The Augusta (Georgia) Riot of 1970 began on the evening of May 11 and ended before dawn the next day. During the riot, six people were killed, all black men, each one shot in the back by police. In addition to those deaths, 80 people were injured, 200 were arrested, and 50 businesses in the city's center, many owned by Augusta's Chinese residents, were burned.
The riot occurred at the close of a decade marked by protest and urban unrest (see Long Hot Summer Riots, 1965—1967). The events that framed the riot clearly demonstrate the nature of resistance and of government response to that resistance in the period. One week before the riot, on May 4, Ohio national guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University, where they were part of a group protesting the Vietnam War (see Antiwar Protests). Three days after the Augusta riot, Mississippi Highway Patrol officers killed two of the students protesting the alleged murder of Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Although these events were a part of life in the United States in the late 1960s, the riot in Augusta, the "Garden City of the South,'' was the first major riot of the new decade and the largest riot of the period in Georgia.
In 1970, 70,000 people lived in Augusta. Half the city's population was black. The city was rigidly segregated; blacks were concentrated within the city's limits while whites lived in the surrounding county and in North Augusta. Eighty percent of rental housing in the city was in violation of the housing code, and black high school attrition rates were abysmal. Unemployment among African Americans was widespread, despite economic growth in the city as a whole, much of it brought by Fort Gordon and the Atomic Energy Commission, both federal projects. Augusta is also home of golf's fabled Masters Tournament. In the months before the riot, blacks bristled at the fact that the tournament hosted a white South African participant. Housing, unemployment, and blatant racism created the backdrop for the riot, making the city a powder keg ready to explode. As occurred in many other riots of the period, an instance of police misconduct was the riot's precipitating event (see Police Brutality).
The riot began when a sixteen-year-old mentally disabled boy, Charles Oatman, was killed in the Augusta jail on May 9. The jail had long been an issue of concern for blacks in Augusta. Many of the town's residents were unhappy with the conditions there; they were particularly upset with the practice of holding youth offenders with members of the adult population. A group known as the Committee of 10 asked for a federal investigation of the Augusta Police Department and of the city and county penal system six months before the riot, after police arrested and allegedly manhandled Grady Abrams, a black city councilman. Police initially reported that Oat - man sustained fatal injuries after he fell from his bunk, but an autopsy determined that he had been tortured over several days. His body was covered with cigarette burns and bruises, all in different states of healing. The coroner determined that he had endured numerous severe beatings. Upon these revelations, the police changed their story and charged two of his cellmates with the murder.
As news of Oatman's death spread among Augusta's black community, its leaders met with the chairman of the county commission at the county municipal building and negotiated separate juvenile detention within the jail. When they emerged from the meeting, a crowd of 500 had gathered around the building. Some members of the crowd tore down the Georgia state flag, which was emblazoned with the confederate battle flag, and burned it. Rev. A. D. Sims, a leader of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) branch, urged those assembled to meet for a rally. As the crowd made its way to the appointed location, the riot began. People threw rocks at motorists, looted stores in the area, and eventually destroyed at least fifty stores.
The unrest was quickly contained, but as the smoke cleared it became apparent that police and other leaders, including Georgia's Gov. Lester Mad - dox, were guilty of overreacting. The governor immediately adopted a scorched-earth policy toward the rioters, whom he claimed were stirred to action by communists and members of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Concerned about snipers, although none were actually ever found, Maddox also ordered the police to deal with them by razing "any building they're in to its very foundation if necessary to get them out'' (Southern Regional Council, 25-26). At 1:00 a. m. on the morning of May 12, 1,200 national guardsmen arrived on the scene. Although the riot was over before dawn, the National Guard did not leave the area until May 18.
Autopsies confirmed that the six men killed in the riot were all shot in the back—one was shot nine times—with police-issued shotguns. According to witnesses, as many as four of these men were bystanders. In any case, not a single one of the victims was armed and two were teenagers. After the riot, police arrested the city's "one true militant,'' Wilbert Allen, and charged him with inciting a riot (Southern Regional Council, 38). The Committee of 10 negotiated the creation of the interracial Human Relations Committee to deal with race relations surrounding the issues of employment, education, housing, and law enforcement in Augusta. The committee still exists today.
Further Readings: Cobb, James C. ''Polarization in a Southern City: The Augusta Riot and the Emerging Character of the 1970s.'' Southern Studies (Summer 1981); Southern Regional Council. ''Augusta.'' In Augusta and Jackson State: Southern Episodes in a National Tragedy. Atlanta: Southern Regional Council, 1970.
Shatema A. Threadcraft
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