Atlanta Group Seeks to Recognize Race Riots

One hundred years ago Friday, thousands of white residents in Atlanta took to the city's streets, targeting blacks. Dozens of African Americans died in an ensuing race riot that lasted four days. Few in America know about the riot, but a coalition in Atlanta wants to mark the event as a key part of the city's history.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

One hundred years ago today, thousands of white residents in Atlanta took to the city's streets. Their target: African-Americans.

Politicians in the newspapers of the day fanned the flames of racial tension that led to the Atlanta riot. The battle lasted four days and ended in the murder of dozens of African-Americans.

Few in America know anything about the riot, but some in Atlanta are trying to change that. From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: Historians say the riot is one of the ten most significant events in Atlanta's history. But it was so disturbing that city leaders minimized the trouble, and others just didn't want to talk about it.

There was a nasty campaign for the governor's office that year involving two Democrats who used race as a pivotal issue. Cliff Kuhn is a history professor at Georgia State University and a member of the coalition to remember the race riot.

Professor CLIFF KUHN (Professor of History, Georgia State University): African-American men had attained the vote during Reconstruction, and now there was a broad consensus in the white community that if the black man sought equality in one sphere, in the political sphere, he would seek equality in other spheres, in particular the so-called social sphere.

LOHR: Newspapers began reporting on a black crime wave, focusing on alleged attacks on white women. Many were reported but few were ever substantiated. Kuhn says prohibitionists also stirred things up, focusing on an area downtown where bars and houses of prostitution had sprung up.

Prof. KUHN: In the words of one observer, Atlanta is like a crusty crater of a volcano dangerously nearing eruptions. You know, and for several weeks before the riot takes place there's a sense that something horrible is going to take place.

LOHR: Thousands of whites gathered downtown. They armed themselves and began attacking any blacks they could find. The mob focused on barbershops and streetcars. Here's an account from Evelyn Witherspoon, a white woman who was just 10 years old at the time. Witherspoon was interviewed for a documentary that ran in 1980 on radio station WRFG in Atlanta.

Ms. EVELYN WITHERSPOON (Atlanta Resident): There was a streetcar coming along Auburn Avenue and they opened fire on it. It was loaded with colored people, and the colored people got down in the aisle, crouched down, but they went on murdering anyway.

LOHR: Evelyn Witherspoon also witnessed a lynching from her bedroom window. A horrific event that she said stayed with her for the rest of her life.

The violence continued for days. According to the official reports, a dozen people were murdered, including two whites. But the true impact was far greater.

Professor CLARISSA MYRICK-HARRIS (Co-Curator, Red Was the Midnight: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot.): It's important to know what occurred after the riot.

LOHR: Clarissa Myrick-Harris is a history professor and a co-curator of an exhibit on the riot.

Prof. MYRICK-HARRIS: Many, many people died. We'll never know how many. But also what occurred was unfortunately an attempt to bury the particulars of the riot.

LOHR: But many in Atlanta say it's time for that kind of social amnesia to change. Thee Smith is a religion professor at Emory University and a member of a group known as STAR - Southern Truth and Reconciliation.

Professor THEE SMITH (Professor of Religion, Emory University): Have we learned anything about human psychology so that we don't have to continue to forget in order to heal?

LOHR: The riot led to greater segregation and efforts by elite whites and blacks to build a coalition. Many years later, officials wanting to sell Atlanta as the capital of the new South began calling it the city too busy to hate. Smith says groups are finally meeting now to talk about how race still affects the city in housing, healthcare and education.

The coalition to remember the Atlanta race riot is sponsoring events all weekend to document the 1906 massacre and to address social and racial issues today so they won't explode in violence later.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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Why a Race Riot Erupted 100 Years Ago in Atlanta

Mark Bauerlein

hide captionMark Bauerlein is an English professor at Emory University and the author of Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906.

Mark Beuerlein

In an interview with npr.org, Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University discusses the repercussions of the 1906 riots on the city of Atlanta, and the motivations behind the events.

Set the scene: What was Atlanta like in 1906?

Atlanta was undergoing major growth [as it] transformed from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. Atlanta was a flagship city — a financial center, a railroad center, part of the New South. Political leaders envisioned it as an industrial center that would rival the Northeast.

These Southern leaders saw Atlanta as having economic resources that the North did not have. This meant cheap land, but it also meant a large, compliant labor pool.

Compliant? How so?

At the time, blacks are part of a labor pool that is part of a caste society and they occupy the bottom caste. In other areas, like the North, there are labor riots, progressive organizers, union agitation, leftist groups trying to activate labor as a movement. Because of the history of slavery, there isn't as much labor agitation in the South.

The New South vision says to Northern capitalist investors, "Here in the South, we have cheap land and cheap labor — a labor pool ready to work and ready to build profits and encourage northern investments."

Did all white Atlantans have a negative image of the black population?

There is paternalism that looked at the black race as inferior but capable of being improved by guidance and the example of white people — "We will civilize them." And there is negrophobia — which looks upon black men, in particular, as essentially degenerate, fundamentally vicious, prone to vice, prone to lust, as not quite responsible because they haven't developed morals, [which] sees the black man as a dangerous animal. Negrophobes think the black man can't be improved, but he can be controlled. That's where you get ideas like the chain gang, a system to get itinerant black men off the streets by putting them in jail, putting them to work for the state, building roads, doing work but remaining incarcerated. The idea is that, "At least we're teaching them to do a good day's work, giving them food." This is the lens that negrophobes had.

What did the local newspapers say about racial issues?

There was intense competition among newspapers, [with] four white papers in town. What builds up circulation more than race and sex, sensational stories of black men preying on white women? Editorials warned white women to stop sitting in the front seat of their carriages with their black drivers because a black man on the street who sees them will "get ideas."

What they didn't say was in any city going through change, with itinerants coming in, you are going to have cases of rape. There were also cases of white men raping white women. White men raping black women was not considered a crime at the time.

The [newspapers] called it an epidemic of Negro crime. This played into old ideas of Southern manhood, of chivalry, of men fighting for their women's honor. What was most important to Southern men? Honor. What was most important to Southern women? Chastity.

Tell us about the black middle-class at this time.

Atlanta had the largest black middle-class in America. There were also a few wealthy black Atlantans. The mob trashed it all — they went after businesses and barbershops and shot the barbers down. They weren't after just the itinerant figures, they went after nice houses, even invaded some of the universities.

Atlanta had the largest concentration of black colleges in the world, a large group of black intellectuals. When riots happened in other cities in the South, Atlanta leaders boasted that they "don't happen here because here we have black teachers."

Was the Atlanta riot about racism or something else?

It had a lot to do with mob psychology. People might have gone into it for different reasons. A guy who lost his job and sees black waiters working in a nice restaurant, a guy whose girlfriend left him for another man, and somehow a racial issue got mixed up with that, or a guy [whose] father carries a crutch with him because he lost a leg at Shiloh, blaming slaves and not the North for the Civil War. Any number of forms of resentment can build up and get attached to a scapegoat.

What were the long-term repercussions for the city, and for black America?

One repercussion for the city was to create safety measures to make sure a riot would never happen again: visits by city leaders to black congregations to promise more protection; censure of the most sensationalistic newspaper, the Atlanta Evening News, which went out of business a few weeks later; committees of white and black leaders that met regularly to discuss race relations. These [measures] enabled Atlanta to make the race issue go largely underground. The activist black intelligentsia were too demoralized or fearful (legitimately so) to rouse much further protest.

For black America, what the riot wrought was, among other things, a beginning of the decline of Booker T. Washington's vision of "go slowly" accommodationism. In a few years, the NAACP would be formed, black activism would gravitate northward and Washington's influence would decline.

What did it mean that Booker T. Washington's influence waned?

The Washington formula was to work hard, save some money, keep your yard neat, impress your employer. His formula broke down with the Atlanta riot. They went after everyone, including black citizens who did all these things. Booker T. Washington was a famous, powerful, fascinating, brilliant figure, but in the wake of the riots, his philosophy sounded empty. A more militant version of advocacy seemed to become more attractive.

What do people need to understand about the 1906 riot?

We live in a nation of historical forgetfulness. Young people don't know the basic facts of the founding, the Progressive Era or the Cold War. They live in the present. Atlanta, too, emphasizes the present, and that goes for black leadership as well as white leadership. We have obscured our heritage, the bad and the good, and live with superficial, pop-culture images and sounds from the past. A society is only as thoughtful and deliberative as is its historical memory, and these days we are failing.

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