David Duke surrounded by the press and supporters carrying "David Duke for President" signs

David Duke’s America

What the former Klan leader saw at Forsyth County, and how it sparked his political rise. Introducing Slow Burn: Season 4.

In the 1970s, David Duke became America’s best-known white supremacist. The twentysomething racist created a new image for the Ku Klux Klan, spewing bigotry on talk shows while decked out in a suit and tie. But by the end of the decade, he’d hit a ceiling, and he quit the KKK amid accusations he was stealing money from his followers. (Duke denied those claims, saying, as he tended to, that a Jewish group was trying to smear him.) He then pivoted to a more white-collar brand of racism, launching the National Association for the Advancement of White People. But Duke’s “white civil rights organization” attracted just 1,000 members. When the NAAWP founder went out to dinner, Tyler Bridges reported in The Rise and Fall of David Duke, he “would order the most expensive steak and then go from table to table asking for money.”

The fourth season of Slate’s podcast Slow Burn begins here, with Duke desperate to carve out a path to relevance and power. He’d find that path in 1989, in a race for the Louisiana House of Representatives. For Duke, this was the election that changed everything, that gave him the platform he needed to pursue much bigger goals. A year later, he’d receive nearly 60 percent of the white vote in Louisiana in a losing bid for the U.S. Senate. And in 1991, he’d make the runoff in his campaign to become Louisiana’s governor, nearly taking control of the state.

[Listen to Slow Burn, Episode 1: White Knight.]

I was an 8-year-old kid in New Orleans when Duke won that state House race in 1989. Back then, I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would vote for a candidate who argued that black people were inferior to white people, and who said the Holocaust never happened. I’m revisiting the David Duke story today because I want to understand what I lived through, and how it helped shape the world we’re living in now. How much cover do some white Americans need to vote for a racist? How helpless were party institutions to manage Duke? And who stepped up to stop him?

As I’ve been searching for those answers, I’ve been thinking about the moment right before Duke’s political career took off. To understand where David Duke came from and where he ended up, you need to know what happened in Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1987.

Forsyth County had a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s most racist enclaves. The U.S. census tallied just one black person living in Forsyth, though locals said they couldn’t recall ever meeting this individual. The county had been essentially all white since 1912, when a white mob lynched a black man who’d been accused, on scant evidence, of being an accessory to the rape of a white woman. Two more black teenagers were hanged after one-day trials. Forsyth’s roughly 1,100 black residents were deemed criminals by association and forcibly expelled from their homes.

Seventy-five years later, a white karate instructor named Chuck Blackburn took it upon himself to move Forsyth County forward. In January 1987, the martial artist planned a multiracial “walk for brotherhood” to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday—a gathering that would deliver the message that “it would be OK for black people to come visit in Forsyth County.” Blackburn’s neighbors didn’t like that message. He was besieged by death threats, and quickly canceled the rally. But a second white karate instructor, Dean Carter, decided to take up the cause, and he was joined by one of the civil rights movement’s most formidable leaders: Atlanta City Councilman Hosea Williams, who’d led (along with John Lewis) the famed Alabama “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

When Williams, Carter, and about 90 other demonstrators assembled in Forsyth County on the morning of Jan. 17, 1987, they were met by a group of 400 locals. This white mob screamed racial slurs, gave Nazi salutes, and carried signs bearing slogans like “Racial Purity in Forsyth County” and “Sickle Cell Anemia—the Great White Hope.” Williams, who was hit by two projectiles, said he hadn’t “seen racism any more sick than here today.” Although the march was cut short, the councilman refused to concede defeat. Williams promised that this was “not the end of marching in Forsyth County.”

[Slow Burn: Why America’s most influential black leader agreed to debate David Duke.]

The racist violence at that first rally made national headlines. So did Williams’ vow to return to Forsyth, which he and his fellow demonstrators made good on a week later. In just a few weeks, a karate instructor’s “walk for brotherhood” transformed into the biggest civil rights march in America in decades, with 20,000 peaceful demonstrators (and a protecting force of thousands of law enforcement officials) descending on north Georgia. “The civil rights family has not been together like this since we buried Martin Luther King,” Williams said. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, called it “a great demonstration of brotherhood and love.”

Hundreds of civil rights marchers carry signs
Forsyth County on Jan. 24, 1987. John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

But brotherhood and love weren’t the only things on display in Forsyth County on Jan. 24, 1987. Those 20,000 peaceful demonstrators were greeted by as many as 1,000 enraged white people—segregationists who carried Confederate flags and chanted “We hate you! We hate you!” and a whole lot worse. One of those angry people was David Duke.

At the time, Duke was living in Louisiana, publishing his racist NAAWP newsletter and playing a lot of golf. In his telling, he came to Georgia at the invitation of a group of white citizens who were “simply looking to keep their basic rights to live as they choose.” On the day of the march, Duke spoke into a bullhorn at the courthouse square in Cumming, Georgia. “This is one of the first battles in a long struggle to regain our rights in America,” Duke said. He continued:

Today, we declare that we have the right to associate with whom we desire, the right to preserve our culture and heritage, the right of our children to an education, and the right of all people, young and old, men and women, to live in communities without the black plague of crime, murder, and terror of our citizens.

Duke’s bigoted claims about black criminality were especially perverse considering Forsyth County’s history of inhumanity and violence. And that day, it’d be Duke himself who was brought up on criminal charges. According to Tyler Bridges, Duke got into an argument with a black man an hour after giving that speech at the courthouse square. He’d be charged with reckless conduct and blocking the highway. Duke, the Boston Globe reported, was “wearing a large lapel button that read ‘Keep Forsyth White,’ ” and he “yelled ‘white victory, white victory’ as he was led into a police vehicle.”

In that moment, Duke must’ve sounded delusional. Hosea Williams and his multiracial army had refused to back down, and they’d made a huge show of force. A story on the front page of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution described “an awesome sea of blacks and whites stretching across Cumming’s main street.” A white teenager, leaning on a Confederate flag, was heard muttering, “God almighty, man, look at all those people.”

But Duke wasn’t crazy to think he’d won something that day. The arrest itself was a kind of victory—an opportunity to martyr himself, and to get attention from the press that had long ignored him. His biographer Michael Zatarain writes that Duke appeared on all three national evening news shows. Duke would also benefit financially from his visit to Forsyth County, allegedly pocketing $19,000 from a legal defense fund he’d launched to defray the cost of what turned out to be a $55 fine.

[Slow Burn: The Holocaust survivor who confronted David Duke.]

Duke also came away from Forsyth County with a sense of purpose, and destiny. In his NAAWP newsletter, Duke wrote: “Historians will look at Saturday, January 23, 1987 as the apex of the Black movement in the United States and the genesis of an entirely new civil rights movement in America, a powerful mass movement for the survival and advancement of the White race on this continent.” Hyperbole was Duke’s stock in trade; he was perpetually exaggerating the size of his following and the scope of his accomplishments. But Leonard Zeskind, the author of the book Blood and Politics and an expert on extremist movements, believes that Duke genuinely “understood that something was happening among white people, that there was a growing insurgency among a sector of white people that would carry him into his Louisiana campaigns.”

What was it that Duke understood? On Jan. 20, 1987, the Atlanta Constitution published an article about a man named Harold Palmour, who’d been arrested at the first, smaller Forsyth march. The 42-year-old Palmour, an auto assembly line worker, told the paper he wasn’t in a hate group like the Ku Klux Klan but that “he was angry because the civil rights demonstrators had come from outside the county.” He said that he got “caught up” in the moment and “things got out of hand.” Palmour, who was arrested for criminal trespass, later said that the anti-black rhetoric at the rally had inspired him to pick up a rock and throw it.

There were some Klansmen in Forsyth County. But there were a lot more Harold Palmours, people who didn’t own robes and hoods but needed just a little push to become part of a ruthless white mob. These were the people whom David Duke could lead, the ones who thought the mere presence of black people was a sign that they were under threat, and who wanted someone who’d fight back on their behalf. This was David Duke’s base when he ran for office in Louisiana. It was in Forsyth County where he saw what that base looked like, and how big it might grow to be.

Slate Plus members can listen to the first three episodes of Slow Burn’s new season now. Join Slate Plus for your ad-free feed, or subscribe to Slow Burn on Apple Podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You can also check out previews of Episode 2: Robe and Ritual and Episode 3: The Nazi and the Republicans.