Newton County lost a civil rights leader and legend Feb. 17 when Forrest Sawyer, Jr. passed away at age 69.
According to a story received at The Covington News this week from former state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, "How Tyrone Brooks escaped Death in Covington (Newton County, GA)", Sawyer was a member of the Newton Six, a group of men jailed for more than two months nearly 50 years ago for protesting segregation in Newton County.
In 2015, author Bunnie Jackson-Ramson wrote of the incident: “The ‘Newton Six’ were jailed for more than two months, during the period of protest in the spring of 1970. The Newton Six were considered the leaders of the movement in the county. There was former member of the GA House of Representatives Tyrone Brooks, Lloyd Jackson, Robert Johnson, Joe Lightfoot, Forrest Sawyer, Jr. and Leon Walker. Due to their imprisonment by Sheriff Henry Jr. Odum and the games he was playing, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., Maynard Jackson, vice mayor of Atlanta, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Attorney Billy Randall Jr. of Macon Ga. had to get involved. This movement had to be elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court to get them released. Finally, a Federal Judge acting on a petition by attorney Howard Moore ordered them released with all charges dismissed. Because Tyrone Brooks was the SCLC leader, dispatched from The National Headquarters in Atlanta, he was immediately targeted by Sheriff Henry Jr. Odum, who threatened to kill Brooks with a double barreled sawed off shotgun, while marching back to St. Paul AME Church.”
Jackson-Ransom wrote that nobody died and that the movement was a success.
“It was a major success and victory over Jim Crow Legal Segregation and discrimination,” she wrote, ”Six years later, Sheriff Odum apologized to Brooks, publicly for his awful conduct, profanity, threatening to kill him, and jailing the Newton Six and others etc. Sheriff Odum died a short time later.
“Because of this movement Newton County now has an African American sheriff, Ezell Brown. Covington, Newton County, GA is a major Metro Atlanta city that’s a thriving and beautiful community today. A Historic Marker was later placed at the old jail to commemorate the Newton Six victory. Brooks is still a frequent visitor.”
In February 2013, Sawyer and Anthony Shy were honored at the Historic Courthouse as Newton County Civil Rights heroes. In a March 10, 2013 story in The Covington News, Shy described what is was like to have Sawyer participate in the march.
"The police started at the front of the line and worked their way back with the handcuffs," Shy said remembering the day. "Forrest Sawyer was right out front. All of us kids called him the Motivator because he walked alongside us, shouting encouragement through a bullhorn."
At the end of Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, Chairman Marcello Banes remembered Sawyer’s contributions to Newton County.
"I had the privilege of going to a friend of mine’s bedside,” he said, “Someone who has done so much for, I say, for Newton County- I won’t just say for the African-American community, I’ll say for Newton County as a whole, seeing him, and hearing him whisper to me, saying,’ All I wanted was what was best for Newton County’…
“You know, he was a little rough around the edges, but he had to be for the time that he came along in this community. And I’m so thankful that he did - he paved the way for a lot of people and he’s going to be truly missed in this community. And I feel so thankful that I had the opportunity to be a part of his life.”