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 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 a so-called 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?”