No one wants to see their hometown in the news for unsavory reasons. But I was not shocked when I learned that my hometown, Newnan, Georgia — a small city near Atlanta — would host a neo-Nazi rally.
Instead, I was shocked that so many Newnan folks were shocked.
As the white supremacists — mostly from out-of-town — prepared to gather in Newnan last weekend, there were public declarations from the city’s residents and leaders that the hatred exemplified by the neo-Nazis was not welcome. And yet, as the two dozen neo-Nazis yelled on Saturday about the “Zionist media” and evil feminists — that’s before leaving to burn a swastika in another town — I realized there was a lot about this scenario that felt very familiar to me.
My memories of Newnan include Confederate flags waving high. Concerted efforts, by local churches, to demonize those not considered properly Protestant. Racial slurs flung at classmates. The insistence, in history class and beyond, that the Civil War was not about slavery. A childhood friend of my brother’s telling me a Holocaust joke.
They include a ceremony marking the return of a body of a Confederate soldier, an event that was topped off by the appearance of former Georgia governor Lester Maddox — a violent segregationist. They include the daughter of a church leader telling me, in the years after college, that I was the only Jew she’d ever met, and of an elderly woman rising at a funeral to switch seats after a black woman sat next to her. They include memories of friends of friends raging at their black “friends” for talking openly about the persecutions they face every day.
And, sure, they also include Southern niceties — the honeyed voices and sweet expressions. The outward welcomes, if not always sincere, paired with the repeated insistence that the South’s worst ills, including racism, were a thing of the past. It doesn’t happen here, they insisted — and then they turned around and voted overwhelmingly for a candidate whose campaign was fueled by racial hatred.
Sometimes, in the South, we take our sweet tea with a healthy side of cognitive dissonance. And even if it took me leaving Newnan to see it clearly, I cannot reconcile the horrified responses to the neo-Nazi rally with the Newnan I experienced in my past.
When people ask me where I’m from, I always say Newnan, but with caveats: It’s where I went to middle school and high school, but it’s not where I’m from. Years in a town do not a home make — not when you’re an outsider from the beginning; not when the reigning sentiments are not ones you want to adopt as your own.
But this weekend, I started calling Newnan my “hometown” again. This was not to claim Newnan with love. Rather, because I put in many formative years there, I feel compelled to speak truth to the town’s counter-narrative: Yes, of course a neo-Nazi rally could happen in Newnan. Of course it fits: You can’t maintain Confederate statues in your square, sit with practical segregation in your communities, exclude people, vote hatred in, and then ask “Why?” when groups who amplify all of those qualities come waltzing into town.
If someone says such behavior is “not welcome in our community,” I’d suggest the contrary: You left the door wide open to this.
Many residents and business owners declared “Newnan strong” — but has Newnan ever been strong against the sentiments expressed by neo-Nazis? What part of this doesn’t fit with the below-the-surface — and oftentimes overt — prejudices that plague my memories of the not religiously diverse place where I grew up?
Yes, it should be pointed out that prejudice is not exclusive to the South — and even, perhaps, that Newnan is not really that different from many other Southern towns. But neither is Newnan the accepting haven that its papers have painted it to be. Prayer circles and chalk expressions of solidarity are nice, but such actions did not, from what I’ve seen, involve reaching out to include members of the religious communities that the neo-Nazis marched against.
Did anyone reach hands across the divide to ask what could be done to change the town’s image after the park was cleaned, the businesses were reimbursed, and the marchers had moved on to their next location? Local leaders could not even manage to condemn the demonstrators without also loudly condemning Antifa on the other side — as if fascists and those who stand against them are equally bad.
Newnan, like many small towns that are slow to progress, wants the world to see it only in terms of its best qualities. Individuals there will tell you that they have black friends; some, thanks to me — I grew up Catholic but converted to Judaism, my great-grandparents’ religion, after college — have now even met a Jewish person. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” and all.
We are not meant, I guess, to notice that those who don’t fit into the most genteel Southern box are also the ones to flee to places that genuinely accept LGBTQ people, or where there are fellow Catholics or Mormons or Jews, or where Confederate symbology is at least more diffuse. This is anecdotal, but the strongest allies I have from my high school days mostly communicate with me from out of state. I could not imagine staying in Newnan — I imagine that their new zip codes mean the same, at least partially.
Newnan wants you to know that it’s trying, and that may well be true. But I can also tell you is that it’s not a place where I’d feel safe wearing my Star of David necklace while shopping downtown. Maybe outsiders lit the match this weekend, but they tapped into something that’s been brewing there awhile.