Remembering The Augusta Civil Rights Riot, 50 Years Later (2023)

Protestors held a rally at a municipal building prior to the riot in Augusta, Ga., in 1970. Approximately 300 people attended and 25–30 police officers stood watch. Reese Library Augusta University hide caption

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Reese Library Augusta University

Remembering The Augusta Civil Rights Riot, 50 Years Later (2)

Protestors held a rally at a municipal building prior to the riot in Augusta, Ga., in 1970. Approximately 300 people attended and 25–30 police officers stood watch.

Reese Library Augusta University

The story is all too familiar: a Black teenager suspiciously dies in a county jail. Law enforcement's explanation of what happened doesn't line up with the boy's injuries. In response, people protest in the streets and, violence erupts. These events didn't happen last month. They happened in 1970 in Augusta, Ga.

For two days, starting on May 11, 1,000 Black residents rebelled against the city's systemic oppression. More than 100 blocks of neighborhoods and businesses — about 7 miles — were ransacked and vandalized. Police killed six Black men.

(Video) Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 Augusta Riot Podcast Trailer

But, until earlier this year as a result of a podcast and the 1970 Augusta Riot Observation Committee's efforts to raise awareness, most people in Augusta weren't aware this happened. The event went unmentioned and at present remains omitted from the Georgia Encyclopedia of History. The Georgia Historical Society's director and staff say didn't event know about it until the committee's application for a state marker was submitted. News outlets do occasional anniversary pieces, but these are staid and seeming don't stick in anyone's mind.

Some, like former Richmond County Superior Court Judge Bill Fleming Sr., felt it was unimportant.

"I don't know anyone knew why this so called riot took place," he said in a 2013 interview, prior to his death last year. "And I don't want to say that everybody who was involved in the riot was a thug, but a lot of them were just criminals who were out stealing, that's all."

At the time, many of the city's white leaders claimed to be flummoxed by the violence. They described Black Augustans as happy and touted the good relations between Blacks and whites.

But then Augusta College's student body president, Henry Allen Green, told Atlanta's WSB-TV News in May, 1970 that Augusta's white leaders had been willfully blind. Green, who died in 2014, was African American.

"The Black people of Augusta are tired of being told that there is no racial problem here. Whereas our local officials have not seen a problem now our nation knows that Augusta has a problem," Green said.

The problems were widespread. Data from the 1960 U.S. Census showed only 20% of Augusta's African American adults held high school diplomas. Several Black neighborhoods lacked sewerage and water. The city government had been putting off their infrastructure demands for nearly 20 years, according to City Council meeting minutes.

Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 Augusta Riot

But it was the death of 16-year-old Charles Oatman that pushed Black people past their limits. Oatman died in the Richmond County Jail on May, 9, 1970. Former City Councilman Grady Abrams said the teen was intellectually disabled and weighed about 100 lbs. "He should not have been in the county jail. He should have been out at Youth Development Center," Abrams said in a 2013 interview.

That was the area's juvenile detention center.

Firemen spray a stream of water on the burned-out grocery store in Augusta, Ga., May 12, 1970. Joe Holloway, Jr./AP hide caption

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Joe Holloway, Jr./AP

(Video) 50 Year Observance Of The Augusta Riots
Remembering The Augusta Civil Rights Riot, 50 Years Later (5)

'We often kick the can down the road'

Oatman had accidentally shot and killed his 5-year-old niece, JoAnna Robinson. And while he had no previous record, the presiding judge sent him to the county jail without bond. Oatman complained to his family that he was being tortured and abused. But they were unable to get him moved, according to his uncle, Lenton Oatman, in an interview last year.

Six weeks later, he died. When his body arrived at Mays Mortuary, the undertaker, Carrie Mays was shocked. She called Abrams. "He had three long gashes across his back, about a half an inch deep and about a foot long," he said. "The back of his skull was busted out. He had cigarette burns all over his body."

An autopsy later found Oatman died by drowning: his lungs were filled with fluid.

Jailers only said that he had fallen off his bunk after a card game. Abrams spread the word, and soon thereafter the county's sheriff, E.R. "Foots" Atkins, promised to open an investigation. Less than 24-hours later, he closed it. The morning of the riot, the district attorney William Barton charged two of the other juveniles, Sammy Lee Parks and Lloyd Brown, in Oatman's cell with his murder.

Not many Black Augustans believed that story. The consensus was that jailers either killed Oatman or were willfully negligent. And outrage turned to violence.

If this sounds familiar, Corey Rogers isn't surprised. Rogers is the historian at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History in Augusta. "We often kick the can down the road. And I think that's one of the issues why every 50 or so years you see this resurgence. The notion of integration and civil rights, it's a 150-year story arc. It's not just now. It's not just Rosa Parks. It's not just Dr. King. This started in 1865."

(Video) Episode 2: A Lay Of The Land In 1970 Augusta

'Faith in the militant Black Power movement'

Frustrations build. Rogers said when people can't take it anymore, they look for opportunities for change, and violence has been one means to achieving that change. "This new generation of activism, these young people today, they want to do it their own way, and they are full of energy. Maybe they want to be a little more aggressive and in your face." But, he said, they also find it important to stay peaceful.

That wasn't the case in the late 1960s and '70s. After two decades of nonviolent Civil Rights activism, many African Americans put their faith in the militant Black Power movement.

That was true in Augusta, Ga., too. Paine College Professor Emeritus Mallory Millender was at the rally. He said young, militant activists spoke at a rally before the riot began. "Somebody cautioned [one of the student speakers] about the intensity of his message, in light of the fact shotguns were trained on him from every direction. And he told them exactly what those police could do with those shotguns ... And he followed with 'tonight we are going to war.' " The crowd demanded public officials take responsibility for Oatman's death and face consequences. Millender said several protesters then tore down the Georgia state flag and set it on fire. A line of 25 police officers stood by and watched it happen.

Eventually, police and others pushed the crowd back to the primarily Black neighborhoods. Rev. Claude Harris was in that crowd. He and his friends saw the riot as an opportunity to show police they wouldn't tolerate racism anymore. He remembers throwing a garbage can through the window of a liquor store. "I told [my friends] to get some courage. Of course, they went and they got booze and what have you."

Later in the evening, he said and others witnessed a police shooting. The young man survived, but Harris said he saw such callousness in the police's actions that everything changed for him. "Now we really don't care if we hurt you or not we're going to hurt what you love the most: things." He said he and his group got organized. "Let's make this bigger. Let's make the police run crisscross town. And one of the things that one of the young men said was let's get the Chinese out of our neighborhood."

Some African Americans felt grocery stores owned by Chinese-American residents overcharged Black customers. They also resented that Asian American residents had access to white resources like schools and theaters.

Georgia National Guard troops stand at an intersection at the edge of the riot-torn area of town in Augusta, Ga., on May 12, 1970. More than 100 blocks of neighborhoods and businesses — about 7 miles — were ransacked and vandalized. Police killed six Black men. Joe Holloway, Jr./AP hide caption

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Joe Holloway, Jr./AP

Remembering The Augusta Civil Rights Riot, 50 Years Later (7)
(Video) Episode 6: Was The Augusta Riot Worth It?

Georgia National Guard troops stand at an intersection at the edge of the riot-torn area of town in Augusta, Ga., on May 12, 1970. More than 100 blocks of neighborhoods and businesses — about 7 miles — were ransacked and vandalized. Police killed six Black men.

Joe Holloway, Jr./AP

Not much has changed since the riot

Over the course of two days, protesters set roughly 30 businesses on fire. Almost all of them were white or Chinese-American owned. Police shot and wounded 10 Black residents and killed another six Black men. Every single one was shot in the back.

When the riot was over, Black and white leaders met and discussed the concerns of Black Augustans. A few agreements were made to improve conditions for poor Black residents.

But the sentiment of shared responsibility between white and Black leaders didn't last. Then-Mayor Millard Beckum made that clear. Beckum toured the poorest Black neighborhoods several months after the riot. He then told a CBS News reporter, Phil Jones, that Black Augustans were responsible for their own, terrible living conditions, according to the Vanderbilt Television News Archive.

Reporter Jones: "What is it you don't believe that you saw?"

Beckum: "That people could allow themselves to live in such filth without actually exerting themselves to some extent do something about it."

Today, 50 years later, Grace Stewart, doesn't believe much has changed since the riot, she was 13 years old at the time. Stewart's brother, William Wright Jr., 18, was one of the six people killed by police. He died with his hands in the air, according to declassified FBI investigation files. The story of his death, she said, is like so many other Black men in America before and since. "How many black family got to continue to lose their lives in the state of Georgia for [political leaders] to see that we got a problem here with the police department?"

That complaint is common to social justice protestors today, too. Activists in Kenosha, Louisville, Minneapolis, and many other American cities are decrying police brutality and chanting, "No Justice, No Peace." Omar Wasow, Political Science Professor at Princeton University, believes Americans should pay closer attention to that phrase.

"When protesters say 'no justice, no peace,' it often has a quality of being, you know, if people hear it so much that they kind of tune it out. But I think at its core, it's really the contract people are asking for."

One they will keep asking for because, as historian Corey Rogers points out, every new police shooting and killing is a reminder: this problem has not gone away. "Why do we keep having these re-occurrences every 50 years? Because at some point in the history of America we didn't want to talk about the issue 70, 80 years ago."

Rogers said Augusta's riot was intentionally ignored by white officials. Giving it attention, he said, would have validated the anguish Black Augustans were enduring.

To his mind, just like 50 years ago, it's time to talk about the hard truths.

(Video) Toby Keith - American Soldier (Radio Edit)

Sea Stachura is the host of the podcast “Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 Augusta Riot.” It’s a co-production of Georgia Public Broadcasting and Jessye Norman School of the Arts.

FAQs

When was the riot in Augusta Ga? ›

“The afternoon of May 11, 1970, you would've seen about a thousand demonstrators from different walks of life, Paine College students, Black high school students,” said Dr. John Hayes, associate professor of history at Augusta University.

Where did the first major riot of the 1960s take place? ›

The six days of unrest throughout New York City during the Harlem riot of 1964 is viewed as the first of clusters of riots, uncoordinated with each other, evidently unplanned, most often in cities during the summer months.
...
Ghetto riots (1964–1969)
Ghetto riots
Death(s)200+
Arrested20,000+
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What was the Augusta movement? ›

Description: In March 1960, students from Augusta's historically black Paine College initiated the direct action phase of the city's Civil Rights movement when they organized sit-ins at area department stores.

What was the bloodiest riot in history? ›

1947 – Partition riots, India and modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, the hardest hit region was the densely populated state of Punjab (today divided between India and Pakistan), death toll estimates between 500,000 and 2,000,000, the deadliest riots known to humankind.

What percent of Augusta is black? ›

Augusta Demographics

Black or African American: 57.47% White: 35.30% Two or more races: 3.29% Asian: 1.99%

What were the 3 main protests of the 1960s? ›

All of the protest movements of the 1960s captured public attention and raised questions that were important to the nation. The civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the gay rights movement demanded that Americans consider equality for all citizens in the United States.

Which cities experienced major race riots during the 1960s? ›

The 1960s saw the most serious and widespread series of race riots in the history of the United States. Major riots occurred in Birmingham, Alabama , in 1963; New York City in 1964; Watts in Los Angeles, California , in 1965; and Chicago, Illinois , in 1966.

How many race riots were there in the 1960s? ›

From 1964 to 1971, there were more than 750 riots, killing 228 people and injuring 12,741 others. After more than 15,000 separate incidents of arson, many black urban neighborhoods were in ruins. As soon as the riots occurred, social scientists began collecting data and analyzing the possible causes.

What is the number one thing Augusta is famous for? ›

Known worldwide as the home of The Masters golf tournament, Augusta has plenty of things to do year-round. Located on Georgia's eastern border across the Savannah River from South Carolina, Augusta is a dynamic city filled with outdoor adventures, historic sites, a thriving arts community and much more.

What is the number 1 thing Augusta famous for doing? ›

When you think of Augusta, you probably think of one thing – The Masters at Augusta National Golf Course. But unless you happen to be in town for that one weekend in April, and you're lucky enough to score a ticket, you'll be looking elsewhere for entertainment on your trip.

How much is 9 holes at Augusta? ›

Non-Member Rates at Augusta Municipal
Weekday Rates (Monday-Thursday)
9 Holes Riding$23
18 Holes Walking$21
9 Holes Walking$14
Hero Card$27
15 more rows

What was the most serious race riot of 1919 How long did it last? ›

The Chicago race riot of 1919 was a violent racial conflict between white Americans and black Americans that began on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, on July 27 and ended on August 3, 1919. During the riot, 38 people died (23 black and 15 white).

Where was the worst Draft riot of the war? ›

The New York Draft Riots occurred in July 1863, when the anger of working-class New Yorkers over a new federal draft law during the Civil War sparked five days of some of the bloodiest and most destructive rioting in U.S. history.

Is Bill Gates a member of Augusta? ›

Notable members of Augusta include Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Peyton Manning. The club only recently welcomed its first African American member, Ron Townsend, in 1990.

Who is the richest person in Augusta Ga? ›

Augusta's wealthiest member is Omaha financier, Warren Buffett, who is said to be worth upwards of $10.5 billion.

Why is Augusta sand so white? ›

In fact the sand is actually quartz, a waste product of the mining process that takes place in Western North Carolina. The quartz is so pure that it prevents golf balls from plugging or burrowing into tricky lies.

What were 5 major events in the 1960s? ›

  • First Televised Presidential Debate Airs. ...
  • Kennedy Elected. ...
  • Bay of Pigs: Failed Invasion of Cuba. ...
  • U.S. Denies Soviet Control of Space. ...
  • Kennedy Warns of Possible Nuclear Attack. ...
  • USSR Tests Hydrogen Bomb. ...
  • First SDS Convention. ...
  • Cuban Missile Crisis.

What protests happened in the 60s and 70s? ›

The 1960s and early 1970s represented a period of large scale protest in United States history. Recognizable movements during the period included the anti-Vietnam War campaign, the civil rights movement, women's liberation, the student movement, and last, but not least, the counterculture.

What protests happened in 1968? ›

Protests of 1968
Part of the Cold War
Demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Amsterdam, 1968.
Date5 January 1968 – 29 March 1969 (1 year, 2 months, 3 weeks and 3 days)
Caused byVietnam War Racism Revisionism Authoritarianism Sexism Death of Che Guevara
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What cities had the largest riots in 1967? ›

The 1967 Detroit Riot, also known as the 12th Street Riot or Detroit Rebellion, was the bloodiest of the urban riots in the United States during the "Long, hot summer of 1967".
...
1967 Detroit riot.
The Detroit Riot of 1967
LocationDetroit, Michigan, U.S. 42°22′35″N 83°05′58″W
Caused byPolice raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar.
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Where did the worst urban riot during the 1960s occur? ›

The most deadly riots were in Detroit (1967), Los Angeles (1965), and Newark (1967). Measuring riot severity by also including arrests, injuries, and arson adds Washington (1968) to that list.

Where did the worst riot of the 1960s occur and what were some of its results? ›

Terms in this set (5) Where did the worst riot of the 1960's occur, and what were some of its results? Detroit, 43 deaths and 1,000 wounded, 4,000 fires destroyed 1,300 buildings and 250 million in property loss.

What is the longest running protest in history? ›

The White House Peace Vigil is an anti-nuclear weapons peace vigil started by William Thomas in 1981. Thomas believed it to be the longest running uninterrupted anti-war protest in U.S. history.

What was the first modern race riot? ›

Jeffrey Stewart, professor of History at George Mason University, described the Harlem Riot of 1935 as "the first modern race riot," adding that it "symbolized that the optimism and hopefulness that had fueled the Harlem Renaissance was dead."

What was the name given to the race riots in the 1960s? ›

Watts Riots of 1965, series of violent confrontations between Los Angeles police and residents of Watts and other predominantly African American neighbourhoods of South-Central Los Angeles that began August 11, 1965, and lasted for six days.

How many people died in the Watts 1965 riot? ›

The riots resulted in the deaths of 34 people, while more than 1,000 were injured and more than $40 million worth of property was destroyed. Many of the most vivid images of the riots depict the massive fires set by the rioters. Hundreds of buildings and whole city blocks were burned to the ground.

What caused the riot of 1943? ›

The riot escalated in the city after a false rumor spread that a mob of whites had thrown a black mother and her baby into the Detroit River. Blacks looted and destroyed white property as retaliation. Whites overran Woodward to Veron where they proceeded to tip over 20 cars that belonged to black families.

What was the cause of the 1968 riot? ›

The 1968 Chicago riots, in the United States, were sparked in part by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Rioting and looting followed, with people flooding out onto the streets of major cities. Soon riots began, primarily in black urban areas.

How long did the Atlanta riot of 1906 last? ›

A horrific event in Atlanta's past changed the course of civil and human rights in the United States. On September 22, 1906, whites began rampaging through Atlanta's downtown streets and continued for three days.

What was the long term cause of the Watts riots? ›

Throughout the crisis, public officials advanced the argument that the riot was the work outside agitators; however, an official investigation, prompted by Governor Pat Brown, found that the riot was a result of the Watts community's longstanding grievances and growing discontentment with high unemployment rates, ...

How many buildings were destroyed in the Watts riots? ›

The Watts Rebellion lasted for six days, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 4,000 arrests, involving 34,000 people and ending in the destruction of 1,000 buildings, totaling $40 million in damages.

What caused the 1992 riot? ›

Unrest began in South Central Los Angeles on April 29, after a jury acquitted four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) charged with using excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King.

What caused riot in 1830? ›

The Swing Riots were a widespread uprising in 1830 by agricultural workers in southern and eastern England in protest of agricultural mechanisation and harsh working conditions.

What happened in the zoot suit riots of 1943? ›

On June 3, 1943, white U.S. servicemen and police officers descended upon a majority-Mexican American neighborhood in East Los Angeles, California, and harassed, beat, and detained hundreds of Mexican American youth. The violent riot was fueled by centuries of colonialism and white supremacy.

How many people died 1968 race riots? ›

President Lyndon B. Johnson called in the National Guard to the city on April 5, 1968, to assist the police department in quelling the unrest. Ultimately, 13 people were killed, with approximately 1,000 people injured and over 6,100 arrested.

What events caused major riots in 1968? ›

The King assassination riots, also known as the Holy Week Uprising, were a wave of civil disturbance which swept the United States following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Many believe them to be the greatest wave of social unrest the United States had experienced since the Civil War.

What happened in the summer of 1967? ›

The “Summer of Love” in the United States took place alongside rising racial tensions in many of the country's cities. Nearly 160 riots occurred across the United States in the summer of 1967.

How long did the 1980s Miami riot last? ›

In total, 18 people were killed over the three days of rioting, while 370 people, some of them children, were hurt and 787 were arrested. Property destruction exceeded $100 million.

How much did Atlanta destroy Sherman? ›

Through October, Sherman built up a massive cache of supplies in Atlanta. He then ordered a systematic destruction of the city to prevent the Confederates from recovering anything once the Yankees had abandoned it. By one estimate, nearly 40 percent of the city was ruined.

What happened after the Atlanta race riot? ›

Its aftermath saw a depression of Atlanta's Black community and economy. The riot contributed to the passage of statewide prohibition and Black suffrage restriction by 1908. It discredited for many Black leaders the accommodationist strategy of Booker T.

Videos

1. Women and Civil Rights - Augusta
(Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History)
2. Episode 5: The Smoke Clears
(GPB)
3. Episode 1: The Forgotten Riot
(GPB)
4. Watch: TODAY All Day - April 10
(TODAY)
5. Birds Aren't Real: The conspiracy theory that satirizes conspiracy theories
(60 Minutes)
6. Bonus: No Justice, No Peace, 1970
(GPB)
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