Residents recall 1970 riot that rocked Augusta

A Day of Disbelief

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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.

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Stores, delivery truck looted on Monday, May 11, 1970.   Augusta Chronicle archive/Staff
Augusta Chronicle archive/Staff
Stores, delivery truck looted on Monday, May 11, 1970.

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.

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Whyisit01
2
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Whyisit01 05/11/10 - 06:42 am
0
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LOL @ ending the story with

LOL @ ending the story with "They were Black" wow...

corgimom
32615
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corgimom 05/11/10 - 06:54 am
2
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"It leaves me to believe that

"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.

Thank you, Mr. Abrams, for publicly stating the truth.

seenitB4
87395
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seenitB4 05/11/10 - 07:09 am
2
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Yes that was a scary time for

Yes that was a scary time for workers in the downtown area..thank goodness we had police & the Guard or otherwise folks couldn't even go to work!! About "casual relationships * don't often socialize" guess what!! That will always happen .. you have people with money & people without money,, that makes a BIG difference on socializing.. Do you really think I would have something in common with a very rich lady who spent her summers in Europe & hired help for every daily function? Nope ..I wouldn't..Would she enjoy talking to me about my mundane ordinary life, don't think so. When she went to Paris to check the new fashions would I be there too, NO don't think so...SO what I'm getting at here is to THINK outside the box..IT NOT ALWAYS COLOR..social classes will be with us FOREVER,,, & it's called MONEY!! We now have a black President & a black Attorney General..let's move on & try to EDUCATE all.

southernguy08
499
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southernguy08 05/11/10 - 07:12 am
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I agree WHY. They didn't even
Unpublished

I agree WHY. They didn't even mention the fact that the Georgia flag the protesters ripped down, with the Confederate battle emblem on it, was approved by a Democrat governor and Democrat controlled Georgia legislature. It was the same type of flag that flies above the SC legislature now, the one that was approved by a Democrat SC legislature in 1962 and NOT vetoed by a Democrat governor, Ernest Hollings. You know him as the man who went on to serve in the US Senate as the senator from SC, and received 86% of the AA vote in SC. You know Democrat...the party that blacks idolize. Oh, sorry, was that unfair? My bad.

seenitB4
87395
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seenitB4 05/11/10 - 07:29 am
4
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How do you "make"someone

How do you "make"someone socialize with you anyway...& why would you want to??

Retired Army
17512
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Retired Army 05/11/10 - 07:29 am
3
2
What Southern Man fails to

What Southern Man fails to mention is that Democrats learned from their mistakes and made changes. That's why they're called progressives. Meanwhile back on the plantation, Republicans still have their self imposed millstone of the "Southern Strategy" to atone for.

southernguy08
499
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southernguy08 05/11/10 - 07:50 am
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Hey RETIRED, tell me, do you
Unpublished

Hey RETIRED, tell me, do you think J.B. Powell and Leon Garvin have learned from their mistakes? Oh, let's not forget that great moral icon Rod Blageovich, the former DEMOCRATIC governor of Illinois who tried to sell Obama's vacant senate seat to the highest bidder. That's Progressive? Funny how you fail to mention that it was REPUBLICANS who's support got the Civil Rights Act passed, with the DEMOCRATS fighting every step of the way. You must be so proud of your party.

Boston93
117
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Boston93 05/11/10 - 07:56 am
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Remember the riot very well.

Remember the riot very well. Very scarey to me. Getting to and from work was horrible. I lived in North Augusta and on the top of Schultz Hill you could see fires in many locations. My Mother In Law phoned me from her work place to come get her as she was scared. I managed to do so, but it was a touch and go situation. The company I worked for had to get volunteers to remain at work around the clock to maintain the plant and provided cots for sleeping and brought in food for them. I had a wife and two children and they were more important to me at that time than a job, so I went home. For the next several weeks you could hear all types of stories. Thank God that there was no more violence than what happened as it was already pretty bad. I pray that this will NEVER happen again.

jdoggtn
3
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jdoggtn 05/11/10 - 08:08 am
2
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The prevalence of

The prevalence of racially-charged comments on this board make me believe that a repeat of this tragedy is nearly unavoidable. Anything that happens in Augusta leads to people posting comments that either mention race blatantly, or hint at it through coded words like "crime", "thug", "gang" "Section 8", "entitlement", "welfare." This mentality of blaming the "other" for Augusta's problems will of course result in a reaction and a bitterness from the city's Black community. Hats off to the man in Harrisburg who wants to create youth programs in the inner city neighborhoods to curb violence. That's the best way to ward off a future riot.

Jane18
12332
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Jane18 05/11/10 - 08:08 am
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Retired, do you even know

Retired, do you even know what a progressive is????????? If someone called me that word....................................well, we would never speak to each other again, that's for sure!

seenitB4
87395
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seenitB4 05/11/10 - 08:19 am
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idoggtn....If a BLACK

idoggtn....If a BLACK President & a BLACK ATTORNEY GENERAL can't stem the feeling of "I'm not treated fairly" Nothing will. imho

jkyl100000
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jkyl100000 05/11/10 - 08:21 am
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"Democrat governor and

"Democrat governor and Democrat controlled Georgia legislature"

"the party that blacks idolize. Oh, sorry, was that unfair"

@southern guy, dont speak on a subject that you truly dont understand.
this riot clearly had nothing to do with party affiliations. It was about people being fed up with the unequal way of life that they lived here in augusta, believe it or not not everyone in this great nation was equal at one point in time.
Can someone please explain to me what this has to do with with the democratic party?

seenitB4
87395
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seenitB4 05/11/10 - 08:47 am
2
1
Whyisit...I'm over 40 & live

Whyisit...I'm over 40 & live in the south...I just want the give-a-away programs to stop.. don't care what color they are..also the mess on wall st cleaned up & we know what color most of them are...too many takers & not enough workers all over the USA..Enron is a prime example of rich guys going amuck..Tourre of Goldman Zachs is another..when you read the emails these idiots sent , you know they didn't give a rat's behind about how many innocent people would suffer...evil comes in ALL colors.

InChristLove
22473
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InChristLove 05/11/10 - 09:26 am
2
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Whyisit01 posted "LOL @

Whyisit01 posted "LOL @ ending the story with "They were Black" wow..." Well, they weren't white. This was the story line that was printed May 13, 1970. Instead of looking at the fact that there were some "black" folk that would stop and help a "white" man, shows that it doesn't make a difference the color of your skin, it's what's in your heart. Would you have been as offended if the article was about a black man who was injured and the reporter stated the only description of the ones who helped were "white"?

AWyld1
3
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AWyld1 05/11/10 - 09:45 am
2
1
Just like riots anywhere else

Just like riots anywhere else it's people that don't care about what the situation is really about that start it. They are just opportunists looking to loot and create havoc so they can commit crimes. Racism in Augusta goes both ways.One only need to read thecomments everyday t see we have them on both sides. Whether a certain person here believes it or not I did not vote for Obama and he could have been blue for all I care. He doesn't represent what I believe in and it's my right to vote for whoever I choose. Get over it and stop the race baiting...

southernguy08
499
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southernguy08 05/11/10 - 09:48 am
0
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JKY, I'll try to explain this
Unpublished

JKY, I'll try to explain this to you. The "unequal way of life" that blacks felt, especially in the south, is usually attributed to the blind, unfair policies of the government. Since the DEMS were in charge in 1970 here in Georgia, as they had been for over a hundred years, it is natural to put the two together. Got it? No? You sure don't seem to have any problem with this when Republicans were in control.

grinder48
1957
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grinder48 05/11/10 - 09:49 am
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Regarding the two youths
Unpublished

Regarding the two youths ultimately charged with Oatman's death, were they white or black, were they tried, what was outcome of the trial, where are they now?

southernguy08
499
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southernguy08 05/11/10 - 09:50 am
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Hey WHY, seen the polls
Unpublished

Hey WHY, seen the polls lately? Guess who will be just keeping a seat warm til 2012? Give you 3 guesses and the first 2 don't count. I'm loving it!

grinder48
1957
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grinder48 05/11/10 - 09:52 am
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Yes, that was a horrible
Unpublished

Yes, that was a horrible time, but it was 40 years ago. Except for people using race to play the "po me" card, we all need to recognize things are much better now.

Whyisit01
2
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Whyisit01 05/11/10 - 10:05 am
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grinder48 it was much better

grinder48 it was much better UNTIL Obama became president. RACISM is so strong (in the south) towards Obama it's ooozing and overflowing. They say it's his policies LOL, but we all know what it really is. Oh and no southernguy08 I haven't as I don't follow polls, are you following only republican/conservative polling data? what are your sources?

InChristLove
22473
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InChristLove 05/11/10 - 10:17 am
2
2
Yeah Whyisit01, it was much

Yeah Whyisit01, it was much better until Obama became president but racism has nothing to do with it. grinder48, according to an article in Times dated May 25, 1970, Oatman had been beaten to death in his cell, and the authorities had charged two of his black cellmates with murder. The article also said Charles Reid, a member of a special mayor's committee for easing tensions in the ghetto, reported seeing one suspected looter shot repeatedly in the back by a black policeman and his white partner. It doesn't say anything more about the black cellmates or whether they stood trial.

RoadKing09
16
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RoadKing09 05/11/10 - 10:23 am
3
1
The rioting stopped after

The rioting stopped after Gov. Lester Maddox ordered the National Guard to shoot to kill. That would stop a lot of rioting today.

Bantana
2071
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Bantana 05/11/10 - 10:38 am
1
1
So sad to read these comments

So sad to read these comments today. Little progress has been made on either side of the racial divide. So much hatred and ignorance. And many profess to walk with Christ?

RoadKing09
16
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RoadKing09 05/11/10 - 10:43 am
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The truth is not always

The truth is not always pretty.

walkerjones
3
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walkerjones 05/11/10 - 11:21 am
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Every year since the riot, I

Every year since the riot, I remember May 11, 1970 and I also remember William Wright. He was a classmate of mine, who was coming home from visiting his girlfriend when he was shot in the back by police. I was home when the riot started. I didn't know what was going on until I saw some a person helping another to get home who was walking and bleeding from their leg... they told me what was going on, then I noticed the smoke in the sky. It was coming from the Chinese store and the Seven Eleven in our neighborhood. My dad called home and told us (me and my siblings) to stay inside. I remember when the National Guards were called in and how they patrolled the streets to enforce the curfew that was set. I will never forget May 11th 1970. It was truly an unbelievable and SAD time.

southernguy08
499
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southernguy08 05/11/10 - 11:31 am
0
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WHY, that icon of
Unpublished

WHY, that icon of conservative Republican ideas...RASMUSSEN. Maybe you've heard of it? How's that crow tasting right now?

mary dits
2
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mary dits 05/11/10 - 11:39 am
2
0
Mr. Folk, you write, "Six

Mr. Folk, you write, "Six black men would wind up dead -- all shot in the back with buckshot."
that sentence leaves out a lot of information. who shot them? who were they? what were they doing? were they armed? how old were they?

InChristLove
22473
Points
InChristLove 05/11/10 - 12:20 pm
1
2
Bantana, in ref. to your

Bantana, in ref. to your 10:38 am post, were you making a general statement or referring to any one in particular when you posted "and many profess to walk with Christ?".

dani
12
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dani 05/11/10 - 12:36 pm
2
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I was working downtown when

I was working downtown when this happened. We locked the doors and watched the crowds rush by, many of them just children and loaded with soft drinks, candy, anything they could grab. Our business was on D'antignac and late in the afternoon we were given permission to go home. We were never afraid for ourselves but it was a shocking sight to behold.

FAIR TAX Now
16
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FAIR TAX Now 05/11/10 - 01:19 pm
4
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The Wilbur Foster mentioned

The Wilbur Foster mentioned was my Great Uncle but his first name was Wilmer and we just knew him as Uncle Buddy. This happened before I was born but I have known the family story all my life. And yes it was a black funeral home person from what I remember that came by and they put him in the back of the hurst to get him to the hospital. At the hospital people were in the hallways getting treatment because so many were there. My Aunt had to go get a doctor to help with my Uncle. He was bleeding badly. He lost that eye and almost lost the other eye but didn't. He lived almost another 30 years working at grocery stores in Warrenton until he was almost 80 and would drive with his wife to visit her sister in Norfolk, VA almost every year and went on a long trip to a family reunion one year later in life also. Uncle Buddy was always such an interesting person and I loved him dearly. I miss him a lot. He visited my Grandmother and Grandfather at least 2 or 3 times a month as long as he was able to drive.

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