Originally created 05/07/00

City's racial tension endures



On Thursday, Augusta will celebrate an anniversary it would like to forget.

Three decades ago -- on May 11, 1970 -- six black men were killed and dozens of blacks and whites were injured in a riot sparked by the death of 16-year-old Charles Oatman in the Richmond County jail. He had been beaten to death at the jail two days earlier.

During the chaotic night, 130 city blocks were touched by fire and looting, with the final damage to property estimated at $1.5 million.

"The community was already polarized," said John D. Watkins, a local lawyer who defended civil rights cases during the 1960s. "You felt this discontent. You had a feeling that there were blacks placed in key positions ... but it was like to hell with what happened to other black people. And this had been brewing for a long time. (The teen's death) was just a spark that ignited it."

Gov. Lester Maddox called legendary singer James Brown back from a performance in Flint, Mich., to calm the rioters in his home city.

"I told Governor Maddox these are old sins revealing themselves," Mr. Brown said recently about his meeting with the governor.

Thirty years later -- with several minority victories won -- many say those old sins are still around.

Because race relations continue to be a top issue in Augusta, the topic made the Solutions 2000 list of the area's top 15 problems.

Solutions 2000 is a joint project by Leadership Augusta and The Augusta Chronicle aimed at helping the city address its biggest problems and beginning a dialogue about possible solutions.

"(Race-related problems) would be at the top of the list," Augusta Mayor Bob Young said. "Because in many ways it cuts through everything else that we do in this community."

Several accomplishments of minorities locally are pointed to as triumphs along the more than 30-year journey to racial equality: A black Augusta businessman, Charles Walker, was elected state senator, and the Democrat has become one of the state's most powerful politicians. The Augusta Commission, housed in a building that today still has water fountains set up in pairs that were once marked "for colored" and "for whites," includes five black men -- half of its membership. Today, eight of the county's 30 department heads are black.

None of this was true in 1970.

There are those who were a part of the civil rights movement in Augusta in the 1960s and 1970s who say the divide rooted in race is as wide now as it was 30 years ago.

Grover Oatman, the father of the teen killed in jail in 1970, blames the news media for the narrow view that people still have of blacks, because negative images dominate, he said.

"You can't just show one picture," Mr. Oatman said, adding that the media should be showing more blacks doing well in their professions. "The good things (that blacks do) are covered up."

A notable disparity in economic resources that control political power is at the heart of the race relations problem, said Mallory Millender, an associate professor of French and journalism at Paine College and a civil rights activist during the time of the riots.

"I don't think that blacks at this point have an equal say in government," Dr. Millender said. "There are an equal number of representatives. But what I am saying is that much of the decision-making really is done by the power brokers. The people who have resources. And too often we don't have the resources to exercise that kind of clout."

Added John D. Watkins, who was an Augusta civil rights attorney at the time: "Those who are in key positions have not furthered the revolution."

"(Black leaders) have not furthered the legacy of King," Mr. Watkins said. "The politicians. The officeholders. Ministers could really do something about this. They have captured audiences. But do you hear them saying right now that black people are getting paid less money? We just don't have any leadership."

Mr. Brown said decision-makers who were in charge of the city during the time of the riot left a legacy of outdated ideas and misconceptions about minorities -- and many of the new regime still accept the old way of thinking.

"Augusta is a place that is run basically by the same people," Mr. Brown said. "It is very important to them that it stays calm. But, it is also important to them that it stays like it was."

At James Brown Enterprises, which was gutted by fire April 28, Mr. Brown employs a Turkish translator, a white female assistant, two Hispanic disc jockeys and a black male program coordinator who work under the management of the company's president and manager, Linda Ware, a black woman who has worked for Mr. Brown for 23 years.

"I have the (United Nations)," said Mr. Brown, owner of the Augusta-based business recently relocated because of the fire. "I want to give everyone a chance, and everyone has the right to the tree of life. How can we only holler black this and white that when everybody's tax money is involved?"

But discussions about race relations in Augusta usually exclude everyone who is not either black or white, and that should not be the case, some say.

"We didn't just come here," said Charles Barreras, vice president of the Hispanic American Cultural Association in Augusta. "One of the things that always disturbs me is when the paper seems to imply that Hispanics are Johnny-come-latelys."

Census hype touting an expected rise in the Hispanic population nationwide has fostered the misleading notion of a growing Hispanic population "coming over and taking over the country," said Mr. Barreras, who is also a retired counselor with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I -- and all of my family and a lot of Hispanics -- have served in the military," he said. "We are very proud of serving our country of the American flag. The media interview Hispanics who have just come over from Cuba or Puerto Rico, then nothing is said about the Hispanics who have been here for a long, long, long time."

Mr. Watkins said minorities born after 1970 don't have the interest in carrying on the fight for equality.

"(Younger generations) don't have any seriousness of purpose about the economic and educational conditions of minorities," he said. "It's the kind of thing where our priorities are all messed up. We have no black banks. No black loan companies. I don't know of any black-owned stores in the Augusta Mall."

He said that when confronted with discrimination, young people often seem uninterested.

Some youths said they are aware of the city's racial discord but don't believe that their lives are controlled by it.

"I wouldn't say that it doesn't bother me. There is cause for concern," said Nina Ivey, 23, a black Augusta State University senior who has lived in Augusta for most of her life. "But from what I see, nothing really stops you from being or getting what you want other than yourself. There are a lot of things in place. There is grant money to get into school. It's all on you and what you want."

Eric Sorrells, 19, who is white and a sophomore at the college, said he won't carry the racial baggage left by previous generations.

"I think it's the way that people's parents bring them up ... whether they will be individualistic," the Augusta native said. "Like me; I don't really care about what other people think. If I am going to like somebody, I am going to like them (regardless of race.) Who cares what other people think?"

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