DAHLONEGA, Ga. – The mayor was still home when his phone started ringing. The reverend was still down with the flu when he began getting one message after another. Valerie Fambrough had just dropped off her daughters at day care when she heard.
“Have you seen the sign in the square?” a parent asked her on a cold morning three weeks ago. “There’s a Ku Klux Klan sign in the town square.”
And, in fact, there was. Just past the old brick courthouse and across the street from candy stores and antique shops, a large rectangular banner was screwed tight into the cracked wood siding of a long-vacant building on East Main Street. “Historic Ku Klux Klan Meeting Hall,” it said.
It had a cartoonish drawing of a white-sheeted person raising a hand. In addition, there was a Confederate battle flag at one corner of the building and a red flag with a white cross and the letters KKK at the other. They were fluttering in the wind blowing across Dahlonega, and what happened next would become one more pocket of America dealing with a disturbing incident at a time when hate crimes have been on the rise and new brands of white nationalism have been making a comeback across the country.
In upstate New York, the home of a Jewish man was spray-painted with swastikas. In Virginia, fliers were distributed in several neighborhoods with the words, “Make America WHITE again-and greatness will follow.” In Colorado, two typewritten notes that read “WERE GONNA BLOW UP ALL OF YOU REFUGEES,” were left at a community center serving mainly Muslim immigrants. Now whatever was happening in other parts of the country seemed to have arrived in Dahlonega.
The mayor got dressed and headed for the square. The reverend called the sheriff. Fambrough recalled how she hurried over to see for herself, saying “No, no, not here,” the whole way, and “Hell,no,” until she was there, alone, staring at the banner.
She was a white 37-year-old mother of two, a program specialist in the biology department at the University of North Georgia who called Dahlonega a “sweet, loving town” and had never protested anything in her life. Now she felt her anger rising. She remembered the flip-chart paper in her trunk left over from a presentation a month before and made two signs – “Not in my town,” she wrote, and “Love Lives Here” – then got out and stood in her sandals holding them.
She was freezing. The square was still quiet, with all the shops closed. She scanned the windows across the street to see if someone was watching. She planned which way she would run if something happened. Cars passed, and she scrutinized each face.
A woman shook her head and kept going.
A man gave her a thumbs-up.
A woman called out of her window, “Did you put that sign up?” and Fambrough said “No, no!” and then Bridget Kahn parked, got out, and now there were the two of them.
A woman in a red minivan stopped and yelled “Y’all are angry! You’re angry, angry people!” and drove off.
A black pickup truck parked across the street, and a muscular man got out, and a reporter from the local paper who’d just arrived told the women it was Chester Doles, a former leader in the Klan and a white-separatist group called the National Alliance who had gone to prison on federal weapons charges. He lived just outside town and was currently a personal trainer who also worked promoting “hate rock” concerts around the country. He pulled out a cellphone and began taking photographs. He said something to the women, but they couldn’t hear.
“What’s that, sir?” Kahn called out, and the women heard him say something about how “glorious” it was to see such a sign in the light of day, and then he drove off, even as more people were arriving – white-haired locals, college students and others who said they were appalled; a Native American man who brought a ladder and tried to rip the banner down; a white man who argued the KKK banner and flag should come down but not the Confederate battle flag; a young black man who stood there crying.
Here came the mayor and the sheriff trying to figure out what was going on.
Here came two pickup trucks circling the square, revving their engines. The woman in the red minivan returned, honking her horn and seeming to veer too close to the protesters.
A school bus passed, and now Fambrough was crying as the town dispatched a cherry picker to the scene, and workers began ratcheting out the first of 21 screws holding the banner in place.
Another truck arrived, this one belonging to a local roofing company and plastered with Confederate logos, and several workers climbed on the roof and began removing the flags.
And that was how the banner came down, and the flags came down, and all the rest began.
All over town that first day, people kept saying this was not the Dahlonega they knew.
“Our little pocket of loveliness” is how one resident described the former gold mining town an hour drive north of Atlanta, known for its redbrick square lined with antique shops and wine tasting rooms. It was the seat of Lumpkin County, which did not have the reputation for racial violence that many other north Georgia counties did, though no one disputed that there were probably Klan members scattered around. It was overwhelmingly white and Republican, though Dahlonega itself was home to a small, deeply rooted, black population, and had in recent years attracted a more liberal crowd who considered themselves part of the progressive South.
Now, though, all anyone could talk about was what happened in the town square.
Even before the last screw came out of the banner, photos of it were appearing all over social media with captions like “WTF, Dahlonega?” and people began speculating about who did it.
Maybe it was a college prank. Maybe it was an outsider. Maybe it really was the Klan, a relic coming back to life. In an area that voted heavily for Donald Trump, speculation began that the whole thing was the work of anti-Trump activists, and when she got home, Fambrough went online and saw that people were accusing her of putting up the banner, saying she was part of the “alt-left.”
By evening, though, people had found out who was really responsible: It was one of their own, an 84-year-old white woman named Roberta Green-Garrett, the owner of the building in question who lives in a brick mansion with four white columns on a hill overlooking the town.
Offering no explanation and declining to speak with reporters, she had told town officials that she had allowed the banner to go up and might try to put it up again. She had been seeking permission to build a hotel on the square, and people speculated that it was all an audacious ploy to embarrass the town into approving her plans.
“An isolated case of Mrs. Green,” is how the mayor, Gary McCullough, described it, saying that there was no evidence the building was ever used by the Klan and that he hoped people would move on.
For many people, though, it was too late for that. The point wasn’t who did it. The point was that it had happened, and whatever it had unleashed was taking on a life of its own.
As day two began, a local Unitarian church was organizing a “unity march” for later that afternoon.
Fambrough heard and began calling her friends. “It’s about showing people that they have nothing to be afraid of in our town!” she told them.
More calls were made, including one to the minister, John Webb, a former town council member who is black, who had heard by then who had done it, which didn’t make it less worrying to him. He said he had noticed more pickup trucks roaring around during the presidential campaign, Confederate battle flags flying – “Guys I know,” he said, “saying ‘the South will rise again’ and all that stuff” – and that regardless of why the banner went up, “It’s very possible it could boomerang into something bigger than it is.”
He was 72, a veteran of the civil rights struggle still sick from the flu, but he was going, and he called others to go, too, and as word spread about the coming demonstration, so did a parallel set of rumors.
The KKK was coming. The neo-Nazis were coming. Black Lives Matter was coming. Fambrough heard that an “antifascist” group from Atlanta was coming and began feeling sick imagining windows being smashed and businesses being torched. The sheriff called for backup and readied a plan in case a riot or something worse was about to happen in Dahlonega.
In the late afternoon, people began rallying around the square, waving signs.
“Not OKKK America,” one said. “Dahlonega Loves Y’all,” read another, and “Really, Roberta?”
People honked horns in support. A local fiddler came. A member of the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls came and everybody sang “This Land Is Your Land.”
Soon, several pickup trucks arrived, revving their engines and circling the square, with Confederate battle flags and Make America Great Again flags flying. When a protester started yelling at one of them, Fambrough yelled at the protester, “Don’t make assumptions!”
By the third day, events began taking another turn.
“More s— stirrers!” someone posted online about the protesters. “You all are the ones that are going to ruin that town and jobs will be lost!!! Good job, morons!!”
“All crybabies jump on board!” wrote someone else.
“Let it go,” a woman posted.
But people were not letting it go.
“It’s like a certain political climate has opened up,” said Paul Dunlap, a professor at the university, sitting at the end of the fifth day around a fire with friends at Shenanigans pub on the square. An openly gay man, he said he had never experienced any kind of bigotry in his two decades in Dahlonega.
“I think it’s a good idea not to be naive,” said Deb Rowe, the pub’s owner, and now they started talking about Chester Doles, who sometimes came in for a beer at the bar. Someone had noticed that on the building where the banner had been, inside a locked glass case near the door, there was a flier for Doles’s personal training services, showing him oiled up and smiling in full bodybuilder pose.
“Is this indicative of something bigger?” said Dunlap. “Like, do they think they have a voice?”
“I think Roberta’s using the national polarization against us all,” said Jeremy Sharp, a white student at the university who was organizing a boycott of her businesses, which included two buildings she rented out to antique dealers, several hundred units of student housing, and a Holiday Inn Express.
“A peaceable revolution,” Sharp said at a news conference on the sixth day as residents crowded into a small room at the university to hear.
“A few days ago, we had an obtuse sign put up,” he began. “When I walked out and saw that, it scared me. It scared me as a Catholic. It scared me as a person who has friends who look different than me. We are here because we are afraid.”
People clapped and cheered as Sharp began explaining a plan to withhold rent from Green-Garrett and barrage Holiday Inn’s corporate offices with phone calls, which would lead the hotel chain’s parent company, IHG, to issue a statement saying that they had “expressed our concerns” to Green-Garrett and that “This is not the type of activity that we want any of our brands associated with.” As Sharp kept talking, two Dahlonega council members arrived, explaining that they were only there to get “the public sentiment.”
“So, no comment?” a young woman yelled at them.
“The only comment I’ll make is that the KKK does not represent the values of this town,” one of the men said.
“Then why’d you vote for it? Why’d you vote for it?” the woman yelled, getting more upset, and even though there was never such a vote, some people began cheering her on.
“Let’s keep this civil! They did not vote for that sign!” said another young woman trying to quiet the room, but emotions were high.
A man said that the KKK had recently applied unsuccessfully to take part in the Adopt-A-Highway program in a neighboring county. A woman said she was worried about “all the undertones of hate being brought out of the woodwork.”
“I’m very concerned,” said Daniel Blackman, a former state Senate candidate who was the first black person ever to run for office from nearby Forsyth County, which has a long history of violence against blacks and was until the late 1980s known as a “whites only” county. “Whether it’s a stunt or whether Ms. Garrett really feels that way, the fact is there are children here that might be threatened or afraid and we’ve got to get ahead of it. The last thing you want to see is someone crazy enough to do something stupid.”
Soon, the meeting ended, and as everyone was heading out into the cold Dahlonega night, an older white man, trying to be sensitive, said to Blackman, “Be careful.”
The next morning, all of this was the topic of North Georgia talk radio, and the host was taking callers. A woman named Sharon was on the line.
“It’s not just fake news, it’s a fake agenda,” she began, and explained that the banner might have been part of an elaborate plot not only to create chaos in Dahlonega, but also to undermine the presidency of Trump and ultimately, the nation.
She knew all of this, she said, because she had gone online and discovered a website for a group with locations across the country – including in Dahlonega – that was made up of “former congressional staffers working for the previous administration. They are supporting the impeachment. They support open borders. They are supporting Obamacare. They are promoting disruption at town halls – I call it bullying – and they have a potential for violence.
“I hope everyone is aware that this type of activity – I call it subversion, with a fake narrative – is taking root in the area,” she continued, and meanwhile, in Dahlonega, another new development was unfolding.
Over at town hall, an assistant to Green-Garrett was filing paperwork for a new sign permit.
“Size of sign: 4×6.”
“Material of sign: wood (painted).”
“Color of sign: Gold with Black Lettering.”
“How sign will be attached to wall: Screwed.”
It was an application to make the sign permanent. It would say, “Historic Ku Klux Klan Meeting Hall,” and that was how the seventh day ended.
And then, two days after that, the application was withdrawn.
Green-Garrett issued her first statement since unleashing all of this eight days before, saying that she had been trying to get a hotel built only to “meet opposition at every turn.” “I have no other motivation other than to bring businesses and tax revenue to the city,” her statement said. “I want to move forward and do something positive for the city of Dahlonega.”
She said nothing about the KKK banner, and when she was reached by phone at her winter home in Florida, she said “no comment” and hung up.
At her real estate office in a worn-out strip mall on the edge of town, her assistant, Barbara Bridges, said the banner was there, rolled up and stored in a closet.
The town issued an official statement saying that “Dahlonega is a welcoming community for people of diverse backgrounds” and that “recent episodes are not indicative of a change in our character or philosophy.”
The students called off the boycott and declared victory.
And now it was a sunny afternoon on the town square.
People were stopping by the candy shop, or wandering down the aisles of antique shops where Kenny G was playing through the speakers, or eating a sandwich across from the building where a KKK banner had been.
“Yeah, it’s the site of one of the last major gold rushes,” a man standing on the square said to a woman, explaining what he knew about Dahlonega.
“Do you have this in a large?” a woman asked at a T-shirt shop.
Reverend Webb, home this afternoon, said he was heartened to see how so many people had taken a stand. “Dahlonega is a sacred place for everybody,” he said.
At the same time, he said, the episode was not simply about the banner. To him, it was about a banner that had appeared after an election in which the new president had said certain things that had appealed to white nationalists and other hatemongers, whether he intended to or not, opening the door to events that could spiral out of control.
“The atmosphere he’s created in America today has caused people to think they have some kind of power again,” he said. “I thought that before, and I still do.”
Doles, who was out driving in his truck, said he agreed with this assessment. He had been on the way home from the gym when he first saw the banner and the flags, he said, and thought to himself, “It’s been a long time coming.” He said he had recently raised his own flag for the first time in years – the American one, because he finally feels pleased with the direction of the country.
“In the last 50 years, I didn’t think we had the votes to elect a governor, much less a president,” Doles said. “And yet here we are today.”
All of this was what worried Valerie Fambrough, sitting outside at a coffee shop on the pleasant afternoon. She felt good about all the people, including Trump supporters, who had come out to “proclaim a message of love.” She felt unsettled that some people thought she was part of an alt-left agenda. It all felt like the beginning of something, not the end.
“I’m just scared these days,” she said, even though the banner was no longer anywhere in sight.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Stephanie Mccrummen