Century-Old Race Riot Still Resonates in Atlanta
Century-Old Race Riot Still Resonates in Atlanta
A Riot and Its Repercussions
Atlanta newspapers alleged that black men were assaulting white women. The charges were untrue, but the reports nonetheless set off the Atlanta race riot of 1906.
The roots of the riot, however, go far deeper than the unsubstantiated newspaper stories. Atlanta's population was exploding. Black residents have a growing presence –- and growing economic clout. The black working-class and the elite did not get along. Those tensions were brought to a boil in the summer of 1906, as rival gubernatorial candidates made race a central issue of the campaign.
Author Mark Bauerlein retells the story of the riot -- and its long-term repercussions for the city and for black America -- in his book Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906. Scroll down to read an interview with Bauerlein.
W.E.B. Du Bois, an African-American educator, writer and social activist. The riot's aftermath helped move black activists away from an accommodationist stance and toward the more aggressive push for racial equality advocated by Du Bois.
In the wake of the 1906 riot, Du Bois wrote a moving poem called "The Litany of Atlanta." Read the poem.
On a warm and sultry Saturday, on Sept. 22, 1906, thousands of whites in Atlanta joined together in the downtown area and began attacking and killing blacks in the city. The violence continued for four days. By the official count, 12 blacks and two whites were killed. Although many historians say dozens were murdered, the 1906 race riot has not been commemorated or taught in schools until now.
The riot broke out in the Five Points area of Atlanta, the heart of the city. Today, Five Points is the center of a bustling downtown area, with high-rise office buildings and banks. Even then, Atlanta was considered the capital of the New South. People came from farms in search of better jobs and a better life. Many were poor and many were black, adding to racial and class tensions.
A Pressure Cooker of Anxieties
"There was a great deal of concern about the city itself, and the decaying morals associated with an urban environment," says Cliff Kuhn, a history professor at Georgia State University. That anxiety, he says, extended to debates about the proper role of women and of race.
The 1906 governor's campaign fueled the racial fire. Clark Howell and Hoke Smith, rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor, spent much of the time debating how they could get rid of black men at the polls. The newspapers printed stories of local lynchings and of the need for a new Klan organization to control blacks. Saloons -- known as dives -- were targeted along Decatur Street. Prohibitionists called them havens for black criminals.
Then came a barrage of headlines of alleged attacks on white women. Four such alleged attacks were reported in the papers in rapid succession.
Kuhn tells the story: "Newsboys are hawking these editions: 'Extra! Extra! Read all about it!' And at the corner of Pryor and Decatur Street, a man gets up on a soapbox and waves one of these newspaper headlines and says, 'Are we going to let them do this to our white women? Come on, boys!' And the mob surges down Decatur Street."
Mayhem and Murder on the Streets
Thousands of whites congregated downtown, armed with any kind of weapon they could find: pitch forks, guns and knives. Kuhn says the riot began about 10 o'clock. It was, he says, "a pitched battle in the heart of downtown Atlanta, involving as many as 10,000 white men and hundreds of black men and women, who were unfortunate enough to be there on the street."
One of those who witnessed the riot was 13-year-old Walter White, the son of a letter carrier. He was black, although he didn't look it, with blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin. His niece, Rose Martin Palmer, recalls White's story.
"When they got up to Peachtree, towards the Herndon barber shop, he saw the mob," Palmer says. "And this little boy with this withered foot ran out of the barber shop. And [Walter] saw him clubbed to death by the mob. And this is what stirred in him the feeling of understanding of what hatred was all about -- race hatred."
This was the defining moment for Walter White, who went on to devote much of his life to improving race relations; he would eventually became the executive secretary of the NAACP.
Others recall stories of the 1906 race riot that remained with them all their lives.
Evelyn Witherspoon, a white woman who was 10 years old at the time, was interviewed in 1980 for a documentary that aired on WRFG in Atlanta.
"I woke somewhere around midnight and could feel tension in the room," she told WRFG. "My mother and her sister were kneeling in front of the window, looking out into the street. I got up and said, 'What is it?' They said, 'Go back to bed.' But I knew something was going on, and I came to the window and knelt down between them. And there I saw a man strung up to the light pole. Men and boys on the street below were shooting at him, until they riddled his body with bullets. He was kicking, flailing his legs, when I looked out."
A City Engulfed in Chaos
As the chaos continued, barber shops and other black businesses were attacked, along with street cars. Both races used street cars for transportation -- whites sitting in the front and blacks in the rear. Black men and women were pulled off street cars, beaten and killed.
The riot continued for days. The governor called out the militia. More than 250 blacks were arrested in Brownsville, south of Atlanta, after a white policeman was killed there as the community tried to defend itself. Clarissa Myrick Harris, a history professor and co-curator of an exhibit about the Atlanta riot, says the number of victims was much greater than the official records show.
"Bodies disappeared," Harris says. "Families did not want it known that their loved ones died during the riot, because they feared further retribution. They feared that someone would come attack them."
Atlanta officials, she says, also did not want the true death toll reported, because "that would further damage the reputation of the city."
An Opening for Interracial Dialogue
The Atlanta riot was reported in most major newspapers across the country and in the foreign press, including papers in England, France and Italy. Local leaders covered up the extent of the crimes, hoping to preserve Atlanta's reputation as a progressive place to live and do business.
Others wanted to make sure a riot didn't happen again. Elite white and black leaders in Atlanta began meeting. Andy Ambrose, another curator of the riot exhibit, says the meetings marked the beginning of interracial cooperation in the city.
"It's not a coming together of equals," Ambrose says of those hesitant first efforts at interracial dialogue. "But it is an important coming together of black and white leaders, to some extent, to try to address some of the issues that contributed to the riot."
The modern-day civil-rights movement grew out of the biracial coalitions that were established at that time. Many current leaders will gather this weekend for a series of events commemorating the 1906 race riot, including a memorial service, walking tours and an exhibit called "Red Was the Midnight," at the Martin Luther King Jr. historic site.
"What we hope people will understand is that problems cannot be ignored," says exhibit co-curator Harris. "Negative things that have occurred in the city's history cannot be ignored, and current conditions that are not beneficial to people in the community cannot be ignored. We have to address them."
To make sure Atlanta children grow up knowing this part of their history, a group has developed a curriculum to teach the 1906 race riot in middle and high schools. They're also working to establish memorial markers to identify the bloodiest spots downtown where so many African-Americans were murdered.
A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906
Hardcover, 337 pages |purchase
Rage in the Gate City
The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot
Paperback, 239 pages |purchase
The Law of the White Circle
Paperback, 147 pages |purchase
Why a Race Riot Erupted 100 Years Ago in Atlanta
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.