Residents recall 1970 riot that rocked Augusta

A Day of Disbelief

Forty years ago today, Kathy Schofe stared in awe from the glass windows of the Municipal Building onto Greene Street as rioters ripped the Georgia flag from a pole and lit it on fire.

 

From there, rioters surrounded cars on Greene Street and began rocking them. Within hours, downtown Augusta was set ablaze. Hundreds looted grocery stores and businesses as far away as Walton Way, and dozens of people were injured. Six black men would wind up dead -- all shot in the back with buckshot.

Schofe, now the director of public relations for Augusta State University, was just out of high school and had only recently begun her first job at the city's tax assessor's office. Though the memory is still fresh in her mind, Schofe said it feels like the riot happened in another city.

"We stood at the windows watching, really in disbelief," she said. "We couldn't believe this was happening here."

Like nothing before it, the riots that tore through downtown in May 1970 brought the rift between white and black communities to the forefront of Augusta politics and broadcast it to the world. The city's racial anger -- which had been building for decades -- was laid bare for all to see. Though city officials had taken steps to integrate schools and theaters in the years leading up to the violence, many in the black community still felt their leaders weren't listening to their needs or treating them fairly.

Two nights before the riot, Grady Abrams stood in May's Mortuary and looked down at the battered body of 16-year-old Charles Oatman. The back of the teen's skull was broken. There were cigarette burns on his body and three long lashes across the length of his back. Jailers had taken him to the hospital, saying the teen had suffered the fatal head injury by falling from his bunk, but Abrams -- an Augusta City Council member -- wasn't buying it.

"The general population had no idea of the condition of that boy's body," he said. "And the explanation the officials had given me was something that didn't rhyme with what I had seen."

The next day on his radio talk show, Abrams' listeners heard in gory detail what had become of Oatman, who was mentally ill, and he told them prison guards had not intervened as the boy was murdered in his cell.

"I don't see how those two people could have murdered that boy in jail and the officials not know something about it," said Abrams, referring to the two youths ultimately charged with Oatman's death. "Screaming, hollering, whatever, you just don't inflict those kinds of wounds and the explanation comes out that he fell off the bunk."

Abrams led a march to the jailhouse to get answers. When they didn't materialize, several hundred people moved to Tabernacle Baptist Church. The next morning, the front of the Municipal Building was packed with demonstrators as black leaders met with city council Chairman Matthew Mulherin to discuss keeping juveniles separate from adults when they are incarcerated.

But outside the building, the tension had already boiled over.

The riots began across the city, and 1,000 National Guardsmen and 150 state troopers were called in to stop the violence.

In television interviews and in newspapers, Gov. Lester Maddox blamed the riot on a 40-year-old conspiracy to bring down the nation and said "the Communist conspiracy" had aided and incited the disorder.

Others recognized Oatman's death as a catalyst for the violence that followed.

Even today, Abrams believes people incited the violence for their own ends. He said it was unfortunate that demonstrators took to violence, but if a riot was inevitable, he wonders why it didn't happen the previous night, when they gathered outside the jailhouse.

"It leaves me to believe that those who participated -- who started the riot -- were not really concerned about this boy's death but saw it as an opportunity to whip up the crowd for whatever reason," he said.

In the days after the violence, black and white leaders came together to discuss the jail and racial equality in the city. The effects of those discussions are still with us today, said Dr. Mallory Millender, a Paine College professor, who attended the demonstration outside the Municipal Building. No longer are incarcerated youths kept with adults in the county jail. Blacks serve in numerous local government posts, and leaders take conscious steps to be inclusive in race, gender and ethnicity.

"I think there is a consciousness about that -- a sensitivity that was not there in 1970," he said.

But other lessons might be forgotten, he said.

The city's Human Relations Commission was formed after the riots to mediate, ease racial tensions and educate the public about diversity. It served as a sounding board for problems in the community.

It was cut from the budget last year.

Millender worries that without it, people might not have that outlet to vent their frustrations.

"For me, it's puzzling that last year the commission was allowed to essentially go away," he said. "I think that we need it as much as we ever did. We do have problems that still could ignite into serious racial trouble if left unattended."

Abrams suggested people might have allowed the commission to go away because they felt they were not being adequately served by it.

He worries that recent police shootings feed anger that could rear its head again. Some of that was seen after the shooting of Justin Elmore by deputies in Cherry Tree Crossing in December 2008, which led to a near-riot in which bottles and rocks were thrown at police cars. Many individuals claimed they were fed up with racial profiling and harassment by deputies.

Abrams also feels most black and white residents only have "casual relationships" and don't often socialize.

"There is no real relationship," he said. "Everybody is still in their own community. And anyone who crosses that line is going to be ostracized in some way."

But a look back in The Augusta Chronicle's archives shows that even at the height of racial tensions in the city, there was a ray of hope.

The day of the riot, 64-year-old Wilbur Foster, a white man from Warrenton, was visiting Augusta when he was struck in the head with a brick shortly after a band of rioters surrounded his car on 15th Street. Bleeding and nearly unconscious, Wilbur was rushed to University Hospital with what a hospital spokesman called a "serious eruption" of one eye. In the newspaper's story, dated May 13, 1970, the reporter was unable to determine who had saved Foster. The only description available: They were black.