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A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906

by Mark Bauerlein

Hardcover, 337 pages, Perseus Distribution Services, List Price: $25.95 |


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A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906
Mark Bauerlein

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Excerpt: Negrophobia

Chapter One8 December 1905, Atlanta

At 12:00 AM, John Nelms, high sheriff of Fulton County, Georgia,paces down the blank corridors of the Atlanta jail, called the Tower,and follows the turnkey into a cell block known as Murderer's Row.They pause and the turnkey swings open a door, revealing a smalltwenty-five-year-old black man lying quietly on his cot.

Nelms mutters, "Let's go, Jim."

The prisoner glances at the sheriff with a sigh, and the small partymakes its way to a darkened, cavernous room where several grimwhite men mill around a noose hanging above a trap door in thefloor. Nelms and his prisoner step forward. The onlookers scan thecondemned man's face as he eyes the rope. Sheriff and prisoner positionthemselves in the middle of the room, the noose but a fewinches from their heads. The others arrange themselves in a circle,a sober gathering of Atlanta officials, newspaper reporters, priests,and Mr. George Moore.

One month earlier, Moore's wife ventured outside the couple'ssmall home in Brookwood, a suburb a mile north of the city, walkingalong the train tracks to their garden a hundred yards away. Asthe fifty-five-year-old mother of four bent over to pull turnips fordinner, a man loomed behind her and brought his fist down uponher skull. She hit the dirt with a gasp, jerking around to face a viciousblack man grasping at her throat, choking her into senselessness,and proceeding to commit, as the newspapers put it, a "criminalassault" upon her person. Minutes later, her assailant having vanished,she stumbled back to her husband's store, pressing her tornclothing to her breast, falling into his arms with pitiable cries ofviolation.

The manhunt that followed was furious. Packs of bloodhoundsleading shotgun-wielding posses crisscrossed the woods of northernAtlanta and patrolled Peachtree Road from Brookwood to Buckhead.Working from a description of the criminal given by the bedriddenvictim, police squads searched the suburbs and nearby towns,apprehending black men who matched Mrs. Moore's portrait andwere unfamiliar or itinerant. A small company maintained a vigiloutside the Moore home, monitoring news of arrests and awaitingan identification. The Atlanta Constitution printed daily updateson the search and displayed photographs of the Moore house, Mr.Moore's store, and the garden in which the violation had occurred.The Moore family and the governor of Georgia offered rewards forthe capture of the brute, and Sheriff Nelms sent notices to countysheriffs around the state detailing the crime.

Suspects accumulated in the Tower holding cells, for Mrs. Moorerefused to travel to the jail to make an identification. Her dignityand her nerves prevented it, her husband said. Nelms believed thattaking a man out to Brookwood for a positive identification wouldonly guarantee his death at the hands of a mob. Unless a respectedwhite person came forward to provide an alibi, suspects remainedbehind bars, congregating with other nervous and sullen black men.With the papers crying out for an arraignment, Nelms appealed tothe governor to provide greater security forces and compel Mrs.Moore to visit the Tower, but the governor replied that he had nojurisdiction in city police affairs. Finally, after a week of recovery,Mrs. Moore journeyed to the police station and began scrutinizingthe detainees one by one. None of them proved to be her assailant.

On November 9, officers delivered Jim Walker, caught in Fairburn,to police headquarters and presented him to Sheriff Nelms.The sheriff examined the suspect and asked him where he was atthe time of the assault. Walker answered his questions readily, butcould provide no white witnesses on his behalf, leaving Mrs. Mooreas the only person who could exonerate him. Nelms warned Walkerthat if he were taken to see the victim and were positively identified,he would surely die within minutes. Declaring his innocence,Walker asked to be transported to the Moore home immediately,and so Nelms dispatched the officers and their charge to Brookwood,certain of another mistaken arrest. A half-hour later, two policemensteered Walker past idling neighbors and crossed the Moore threshold.Entering the hallway at her husband's side, Mrs. Moore staredat Walker and shouted, "Let the white caps have him!" then faintedto the floor.

Hustling Walker outside, the officers faced a crowd of white menloitering in the road. A few of them yelled, "They got him!" Thetrio pushed its way forward, threatened and jostled by the locals,trying to reach the streetcar line before word of the identificationbrought more troublemakers to the scene. Harassed by the crowdbut keeping their prisoner between them, the officers hastened toa nearby trolley stop. They threw Walker aboard a sitting car andpoised to block the entrance, but the vigilantes stormed the trolleyand grappled with the driver. As officers retreated with drawn nightsticks,Mr. Moore and his son shouted at the assailants to stop, pleadingwith them to let the law take its course. The mob hesitated. Officersseized a horse and threw Walker astride it, but a heavy rockbrought him tumbling to the ground. Firing pistols in the air andshouting "Lynch him! Lynch him!" the vigilantes snatched Walkerfrom the overwhelmed cops, pummeling the suspect and dragginghim off the road to a makeshift gallows hastily erected in a gullybeneath a tall tree. One man attached a noose to his neck, whileanother threw the rope over a limb and began tying it to the trunk.

Just then, an automobile skidded to a stop at the edge of the crowdand Sheriff Nelms and four armed patrolmen thrust their waythrough the spectators and removed the noose from Walker's neck.The mob closed ranks around them when Nelms turned to Mooreand promised, "You'll be there at the hanging once the trial isfinished."

Having confessed his guilt in court, Walker now stands ready tobe executed. A day earlier, Reverend Henry Hugh Proctor recordedWalker's final statement (the condemned man can neither read norwrite), which the Atlanta Constitution published in full. Part of itread, "Yes, I know I will be hanged on Friday. I knew well what wasgoing to be done to me when I made up my mind to tell the truthin court. I did wrong and I've got to suffer for it." In the death chamber,with Proctor to one side of him and Nelms to the other, Walkeris eased into position and stares solemnly into space while an officercuffs his hands behind him. As the onlookers hush, Proctor readsa passage from the Gospel in which Christ on the Cross promisesforgiveness to a repentant thief suffering next to him.

Nelms faces Walker and asks, "Do you have anything to say?"

"No, sir," he replies.

Nelms grasps the rope. A Georgia native and Confederate veteranin his mid-sixties, famed for having single-handedly clearedthe north Georgia mountains of renegades in the 1880s, he summonsall his authority and experience to deliver the conclusive pronouncement.

"Jim Walker, you are about to be executed for a great crime thatyou committed. It should be a lesson and warning to all the peopleof your race. You `Niggers' must understand that you cannot polluteour white women; that you cannot lay your black hands uponthem. God made your race inferior to the white people. Our womenare not for your kind. Every `Nigger' that assaults a white womanwill meet the fate that is yours today." Dropping his voice, Nelmsmurmurs, "Goodbye, Jim."

Walker gazes impassively at the walls and mumbles, "Goodbye,sir."

Nelms cries out, "Take your last look upon the light!" jams theblack hood over his eyes, tightens the rope around his neck, and carriesout the sentence. The body drops and the rope straightens asthe witnesses lean forward and stare silently at the quivering form.For seventeen minutes, Walker twitches and struggles to breath, thefall having dislocated but not broken his neck. Nelms waits patientlyuntil a doctor pronounces Walker dead and orderlies gather the bodyand prepare it for the medical college. (Walker has no friends orfamily to claim him.) Mr. Moore tells the Constitution reporter, "Iam glad his neck was not broken, for he ought to suffer some." Thewitnesses ask for pieces of the rope, but the noose is reserved forMr. Moore.

10 January 1906, Columbus, Georgia

Politics is a biennial rite in the state of Georgia. Every other year,voters enfranchised by the Constitution and state law endure a seasonof campaign speeches and partisan editorials, pollsters, passingentourages, high and low politicking. Would-be governors, congressmen,councilmen, mayors, and sheriffs mount the stump, courtingconstituencies in village squares and railway stations, contactinglocal bosses and railroad cronies on the sly. In Columbus, andin a hundred other large and small towns across the state, everyvoter has an opinion, presses an issue, promotes a candidate. Atlantafigures like Evan Howell and Allen Candler dominate the DemocraticParty, but with each county and township sending representativesto the state and federal capitols, and with Southerners everwatchful of their sovereignty-Reconstruction was an underhandedpolitical scheme, they still believe-Georgia citizens approach electionswith a raucous engagement.

Just before noon, Chief of Police Wiley Williams throws open thedoors of the Columbus Opera House and five hundred registeredvoters, all white males, scramble across the lower floor and box seatswith competing chants of "Howell! Howell!" and "Smith! Smith!"Through the stage entrance file three hundred invited guests whoseat themselves before a rostrum on which Democratic Party officials,campaign workers, and newspaper reporters cluster. At the centerof the stage is L. C. Slade, flanked by the two leading candidatesfor governor of Georgia, Clark Howell and Hoke Smith, who aresquaring off for debate as they head toward the Democratic primaryelection to be held in August. This race, white-only since 1892, isthe only significant contest in the gubernatorial election, the RepublicanParty having little support in the state. Asking that the boisterousaudience allow each candidate to speak without interruption,Slade first introduces Howell, who strides to the podium amidstcheers of "Eat 'em up, Clark!"

Modest-faced, with serious eyes and trimmed moustache, Howellhas nursed grand political ambitions ever since serving as Speakerof the Georgia House in 1890-91 and taking over the editorship ofthe Atlanta Constitution from his father in 1897. Protg of NewSouth champion Henry Grady, son of famed newspaperman, mayor,and would-be senator Evan Howell, Clark Howell represents theconservative wing of the Democratic Party, linked to Northern speculators,railroad corporations, and cotton traders.

The post at the Constitution has served Howell as a political platform,as it has for conservative Democrats since 1868, when it wasfounded to lead the fight against carpetbaggers and Reconstructionpolicies. In the 1880's, under Grady's direction, it became the mostpopular morning paper in the South, its offices a training groundfor state Democratic leaders, its pages filled with international news,sports scores, social events, and the Uncle Remus stories of JoelChandler Harris. (The paper's influence was so great that at the timeof his death in 1889, when he was only thirty-nine years old, Gradywas being groomed as Grover Cleveland's running mate.) The editorialpage of the Constitution was a strong proponent of the NewSouth program, a vision of the South freed from its plantation past.The New South forsook the agrarian antebellum world and reshapedGeorgia into a center of industry and transportation, offeringinvestors and industrialists a cheap labor force, liberal governmentregulations, and other business incentives.

As editor, Howell continued the corporate agenda, supporting theSpanish-American War because of the commercial benefits it providedthe South, promoting railroad causes in the state legislature,and pushing for greater funding of the University of Georgia. Withcorporate support and traditional factions of the Democratic Partyuniting behind him, Howell quickly became the frontrunner oncehe announced his candidacy in the spring of 1905.

His opponent, Hoke Smith, is nearly as eminent a figure as Howell,though he lacks Howell's lineage. Pugnacious and confident,Smith served as secretary of the interior under Grover Clevelandand for years has edited the rival newspaper, the Atlanta Journal,through which he has fought against child labor and for primaryeducation.

The Journal started in 1883 as an afternoon paper and soon cutinto the Constitution's domination of opinion. When the Old KimballHouse, largest hotel in the South and center of convention meetingsand political gatherings, caught fire later that year at four o'clockone morning, the Journal capitalized on the event. The edition ofthe Constitution had already been formatted and sent to the presses,but the Journal brought its employees in early and had them workall day to put out a regular edition covering the fire and, as hourspassed, "Extra" editions detailing last-minute developments in theinferno. (At the time, an extra-a regular edition with an updatedfront page wrapped around it-was a novelty.) Sensing a demandfor up-to-date information, the Journal editors sent extras out ontrains all over the state and kept newsboys in the street peddlingthe papers all evening. Such tactics gave the Journal enduringinfluence over public opinion. It might have lacked the impressivestaff of writers found at the Constitution (though it later employedMargaret Mitchell, Erskine Caldwell, and Vereen Bell), but the Journalcommanded the afternoon market, and it offered readers analternative to the Constitution and its alliance with conservativeDemocrats.

By 1906, the Journal has attached itself to another faction of theDemocratic Party, the reform wing led by Hoke Smith, who waschief owner of the paper in the 1880's and who continues to maintaineditorial influence upon it, though the managing editor is nowJames Gray. Against Howell and "the boys" (as Smith calls the partypower brokers), Smith stands for reform and populism, targetingrailroad magnates and Wall Street bigwigs as lobbyists and influencepeddlers working to keep wages low and prices high. Headdresses his ideas to Georgia farmers who witness annual increasesin freight costs, to debtors who resent banks for charging high interestrates and threatening foreclosure for a single missed payment,to rural businessmen who see themselves competing with WallStreet conglomerates.