Black Resistance from Augusta to BLMRoundup
tags: African American history, public history, Augusta Riot
John Hayes is Associate Professor of History at Augusta University. He is the author of Hard, Hard Religion: Interracial Faith in the Poor South (UNC Press, 2017). Nefertiti Robinson is a writer, historian-in- training and jazz vocalist. Writing on the intersections of faith and race and gender, her work is published on evangelical platforms like Radical and Morning by Morning. Both are leaders on the 1970 Augusta Riot Observance Committee.
When our work began in December 2018, we sought to confront misinformation and erasure surrounding the “riot” of May 11-12, 1970, in Augusta, Georgia, the Deep South city where we live. We were acutely aware of how the term “riot” was used to deny political intent and to erase the substance of Black grievance. We hoped to subvert those connotations, to show that the “riot,” like so many others of the era, was a collective rebellion, inspired by indignant rage at violent injustice. We couldn’t have known, as we prepared to go public in the winter of 2019 and 2020, that we would hear the term wielded that summer by those seeking to discredit the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, nor that we would hear it again the following that winter to describe an attempted insurrection in the Capitol. Far from a remote past to be recovered for local community reckoning, our work on an event in 1970 felt eerily contemporary, as if the past wasn’t even the past. Indeed, confronting misinformation and erasure took on a greater urgency—and one with national resonance.
For there is so much that we simply don’t know about the Civil Rights and Black Power struggle of the late 1960s-early 1970s, despite its proximity in time and the work of a growing cadre of scholars.1 And much of what we do know is framed in ways that, taken uncritically, operate to perpetuate the very injustices those movements were trying to change. The existing narrative that we were seeking to challenge imagined the riot as erupting out of nowhere, disconnected from the era’s activism, the work of nameless, faceless “angry blacks.” “Racial violence,” the city’s white newspaper asserts every May 11, “erupted when large crowds of blacks began gathering.” Provoked by rumors about the death of a teenage “black inmate” in the county jail, a “mob” went on a rampage of destruction. Only the rapid mobilization of the National Guard restored order to chaos. When the dust and smoke settled, the narrative concluded, six Black men had been killed, and it was revealed that two other “black inmates” had in fact killed the teenager. They were subsequently convicted, as were over a hundred rioters. And then the city went back to the status quo ante, its future trajectory unrelated to this episodic, isolated event.
Stocked with images of Black criminality, violence, and irrationality, this narrative has cast a long, powerful shadow in Augusta. Indeed, for many in the community, it was simply the story of what happened, and a casual internet search (before our public work) would have yielded a seemingly credible, supportive paper trail. In reality, we learned, it was police brutality that sparked the riot—as it did in so many other cities. “Police,” Black Panther leader Wilbert Allen told us, “controlled this community like it was a plantation.” Police routinely harassed, beat, and criminalized Black people, especially younger men. They turned a grim family trauma into a cold-blooded killing in late March 1970 when 16-year-old, mentally disabled Charles Oatman, the only son of a working-class Black family, accidentally mortally wounded his young niece. Police promptly arrested him, charged him with murder, and incarcerated him. He was the “black inmate” in the county jail. When his badly beaten dead body was delivered to a Black-owned mortuary on the evening of May 9, the graphic news spread quickly. Black citizens heard it within the context they knew painfully well: the long history of White violence against Black people.
Their rapid mobilization rested on established networks: chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Black Panther Party; a student movement at Paine College; and a local “Committee of Ten.” That mobilization met with a response straight out of the familiar script: the entire sheriff’s department surrounding (and on the roof of) the county jail, with guns drawn, facing demonstrators on the evening of May 10. Reconvening at the city’s largest Black church, they held a classic mass meeting of the era: 800 people, praying, singing, and testifying for three hours. The recurrent theme in their testimonies was police brutality.
Energized and empowered, Black citizens gathered again the next afternoon at the Municipal Building, intent on justice. When news emerged that the sheriff had concluded his overnight “investigation” and charged two Black teenagers with manslaughter in Oatman’s death, demonstrators were indignant. Shouts of “Unfair!” “We don’t want to hear that mess!” “Let’s get ‘em!” “Burn, baby, burn!” rose up in rage. The police department sent heavily armed reinforcements, while various leaders gave impromptu speeches about what to do. Paine student leader Oliver Pope made an impassioned call to militancy: “This is warfare! Tonight we’re going to war!” It resonated especially with younger, working-class Black people who could see themselves in Charles Oatman. When, a few hours later, they launched a riot, it was their collective, empowered, and visceral, “No!” One elderly woman, too old to participate, heartily agreed. “The young people’s action,” she told Committee of Ten leader Grady Abrams shortly afterwards, “was necessary to let the white man know that he could not treat us this way and not expect any retaliation.”
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