the polls. He called his campaign contact again and told him to call the minute he heard anything.
“Because I want to be able to get the word out and let people know it’s actually going to happen,” he explained as cars kept passing by. “That she’s coming.”