Originally created 05/07/00

Death of jail inmate fueled fire for riots



Words spoken on a Sunday radio broadcast May 10, 1970, were fuel enough to nearly burn down the city of Augusta.

On his radio talk show, Grady Abrams, also an Augusta City Council member, told his listeners what he had seen the night before when he went to May's Funeral Home to view the body of 16-year-old Charles Oatman -- a black youth reportedly slain by two fellow inmates at the Richmond County jail.

"This boy had fork marks from the tip of his toes to his neck," Mr. Abrams said of the teen, whom prison guards took to the hospital saying that his fatal head injury was caused by falling from his bunk the previous night. "(The youth) had cigarette burns. The back of his skull was busted open, and he had three lashes in his back that were the length of his back. And all of this was supposed to have occurred in this cell after a card game."

Prison guards at the jail on Fourth Street had not intervened, Mr. Abrams said.

"I just couldn't imagine those kinds of injuries happening in the jail cell with three or four other inmates and the jail personnel not knowing about it," said Mr. Abrams, recalling the events leading up to the riot 30 years ago.

Not getting answers to the questions about why jail officials failed to prevent the death launched a riot that burned or damaged the better part of 130 city blocks in Augusta, during which six black men were shot to death.

Confusion reigned. It was rumored that two youths had been killed at the jail. Some said the state flag had been burned at the municipal building, triggering the violence. Others just say the riot was a catastrophe waiting to happen, fueled by frustrations that had been mounting for decades.

The riot would have been avoided, Mr. Abrams said, had city officials listened to the black community prior to May 11.

Strides to integrate the community and move forward with civil rights actions in Augusta were often undermined, said John D. Watkins, a civil rights attorney at the time.

"As far as desegregating the schools and the theaters, that was done. It had changed in form and not in substance. That's why the riot started," he said. "Of course you could go into the restaurants and you could go into movies. But the substantive aspect of it was degrading. Who in the hell wants to be in a classroom and be alone? The desegregated classroom. Yeah, you can come in, but then nobody pays attention to you."

Augustans had been hearing about the hundreds of cities throughout the country in which blacks and civil rights activists believed aggressive tactics were the only remaining solution to attaining equal rights. By 1970, race riots had occurred in cities consistently for more than six years. There were more than 100 riots in the two weeks surrounding the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination April 4, 1968. That year, there were about 300 riots.

In Augusta on the eve of its riot, several hundred people at May Park near the jailhouse moved to Tabernacle Baptist Church when they were unable to get answers to their questions about the teen-ager's death. The next morning, the stairs leading to the municipal building and a portion of Greene Street were flooded with demonstrators.

"Police had guns aimed at the crowd the whole time at the rally," said Dr. Mallory Millender, a professor at Paine College who attended the demonstration. "There were police standing on the second floor of the municipal building with guns pointing down at the backs of speakers."

Mr. Abrams and several black leaders were inside the building meeting with then-city council Chairman Matthew Mulherin to discuss the Oatman case and the location juveniles should be held when they were incarcerated, Mr. Abrams said.

Asked recently to comment on the events leading up to the riot, Mr. Mulherin said: "I don't talk about the riot."

During the meeting, city leaders decided that juveniles would be taken to the juvenile detention center from that day on, Mr. Abrams said.

"But by the time I got the solution down to them, they were in no mood to hear anything that anybody was saying," he added.

The crowd ripped the Georgia state flag from a pole and torched it. From there, the hundreds of rioters fanned out across the city as far as Walton Way. Grocery stores, apartment buildings and blocks of property were set ablaze by Molotov cocktails, and in the chaos dozens of blacks and whites were injured, in addition to the six who were killed. That night, Gov. Lester Maddox sent 1,000 National Guardsmen and 150 state troopers to quell the violence.

"(The riot) was Augusta's warning ticket," said singer James Brown, who walked through his neighborhood of Walton Way at that time, surveying the damaged city blocks. He was asked by Mr. Maddox to return to his hometown and address the crowd.

"You had tanks in the middle of the street and armored trucks," Mr. Brown said. "Me and my daddy and a couple more people were going through the community trying to stop them, talking to the looters and calm the people and not take sides."

The looting and destruction, Mr. Brown said, was not in accord with the larger civil rights movement.

"What they did it for didn't have the same meaning as what Dr. King did it for," he said.

Mr. Abrams said the guards were not officially charged with any crime, but the two youths charged with Charles Oatman's slaying -- 17-year-old Sammy Lee Parks and a 16-year-old whose name was not disclosed because he was a juvenile -- served several years in prison.

To Mr. Abrams, there was some good that came out of the riot.

"What grew out of the riot is that politicians began to pay attention to the voices coming out of the black community," said Mr. Abrams, now 61 and a labor relations manager at Bechtel Savannah River Inc. at Savannah River Site. "Prior to that, they didn't pay much attention to any spokesman that we had speaking on behalf of the black community. They took everything with a grain of salt."

Reach Clarissa J. Walker at (706) 828-3851.