A hundred miles outside of Atlanta, antebellum homes dot the landscape throughout Hancock County. However, there is one estate where the former owner is buried in the backyard. This sizeable two-story plantation was initially built by a prominent cotton farmer sometime between 1917 and 1919. The original owner sold the house in the 1930s to another family who ran a local mercantile store nearby. They lived in the house for decades as an extended family, which even hosted a family wedding reception in 1939. The house was renovated sometime in the 1950s before being sold to Dr. John McCown.
By 1960, Hancock County, Georgia had become one of the poorest counties in the United States. Regardless of federal changes, segregation of all sorts continued throughout the South. Although African-Americans made up 90% of the county’s population, none held any political office in the county.
A 33-year old civil rights activist named John McCown moved to the area and purchased the plantation home in 1967. As executive director of the Georgia Council on Human Relations, McCown initially came to the area to assist in black voter registration. John McCown realized through his involvement in local politics that white county leaders would consistently vote against improvements when the issues at hand involved or benefited the black community. He decided that the community needed to be more involved in the local political process, and there needed to be a black majority on the county commission.
Despite his best attempts, John McCown was perceived as an outsider by a majority of the white community. They felt that since he was not from the area, he did not understand how things functioned in the county — many of the county’s political deals were made behind closed doors. McCown’s direct nature of public intimidation and exposure generated a sense of fear among the white community.
As a founder of the East Central Committee for Opportunity (ECCO), John McCown was able to successfully entice federal and private grant money to invest in the county’s future. One of the primary objectives was a Head Start campaign for the youth of Hancock County. McCown began an investigation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) as to why so few African Americans were granted loans for housing. Procedures were changed, and they began receiving FHA loans after the investigation found biased practices in Hancock County.
John McCown’s crusade resulted in Hancock County receiving over $8 million in grant funds. Some of the funds were used to build a catfish farm, which at one time was the largest in the state. He also facilitated the building of a 150-unit low-income housing project and a cinder block plant, all located within the county. Some people referred to McCown as a con artist, but others revered him for being able to obtain large sums of money to a desperately poor area.
In 1969, McCown and other civil rights activists became an integral part of the racial fight regarding the integration of the all-white Sparta High School. African-Americans had been previously relegated to the overcrowded, less funded Hancock Central High School.
Tensions in the county reached a boiling point in 1974. Rumors that the black community was stockpiling weapons in hopes of a civil uprising led the Mayor to order ten submachine guns for his six-member police force following reports of gunfire throughout the countryside.
McCown responded by purchasing 30 submachine guns and creating pamphlets advertising the “Hancock Sporting Rangers” as a “hunting club” and encouraging the purchase of firearms. McCown also started a boycott of white businesses that would continue until an agreement was reached.
A wave of arson swept throughout the community. In response, former Governor Jimmy Carter made a visit to the small town in hopes of defusing the racial tension. Carter served as a mediator. With his influence, both sides ended the arms race and relinquished all of their submachine guns. Within a few years, Carter would use his skills in public relations to become elected 39th President of the United States.
John McCown was a polarizing figure, respected by the black community, thought of as a ‘Black Jesus’ while others viewed him as a menace to society. Most of McCown’s dreams of economic power fizzled, although he was able to bring about 8 million dollars in funds to the county. His projects were mismanaged and the money disappeared leading to state and federal investigations. The county was still poor however, McCown was a wealthy man. Maneuvering through a variety of shell corporations, McCown gained control of many properties and hundreds of acres of land before his death.
On January 30, 1976, McCown’s leadership came to an abrupt halt. After news that funding had run out and he was being terminated as CEO of ECCO. McCown spent the night drinking with friends at the night club he owned in town. Early the next morning McCown decided to take a ride in his single-engine Cessna with three friends. McCown did not own a pilot’s license and simply took off.
Thirty minutes after takeoff, the plane piloted by McCown went down in a forest close to his home. One passenger was thrown from the plane and survived the crash. Unfortunately, McCown and the two other passengers were found dead, still strapped in their seats. An investigation found McCown had a blood alcohol level of 0.198, nearly twice the legal limit to drive a car in Georgia. The NTSB found no mechanical failures or malfunctions in the plane. The ownership of the aircraft led to even more financial scrutiny since it was registered to a black college in Mississippi, which had awarded him an honorary law degree.
Regardless of McCown’s death, a federal investigation into ECCO continued. With indictments of perjury and defrauding the federal government, McCown was not indicted. However, individuals within his organization were convicted. Many of them pleaded out and were able to return to their jobs within the county.