Augusta can move forward -- but only after hearts are healed

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Do you ever wish there were more hours in a day? I do sometimes, because there are so many things to do and problems to solve, and time flows through our fingertips like grains of sand.

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.)

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just an opinion
just an opinion 03/03/13 - 09:00 am
The rioters should have been held responsible

They burned and looted the business' for personal gain. 1970 THUGS! All this after a black inmate was killed by other black inmates in the jail. I would hold them and the rait baiting professors responsible for the poor race relations that we have today!

deestafford 03/03/13 - 10:16 am
The older I get, the more fascinated I am with history

The more I study history, one of the things I see is that those who want to use the past to make themselves victims and allow that to define them, the more I see these people decend into a morass of usefulessness. They feel that they are "owed" something because of the past and they are going to do nothing to advance themselves until they get "what we deserve." It's a shame so many who are born into this country do not take advantage of all the opportunities it has to offer. These opportunies can be done as shown by many immigrants "of color" who come here with nothing but the clothes on their backs and become highly successful and pass this on to their children. Whereas, many born here pass on this "victimhood" to their children and grandchildren and nothing gets better for them. My hat is off to Helen Blocker-Adams for her insightfulness and all her efforts to make Augusta a better place for all people.

soapy_725 03/03/13 - 11:05 am
Sadly, the truth will be hard to find.

The truth that will set Augusta free. Four decades of oral history. Ever try to put together a family history? Oral history of uncle John and aunt Sarah is difficult. Court records and family lore do not always line up. And when this happens, you may not have healing ,but open old wounds.

Ms Blocker Adams seems to have a heart of reconciliation. A sense that repentance, forgiveness and then salvation are the logical answer. Then we move on into our new changed lives. A Biblical Path. A true path. A path to healing. A Godly path.

But alas, we are not a Godly society no matter how many places of worship there may be in Augusta. We are not a community where the leaders can pass a New Testament qualification to be a deacon. Interestingly these would be people who are faithful to their vows before God, marriage, manage their own finances and households, spouses and children. Long wait for applications in Augusta?

Perceptions of the truth regarding May 1970 will be different. Different cultures, socio-economic groups, victims and perpetrators. Without a public trial, hands on Bible oaths to tell the truth, where do you begin. More lying to avoid responsibility.

Seventy years in the CSRA tells me that no one will tell the truth about Augusta politics past or present. No one will admit fault, run to the altar and ask for forgiveness.

Ms. Blocker-Adams could ask to speak to the folks at Green Meadow Golf Course. They know the truth. Retired senior police officers know the truth. GA National Guardsmen know the truth.

Augusta was like most of America in the throws of a newly declared and defined "legal public disobedience". Non violent protests. May 1970 provided a motive, an opportunity and the means for a riot. Did MLK particpate? Would he have approved? It did not matter?

We have been wronged so we will destroy. We have had enough. Blacks will remember. That is what white citizens remember. White citizens will remember not being able to enter the front of the University Hospital to see sick family because of the masses of black protestors blocking the entrances.

So what will the leadership of Augusta do with this issue. Reexamine the wounds? Apply a new band aid? And continue to forcibly rape the citizens of Augusta, black and white, at the point of a gun. The leadership of Augusta will continue as it did in the years leading up to 1970. Disregard the NEEDS of its citizens and press on to build kingdoms for the controlling class. Someone will use this tragedy to sell books and make money. Academics will use the issue to pontificate their brilliance upon the ignorant and apathetic of both races..

We will continue on as we dd in 1970 when the Augusta downtown business district was changed forever and proceed to change Augusta Mall forever. Why do we continue to see destruction as a viable tool for progress? Is it Marxism? Is someone teaching Marxism? Marx had that belief?

Blacks are waiting for whites to accept their culture and whites are waiting for the blacks to accept their culture.

"Like the sand through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives..."

daviddunagan 03/03/13 - 11:44 am
Well written Dee

It's going to take true black leaders to change things. There are plenty of them out there. I'm glad to hear that several of the race baiting professors have retired.

Jane18 03/03/13 - 12:15 pm
Brains, Not Hearts

The heart can do only two things, pump blood in and pump blood out........ It is the brain of the body that must be changed!(the 'heart' of the brain is COMMON SENSE)!

dstewartsr 03/03/13 - 05:00 pm
"Augusta needs to “move forward..."

But not while after almost half a century there's still someone picking at the scab for ... why? What reason?


"White guilt" because there was black on black violence, both in the murder, and the subsequent rioting that attacked black and white businesses? Go peddle your manufactured racist outrage to the Jessie & Al clown college; I don't give a rat's rump.

Riverman1 03/03/13 - 07:10 pm
Augusta Blues...Blacks and Whites

I’ll do my usual thing of making EVERYONE mad. First off, the riot over this incident has been researched well and it does appear the other inmates tortured the young guy because of what he had done. The riot began over a false cause. Where it gets sketchy is the police using their personal shotguns killing several of the young blacks. They were all shot as they ran away.

Then there’s the bigger picture. Black people were coming out of a criminal era of segregation. They were denied education and jobs while being told they were subhuman with measures like black sitting areas and no service in restaurants. So that’s my bit for Ms. Blocker-Adams wanting to look at the facts surrounding the incident.

Truth Matters
Truth Matters 03/05/13 - 04:25 am

Helen makes some very good points about healing and recovery. One step is to admit ones own short comings. This does not mean any writers here were personally responsible or even alive when the riot occurred. It means that one asks how can I improve relations among races without first pointing the finger at others as the first 3 or 4 posters did here. Jesse Jackson nor Al Sharpton neither live in this community any more than do the Koch brothers so let's keep the focus on what "I" can do.

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