We look back over the years and wonder if we have accomplished as much as we could have, or if we are making a difference. When we reflect on events of yesterday, we recognize that we can’t change what happened, even though we may want to. Just like the riot that took place in Augusta – on May 11, 1970, almost 43 years ago.
I wasn’t living in the country at that time, and I regret that I didn’t like history in high school or college. I didn’t see the relevance, nor did I have teachers that compelled me to see it any differently. I wish I had a professor like Dr. Leslie Pollard, a retired Paine College history professor, who inspired me in my adult years about the importance of history and its relevance to how people think and act today.
We have all heard the saying: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s a cliché that sounds good, just like Scriptures in the Bible we have etched our minds from memory, but really haven’t taken the time to understand its true meaning in our lives.
HISTORY, EVEN AS recent as yesterday, may not be very pretty. History often conjures up negative and hateful feelings that one would rather put on the top of a tall bookshelf never to be touched again. Others would rather forget that it happened in the first place. Neither of those scenarios are healthy from mental health or mental well-being perspectives. Ken Wilson, president of the local substance-abuse treatment center Steppingstones to Recovery, said this about healing and recovery: “Deal with your feelings or your feelings will deal with you.”
In conversations with people over the years, a common theme is that we have to “move Augusta forward.” I’ve used that term before, too. But what does it mean? It means something different to me and you. But from the position of healing and recovery, how can one move forward if deep, dark, sometimes secret or unknown issues are hovering over us like a dark cloud before a storm? There are feelings of despair and hopelessness among too many that is affecting and suffocating the spirit of this community.
Some have said there needs to be a “spiritual miracle” in this community because the wounds of mistrust, hurt and betrayal are so deep. Think about it: In some ways Augusta is prospering, but in other cases we are leading statistics all over the state in poverty, high-school dropout rates, incarceration, HIV/AIDS and homelessness. This is not a black or white issue – it’s a community issue, because it affects everyone and everything from economic development to the perception of Augusta all over the world.
The riot that took place in Augusta on that dark day in May 1970 is an example of that dark cloud. I attended one of two panel discussions last month that revealed poignant information, some clarity and perhaps more questions to what happened on that day, why it happened and what was done about it. On that Friday evening at the Maxwell Performing Arts Theater there were about 200 people in attendance, at least 75 percent of them were younger than age 25. I found that quite interesting. There was a family whose son was shot in the back and killed who shared their testimony from the audience. There also was a Chinese businessman whose business was burned down, and he talked – with much humor, I might add – about his experience.
THE PANEL DISCUSSION included former Augusta City Councilman and radio talk show host Grady Abrams, and a former attorney who represented some of those arrested, Bill Coleman. They were witnesses of the incident. Civil rights historian and Georgia Regents University Assistant Professor Dr. Perzavia Praylow also was on the panel. Sea Stachura, a GRU Department of Communications instructor, moderated the event. The discussion recounted the events surrounding the riot that occurred in downtown Augusta after the death of Charles Oatman, a mentally challenged African-American teenager held in a Richmond County jail.
“The idea is to spark conversation about race relations in the city and about the city itself. This is a part of our history, and yet it’s something that we’ve never taken the opportunity to openly discuss,” said Stachura. She is on a mission. The riot is the focus of an ongoing project titled “Recovering History: Oral History of Augusta’s Forgotten 1970 Riot,” for which she was awarded a grant from the Georgia Humanities Council last November. She wants to attract as many people she can who are still living, to capture the memories to this incident. Part of her goal is to “gather their memories and connect this event to what we understand about attitudes on race and the city of Augusta itself.”
WHEN SHE APPEARED on my radio program, I asked her about the title “Help Recover History – Let’s Talk about the 1970 Riot of Augusta,” because I zeroed in on the word “recover” because of my strong interest in mental health and mental well-being. I asked her if that was her intent – to help bring a sense of healing to the people who witnessed the events that took place before and during that time, this community and our future generations.
Her reply: “In order to recover from tragedy we need to be able to give voice to our feelings and our memories. One of the things I find interesting about oral history is that there are so many perspectives, and they are all correct, because it is the individual who carries those memories and their version of events directly impacts behavior and attitudes.”
That’s when it hit me. The connection between this event that took place 43 years ago – that little to nothing has been publicly said about it; that there is a perception, real or perceived, that no one wants to acknowledge the incident did happen – may be a profound reason there still exists a strong sense of mistrust between the races in Augusta.
When it comes to healing and recovery, we are dealing with a heart issue. Most people do not want their heart broken to avoid being hurt again. We don’t talk about it, we act like it didn’t happen or we try to keep busy so we don’t think about it. But the fact of the matter is, your heart was broken no matter how deeply the feelings are buried. The heart of our community was broken on that day, and it grieves me deeply.
We cannot change what happened. We can argue and debate about why and how this 16-year-old boy was brutally and mercilessly killed, but it won’t change the fact that it happened. May God rest his soul.
When people say Augusta needs to “move forward,” we must do that – but not until our hearts have been healed, or at least the process of healing and recovery begins. Ask any recovering drug addict or alcoholic who has gone through the 12 Steps to Recovery. It’s a process, and a very uncomfortable process, that can’t be ignored because the problem simply won’t go away until it’s addressed.
That’s what needs to happen in Augusta.
AUGUSTA WASN’T the only city that went through turbulent times and had race riots during the 1970s. Cities such as Birmingham, Ala., Orangeburg, S.C., Kent, Ohio, and countless others went through similar situations than we did, or worse. But those cities chose to publicly talk about it, and have established either memorials or remembrance activities so people will not forget. And by the way, those cities are thriving in many ways, too. I’m certain they still have their problems, but I believe they took a step in the right direction. Augusta should do that, too.
Stachura describes it this way, and I agree: “It’s like a marital conflict. First you voice your frustration, your over-the-top distrustful view, and then you start to acknowledge the nuances, the multiple perspectives and multiple realities. No one gets to walk away winning or being ‘right,’ but we feel heard and we feel there is a better understanding between each other.”
This is what can happen here. The two discussions that took place last month are the beginning, and I’m confident there will be more to come. The healing and recovery is in play for those of us who want to embrace the concept of recovery and healing.
(The writer is a radio talk show host, author, life coach and mental health advocate in Augusta.)