On race riot's anniversary, our dilemma and our challenge are clear

To some in the CSRA, May 11 will be just another hot, mid-spring day, but to me it will be a day that "will live in infamy." That was the day, 40 years ago, Augusta had its worst race riot.

 

Six black men died at the hands of police, and countless whites were injured, some seriously. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property was destroyed -- most of it owned by white and Chinese merchants. City leaders said that they had no knowledge such an event was eminent, and were more surprised than any because they relied on people for intelligence who did not tell them the truth -- and they still do, which does not serve the city well.

SOME MAY BE asking: Why bring up that painful period, especially with all of the other things that are going on today around us, which are far more important than something that happened 40 years ago? I will answer them succinctly: Our future depends on it. If we do not learn from our past, we are doomed to failure.

I became very unpopular inside the power structure simply because I was naïve enough to believe that, when I was elected to serve on the Augusta City Council in 1968, government was for the people, not just for a privileged few. I was a voice crying out in the wilderness, but no one was listening, and my life was made miserable doing so. However, it was the right thing to have done then, and still is today.

Some of the blame lays at the feet of most of us who lived in the city at the time of the riot. I am mentioning a few of them here, not for condemnation's sake, but hopefully as a lesson learned.

City leaders were not sincere in addressing the underlined problems and discontent brewing in black communities. They delayed the inevitable. Black poet Langston Hughes said it best in one of his poems, A Dream Deferred . He asks, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore -- and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over -- like syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

Middle- and upper-class communities in general also share some of the blame. They were indifferent to the problems occurring in poorer communities, so long as they were not directly affected. A similar attitude is prevalent today as it relates to gang violence. What is happening in one part of the city affects the whole city. It may be in poorer communities now, but tomorrow it may find itself in middle- and upper-class communities. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in these communities does not stay there.

Blacks in general also are responsible for what happened that May 11 -- not to speak of those who were planning for the riot. Rioting is no way to solve the social ills of a community, no matter how terrible they are. Education is "the great black hope" now and in the future, if we are to survive in this highly competitive world.

ALL OF US MUST do a better job of convincing underachievers that education is not just for squares, and it has to start early in their lives to change that paradigm. However, the real dilemma is teens having babies without the knowledge or the wherewithal to raise them properly. The challenge is finding means and ways to turn this around. Until this challenge is met, what else we do to uplift our communities will be done in vain.

The criminal justice system in the city could have done a better job. Therefore, it shares some of the blame. It had a reputation of corruption. There was no wonder disrespect for law and order was prevalent.

The news media also bear some of the blame, especially the print media. They were busy trying to keep the status quo, which was to keep blacks in their place -- segregated. The local paper challenged Dr. King's call for a "full-scale assault on the system of segregation to arouse the conscience of the South," saying, "Words such as these will neither arouse 'the conscience of the South,' nor produce any results other than violence of a kind that will wreck any hope of racial harmony in the future and bring untold and undeserved misery to the many intelligent and innocent Negroes who wish to have no part in any such plan for wholesale breaking of the laws of the states wherein they live."

I cannot leave the religious leadership out. They too share some blame. They failed to carry out their moral duty, hiding behind the selfish desires of their respected congregations, to maintain the status quo at the expense of those suffering from it.

Last, but not least, I share some of the blame, too. As I look back, while I did address the mayor and my colleagues on the council about the conditions brewing before their very eyes, and also brought it to the attention of Gov. Lester Maddox that Sunday before the riot, I could have done a better job of averting the riot, even if it meant sitting at the mayor's door until he understood the gravity of the situation.

HOWEVER, I STILL believe that I did the right thing by bringing the death of a 16-year-old, mentally challenged boy, locked up in the county jail, to the attention of the community, which sparked the riot.

There is a similar situation facing us today here in Augusta as it was in 1970 -- gang violence. The challenge is what to do about it. Do we repeat the mistakes of the past, or do we arm ourselves with all resources available and meet this challenge head-on? The next decade will determine whether we allowed a dream to dry up, or fester and stink, or crust and sugar over, or sag like a heavy load -- or explode.

This is our dilemma and our challenge.

(The writer is a former Augusta City Council member and a retired labor relations manager from Bechtel Savannah River Inc.)

More