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Candlelight vigil in Cumming honors three killed in Charlottesville
Vigil for Charlottesville
A vigil was held in Cumming in remembrance of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, and two Virginia State Police officers who were killed Aug. 12 following a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. - photo by Jim Dean

Racial strife and partisanship have been topics of contention in Forsyth County for years, both being discussed and subdued, but over the weekend the tone of a group of politicians, officials and activists holding a candlelight vigil in downtown Cumming was more somber and one of healing.

The vigil was in remembrance of Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, and two Virginia State Police officers who were killed Aug. 12 following a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Heyer was run over by a vehicle driven by a supporter of the white supremacist groups, and the officers were killed when their helicopter crashed while they were on their way to the violent protests.

“This is not a protest or demonstration,” said Anita Tucker, a Democratic activist in the county. “It is meant to be an opportunity to recognize the fallen and hope that we, as a nation, can learn and improve.”

Though hosted by the Forsyth County Democratic Party, Sunday evening’s attendees and event speakers included residents from across the aisle, most of whom shared the same sentiment: promote conversation.

“At first, I was reluctant [to speak] because I did not want it to turn into anything that is partisan that is going to tear us apart in any more ways than we already are,” said District 24 state Rep. Sheri Gilligan, whose district spans Cumming and west Forsyth. “But the part of me that was drawn to it was the fact that [the event] wanted to honor not only Heather Heyer but the two officers who did lose their lives, as well.

“I thought it deserved a voice from my end of the political spectrum. I truly believe the divisive nature of what has turned into American politics today is hurting the citizens and hurting our nation, and we are not having the civil discourse that we should. I wanted to be there to show that those ends of the spectrum can be there to honor the [victims’] lives and put politics aside.”

Daniel Blackman, a Forsyth Democrat who most recently ran against District 27 state Sen. Michael Williams, said the vigil was also important in addressing the history of racism both in the county and across the nation.

“This was about healing our county and looking beyond the shadow that has pretty much clouded our county for so long,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to have a conversation and it’s love, not hate, that is going to change our country.”

Blackman’s statement was in reference to a book called “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America,” a work of non-fiction recounting events before and after 1912 in Forsyth County surrounding the “night-riders” who forcibly drove out every single black resident and did not allow anyone of color to return to Forsyth until the 1990s. 

“When [Patrick Phillips’] Blood at the Root came out, residents came out and recognized that [though] we’re neighbors with some of the families involved, we want to live in a county we’re proud of because of our schools and growth and [infrastructure] and not live under a cloud of [shame]. Things happened here, but things have happened all over the country, so I hope that we can continue to have conversations.”

Gilligan said those kinds of conversations are what can heal a nation.

“I do sincerely hope that somehow, someway, Forsyth County — that has a reputation that has been less than stellar — can somehow earn the reputation that it truly deserves.

“I truly grew up with people who were loving and kind and generous, and that’s the Forsyth County I really got to know. I believe that’s the Forsyth County that’s going to show the rest of the world, ‘This is what good looks like.’”