You may recall last January’s events in Forsyth County, Georgia, when a newly arrived Californian announced his presence by attempting to organize a march in Gumming, the county seat, to honor Martin Luther King. That bait wouldn’t tempt an undiscriminating catfish, but a few of the local old boys rose to it anyway, displaying once again the simplicity that is one of their simultaneously endearing and infuriating traits. Although the threats they proceeded to issue were transparently less sincere than those directed the previous month at the president of the University of Alabama when he engaged the services of a football coach with a less than awesome win-loss record, they were enough to persuade the newcomer to cancel his planned march.

Now, many of us think folks ought to be able to march for any damn-fool reason they please or none at all. One Forsythian who felt that way, a white man named Dean Carter, said he was going to march, with his family, whereupon the threats got a little more serious. Carter, too, had second thoughts, at which point the Reverend Hosea Williams, a veteran of the civil rights movement now an Atlanta city councilman, heard what was happening and showed up with 75 marchers. Williams’ party was met with bottles and rocks thrown by a mob of 400 (most of them Klansmen, according to the newspapers), and the fat was in the fire.

The next week, Williams was back with more than 15,000 marchers (as many as 4,000 more were left in Atlanta, 40 miles south, because there weren’t enough buses for them). A number of speakers addressed the marchers on the general subject of the unrighteousness of Forsyth County (which does have an undeniably sordid past). This time about a thousand counter-demonstrators showed up, many of them from out-of-state, but there was no violence: The march’s critics stuck to shouting insults and making obscene gestures. Everybody went home and the media settled down to tell us what it all meant. (The next week, the whole business dissolved into farce as Williams insisted on going to jail because Oprah Winfrey wouldn’t let him on her television program.)

The national media seemed torn. Some wanted to treat both this affair and the New York City lynching that took place about the same time as signs of resurgent white racism, somehow adding up to an indictment of the Reagan administration. Others, I suspect, saw the Forsyth County episode as a welcome return to tradition, with white racism back in the Deep South where it belongs—and what a relief not to have to think about Howard Beach any more. Either way, most observers treated the event as (in the Wall Street Journal‘s words) “an old-fashioned civil-rights march.”

But, of course, an old-fashioned civil rights march is the last thing it was. (If you wanted to see one of those, you could have watched a splendid PBS documentary series, Eye on the Prize, that debuted just as all this was happening.) For starters, the odds had changed, radically. The rabble opposing the march were wise to stay nonviolent: They were outnumbered not only 15-to-1 by the marchers, but also better than 2-to-1 by the law. And added to the usual celebrities—Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King, Dick Gregory, Gary Hart (briefly, but long enough to find a television camera)—were two very significant ones: both of Georgia’s U.S. senators.

But the big story, it seems to me, was that even many white Georgians without presidential aspirations were sympathetic—although the networks, the wire services, the major newspapers, Time, and Newsweek seem largely to have ignored that fact. (OK, I didn’t see them all; the ones I saw ignored it.) For that angle, I’m indebted to a college reporter with the honesty and good sense to write his story after he went to Gumming: Rocky Rosen, of the Duke University Chronicle.

I haven’t seen a geographical breakdown on the marchers themselves, but most of those who talked to Rosen seem to have been Georgians. Certainly most of the marchers were white, and Hosea Williams had the grace to notice. Rosen quoted him: “There is not a more important moment in the history of America than today,” said Williams in his speech (perhaps exaggerating just a little bit). “We never had a demonstration, from Montgomery to Memphis, that got more white folks out there standing up for justice than black folks.” Rosen also noticed the “Gumming residents, mostly elderly, [who] waved to the march from inside their homes,” and reported that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners welcomed the marchers with a banner across the parade route and a full-page advertisement in the Atlanta Journal. Did you read about that in your newspaper?

Now, I don’t want to go overboard. Those hateful counter-demonstrators were there, and not all of them were outside agitators. Maybe the banner and newspaper ad reflected merely the Board of Commissioners’ fear that all this fuss is bad for business. If so, it would be in what is now an old Georgia tradition, pioneered by Atlanta, “the city too busy to hate.”

Nevertheless, what went on in Cumming wasn’t the relatively simple story that we saw repeated time and again in the early 1960’s. The new story may be dramaturgically less satisfying, and it’s harder to tell in 90 seconds on television, but it’s a story that, on balance, strikes me the way it struck Hosea Williams, as good news.

By coincidence, at just about the same time all this was happening, Rolling Stone carried an interview with the immortal Bo Diddley, who had just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bo wasn’t talking about Forsyth County, but he could have been. After answering a question about the hard times he had faced as a black performer in the Jim Crow South, he observed:

It’s different now. The people down here in the South now is got their s— together. Everybody’s fine; everybody gets along beautiful, and I’m so happy that that’s what happened. But you can always find a fool—you can find a fool in church, you understand?

If everyone had Brother Diddley’s true, fine sense of proportion, our national conversation would be healthier. Of course, the nation’s op-ed pages would be emptier.