Century-Old Race Riot Still Resonates in Atlanta On Sept. 22, 1906, thousands of whites in Atlanta joined together downtown and began attacking and killing the city's blacks. Dozens were murdered in violence that continued for four days. But the riot hasn't been commemorated or taught in schools — until now.
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Century-Old Race Riot Still Resonates in Atlanta

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Century-Old Race Riot Still Resonates in Atlanta

Century-Old Race Riot Still Resonates in Atlanta

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One hundred years ago today thousands of whites in Atlanta joined together in the downtown area and began attacking and killing blacks. The violence continued for four days. By the official count, 12 blacks and two whites were killed. Many historians say dozens were murdered. Remarkably, the 1906 Atlanta race riot has not been commemorated or taught in schools until now.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: It was a warm and sultry Saturday in September the day the riot broke out in the Five Points area of Atlanta, the heart of the city.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

LOHR: Five Points today 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 were coming from farms for a chance to find a better job and a better life. Many were poor and that added to the racial tension.

Cliff Kuhn is a history professor at Georgia State University.

Dr. CLIFF KUHN (Georgia State University): There was a great deal of concern about the city itself and the decaying morals associated with an urban environment. A great deal of anxiety about the proper place of women in this urban environment. And certainly a great deal of anxiety about race.

LOHR: The 1906 governor's campaign fueled the racial fire. Democrats Clark Howell and Hoke Smith 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 more headlines of alleged attacks on white women.

Dr. KUHN: The newspapers are coming out with additional extra additions announcing one new assault, another new assault, a third and then a fourth. Newsboys are going throughout the crowd hawking these editions. Extra, extra, read all about it. And at the corner of Pryor and Decatur Street, a many 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.

LOHR: By this time, thousands of whites had congregated downtown armed with any kind of weapon they could find - pitchforks, guns and knives. Kuhn says the riot began about 10:00.

Dr. KUHN: It continues for four hours, 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.

LOHR: One of those who witnessed the riots was 13-year-old Walter White, the son of a letter carrier. He was black, although he didn't look it, with blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin. His niece, Rose Martin Palmer, recalls White's story.

Ms. ROSE MARTIN PALMER: When they got up to Peachtree towards the Herndon Barbershop, he saw the mob and this little boy with this withered foot run out of the barbershop and he 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.

LOHR: This was the defining moment for Walter White, who went on to spend much of his life working on race relations and became the executive secretary of the NAACP. Others recall stories of the 1906 race riot that affected them all their lives.

Ms. EVELYN WITHERSPOON: I woke up somewhere around midnight and could feel tension in the room. My mother and her sister were kneeling in front of the window looking out into the street.

LOHR: Evelyn Witherspoon, a white woman who was 10 years old at the time, was interviewed in 1980 for a documentary that aired on WRFG radio in Atlanta.

Ms. WITHERSPOON: 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.

LOHR: As the chaos continued, barbershops and other black businesses were attacked along with the streetcars. It was transportation that both races used - whites sitting from the front and blacks from the rear. Black men and women were pulled off streetcars, 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. History professor and co-curator of an exhibit about the Atlanta riot Clarissa Myrick Harris says the number of victims was much greater than the official records show.

Professor CLARISSA MYRICK HARRIS (Historian): Bodies disappeared. 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. And then the city didn't want it known the, in fact, in terms of the actual number of people who were killed. Because, again, that would further damage the reputation of the city.

LOHR: The Atlanta riot was reported in most major newspaper across the country and in the foreign press, including papers in England, France and Italy. Local leaders acted to cover up the extent of the crimes, hoping Atlanta would continue its reputation as a progressive place to live and do business.

Others wanted to make sure a riot didn't happen again, so elite white and black leaders in Atlanta began meeting. Andy Ambrose is also a curator of the riot exhibit.

Mr. ANDY AMBROSE (Historian): At the beginning of interracial kind of cooperation or beginning or interracial groups. And there's a number of those that kind of take their first halting steps during this time period. It's not a coming together of equals. 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.

LOHR: The modern day Civil Rights Movement grew out of the biracial coalitions that were established at that time. Many current leaders are gathering together for a weekend of events to remember the 1906 race riot, including a memorial service, walking tours and the exhibit at the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site called Red Was the Midnight. Again, Clarissa Myrick Harris.

Professor HARRIS: What we hoped people will understand is that problems cannot be ignored. 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. We can't let another 1906 occur. So things have to be done to address issues related to race, related to economics, related to social conditions of people in this city and throughout the country.

LOHR: To make Atlanta children grow up knowing this part of their history, a group has developed a curriculum to teach the 1906 race riot in middle schools and high schools. And they're working to establish memorial markers to identify the bloodiest spots downtown where so many African Americans were murdered.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

BLOCK: You can read about the repercussions of the Atlanta race riot at our Web site, NPR.org.

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