BRUNSWICK, Ga. — A 26-year-old black man stood on the steps of the old brick courthouse on Friday and decried the shooting death of another black man who would have turned 26 that day had he lived to see it. “That could have easily been me,” he said.
There was anger and anguish and cries of “No justice, no peace!” stirred by the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in February. But there was also an interracial crowd, strong words from the white Glynn County sheriff, Neal Jump, and a sense of honoring a history that added an unexpected note to an all-too-familiar drama of a young black man being gunned down under troubling circumstances.
Looming over the grim vigil was also Brunswick’s legacy as a “model Southern city,” its reputation shaped by national attention and praise decades ago for the way black and white leaders had worked together to integrate with far less of the acrimony that had boiled over in desegregation efforts elsewhere.
As outrage over Mr. Arbery’s case has swept through Brunswick and beyond it, amplified by a graphic video capturing his fatal encounter with two white men, activists and leaders have strained to maintain that legacy in the face of a potentially explosive situation.
“From the start, we did not want to make this a racial issue,” said Cedric Z. King, a black community organizer and businessman in Brunswick.
“If anyone had warm blood running through their veins and a heart that pumped blood, they would feel that what they saw on Tuesday of this week is flat-out wrong,” he added, referring to the video of the shooting that was released last week. “It’s not what this community is about, it’s not what this country is about.”
Mr. Arbery’s case has reflected the conflicting currents that have long coursed through Glynn County, situated in what’s known as the Golden Isles freckling the Georgia coast between Savannah and Jacksonville.
He lived in a place that had been recognized for its moments of racial harmony, yet it was just as defined by deeply ingrained biases that can be nearly impossible to untangle.
Most people recognize that race could have factored into the confrontation and shooting of Mr. Arbery, or in the way his case was handled by the authorities. Activists also note that the Glynn County Police Department had a history of recurring allegations of police officials shielding officers accused of wrongdoing. Gregory McMichael, one of the men charged with Mr. Arbery’s murder, was a former police officer and an investigator for the local district attorney’s office.
“It’s not a black-or-white situation,” Mr. Arbery’s aunt, Thea Brooks, said. “It’s an everybody situation.”
A collection of civic leaders, including elected officials, pastors and activists, both black and white, have been trying to follow a mold established during the days of desegregation. And they believe that their efforts have pressured law enforcement officials to take the case more seriously and have maintained order in the community.
“A spark could have gone off at any time,” said Cornell L. Harvey, the mayor of Brunswick, who is black.
In the 1960s, the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow was plain to see in Brunswick and the surrounding communities, just as in the rest of the South. Local officials were so resistant to integrating a public pool in Brunswick that they filled it with dirt instead of allowing black and white children to swim together, said Robert E. Griffin, who worked with the local N.A.A.C.P. then.
Yet amid that, the racial caste system in the region was being peacefully dismantled by a coalition of black leaders, led by the Rev. Julius Caesar Hope, and white allies, led by the Anglican minister Robert H. Wright III.
Mr. Griffin said the white leaders would sneak black activists into the back of a bank in St. Simons at night, where they would negotiate with local business owners over integrating their establishments. The result was that by the early 1970s, the region had become integrated without bloodshed, unlike some surrounding cities.
Back then, nearly half of Brunswick’s residents were black, giving them economic power that could not be ignored. And tourism, which helped drive the local economy, would have been undercut by open conflict.
“A lot of them had dollars and cents in their minds instead of resistance,” said Mr. Griffin, 82, who lives in Brunswick, where he settled in 1961 to become the band director at the black high school.
There was still intense resistance. In an effort to force the integration of a bowling alley on St. Simons Island, about a dozen black men decided to show up one night to bowl. Apparently, white opponents got wind of the plan, and when the black men arrived at the alley, nearly twice as many Ku Klux Klan members from Jacksonville were waiting there, Mr. Griffin said. The men went ahead and bowled as K.K.K. members stood around their lanes, arms folded, Mr. Griffin said. The black men called the police, who escorted them home after they were finished bowling.
The same thing happened the following night, Mr. Griffin recalled, but this time the police told the K.K.K. that if they returned, they would be thrown in jail. From that point on, the alley was integrated, Mr. Griffin said.
Once they fought past segregation, residents of the region lived a relatively harmonious racial existence, in Mr. Griffin’s view. That’s why it was so surprising, he said, to see the racially explosive killing of Mr. Arbery.
“Nobody would expect something like this to happen in this community,” Mr. Griffin said, adding that the shooting had angered him. “It shocked everybody, including the majority of whites.”
The rally outside the courthouse on Friday had been scheduled to press for arrests, but the night before, the two men, Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, had been charged with murder and aggravated assault. The men had told the authorities they had followed Mr. Arbery because they believed he was a suspect in burglaries in the area. A former prosecutor on the case told state officials that it appeared they had acted out of self-defense and were conducting a citizen’s arrest.
The protests swiftly shifted focus onto the process, which had included the case being passed on to multiple prosecutors before the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called on to it last week.
“You got comfort from it,” Karasha Jones, 54, a lifelong resident of Brunswick, said of the charges. Yet, she added, it only went so far: “If this had been a black man who had shot a white man, they would have been arrested that night.”
The anger about the case soon zeroed in on the Glynn County Police Department, whose officers had responded to the scene, and especially on Jackie Johnson, the district attorney whose jurisdiction includes the area.
After the rally, Ms. Johnson and county officials both issued statements defending their roles in the case and criticizing each other. County officials contended that Ms. Johnson had told the police not to arrest the McMichaels, but Ms. Johnson said she had recused herself from the case, citing a conflict because of her office’s ties to Mr. McMichael.
But many in the community set their sights on grander ambitions, broadening their focus beyond concerns over racial animosity to making changes to the criminal justice system in Mr. Arbery’s name..
“We’re not going to let up,” his aunt, Ms. Brooks, said. “We’re going to keep our foot on the gas.”
At Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, a small sanctuary on a two-lane route a dozen miles from town, the Rev. John D. Perry II led his congregation on Sunday from the front steps as they sat in their cars. Worshipers blew their car horns and hand-held air horns as a substitute for bellowing out “amen.”
Pastor Perry, who is also the president of the N.A.A.C.P. in Brunswick, recounted for them the prophecy of Simeon, who, in the Gospel of Luke, told Mary, Jesus’s mother, of her infant son’s destiny: “He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.”
“Isn’t that a lot like Ahmaud?” Pastor Perry said, noting that Mr. Arbery’s death “gave the world the opportunity to reveal and show their hearts.”
“Aren’t you glad that God can take a mother’s suffering and use it to bring glory to a larger group?” the pastor said, his voice rising, straining against a chorus of blaring horns.
Rick Rojas reported from Brunswick, and John Eligon from Kansas City.