The past few weeks, all eyes have been on the rioting and criminal investigation in Baltimore following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died after sustaining a spinal cord injury while in police custody. While its heartbreaking to watch any community go through such struggles, Augustans can’t help but think back to one of the Garden City’s darkest days. The following is a cover story written by Metro Spirit reporter Stacey Eidson in April 2000 regarding the 30th anniversary of the Augusta Riots. It has now been 45 years since Augusta erupted in violence after the tragic death of a 16-year-old boy named Charles Oatman in the Richmond County Jail. It is a day that many Augustans will never forget.
May 11, 1970. In Augusta, there is an unspoken significance to that date.
It was the beginning of a two-day riot which resulted in the tragic death of six black men, the injury of 62 individuals, the burning of at least 20 downtown buildings and property damages estimated to be more than $1 million.
But those are just the statistics.
The impact that May 11, 1970 had on Augustans cannot be quantified. It is a day this city’s black community will never forget … and one that many in the white community would like to put behind them.
“For an entire year leading up to the riots, we had been trying to get the politicians in this town to realize there was racial unrest in Augusta, but they refused listen,” said Grady Abrams, a then-city councilman. “No matter what we said, the politicians called us ‘rebel rousers’ and told us, ‘Everything is fine in Augusta. We don’t have any race problems.’
“They were in for a rude awakening.”
The Death of Charles Oatman
While racial tension within the community had been building for years, Abrams said one event in particular finally caused Augusta to erupt into violence.
“On a Saturday night, May 9, I got a call from Carrie Mays, Willie Mays’ mother, telling me that she wanted me to come the funeral home to see a body that she had picked up at the hospital,” he said. “I went to Mays Mortuary and walked into the morgue. There, Willie (Mays) pulled a sheet back from this body.”
What Abrams saw was something he will never forget.
“There was this 16-year-old kid that had been brutally beaten,” he said. “He had three gashes the length of his back maybe about an inch deep. The back of his skull was crushed in. He had cigarette burns from the tip of his fingers down to his toes. They were all over his body.”
The young man’s name was Charles Oatman. He was black inmate who, despite the fact he was a juvenile and mentally handicap, was housed at the Richmond County Jail instead of the Youth Detention Center.
“The explanation that Carrie had gotten was that Oatman had been in a card game and had lost to his fellow inmates,” Abrams said. “The game went in such a way that, if you lose, you would get beaten. The official explanation coming from Sheriff (E.R.) Atkins was that Oatman got hit while he was on his bunk and fell off the bunk bed and busted his skull causing his death. Well I didn’t go for that.”
Grady Abrams, a former city councilman
By the next day, news had spread throughout the black community of Oatman’s death.
Several people speculated that Oatman had actually been a victim of police brutality. That rumor later proved to be untrue and two black youths and fellow inmates were convicted of Oatman’s murder.
But by Sunday evening, May 10, it was too late. The word was already out and the anger was mounting.
A crowd of more than 200 people assembled outside the Richmond County Jail, Abrams said, to get answers from the sheriff about Oatman’s death.
“The sheriff had called in all of his forces and they had the jail surrounded with officers who had their weapons drawn,” he said.
Sheriff E.R. Atkins told Abrams, along with other city officials in a private meeting at the jail, that an investigation was underway over the incident.
“All they gave us in the jail was a lot of mumbo jumbo and ‘official talk,’” Abrams said.
As the crowd’s dissatisfaction grew, Rev. C.S. Hamilton of Tabernacle Baptist Church announced that the gathering could moved to his church later that evening.
Destruction in Augusta
The late Dr. Ike Washington, then-principal of A. R. Johnson Junior High School, remembered attending the meeting at Tabernacle and listening to a number of speakers who were outraged over the day’s events.
“The church was so packed there wasn’t any room,” Washington said in 2000. “They had asked me to sit on stage during the speeches, but I purposely left the stage to hear what the people were saying in the audience. I heard one person say, ‘We are going to take the jail down brick by brick.'”
Immediately, Washington realized the severity of the situation that was arising. The assembly decided that they should demonstrate in front of the municipal building on Greene Street the next day to demand an explanation.
Dr. Ike Washington
On May 11, County Commission Chairman Matthew Mulherin met with several city officials, including Abrams, to discuss the county’s procedures regarding juvenile prisoners.
“Outside, a big crowd had gathered,” Abrams said. “While we were working on the solution, Lt. Tommy Olds, a black officer with the Augusta police department, came in and told us, ‘Y’all need to hurry up because they have climbed the flag pole and pulled down the state flag.’”
When the city officials reached the first floor, Abrams said Rev. Arthur Sims, pastor First Mount Moriah Baptist Church, was speaking to the crowd which had grown to over 300 people.
They were no longer in the mood to listen. The Georgia flag had already been burned and the crowd was going after the American flag. According to Abrams, Rev. Sims suggested the group leave the municipal building on Greene Street and move to the corner of Ninth and Gwinnett streets (now Laney-Walker Blvd.).
“So, as we left the court house and got on Ninth Street, a Wrightsboro bus passed by and somebody took a rock and threw it at the bus,” Abrams said. “And from that one throw of a rock, everybody started joining in. The riots had begun.”
“People were turning over trash cans and throwing bricks through windows,” he added. “And every white person that came in that area got attacked.”
Abrams recalled one incident where a white man pulled up to a stop light along Ninth Street, unaware what was going on.
“A gang of blacks got around his truck and snatched him out of it and began stomping him on the ground,” Abrams said. “Then, they took his truck and rocked it and turned it over in the middle of the street.”
He said if it had not been for two black men who had managed to get the rioters off the man, he would have probably died.
Clearly, the situation was getting out of hand, but Abrams said he, along with the other black leaders, told then-Police Chief Broadus Bequest not to try and contain the crowd.
“We told him that it may be best if the police didn’t get involved in it right now because it was beyond what they could do to bring some order,” Abrams said. “So, the police did not get involved in trying to stop what was going on, so stores were looted and places were burned.”
When clouds of smoke began to fill the sky, Abrams remembers the captain approaching the crowd on Ninth Street with a wall of policemen carrying shotguns.
“He told us, ‘Y’all have had your chance. Now, I’m taking over,’” Abrams said. “And they started shooting.”
Bystanders Caught in Clash
A few minutes prior to the riot breaking out, Dr. Roscoe Williams, who was the assistant to the president at Paine College in 2000, was taking a walk with his young daughter.
“We got to the corner of Ninth Street and Walton Way and I saw an unusually large assemblage of people walking from downtown,” Williams recalled. “They were obviously in some sort of mood, but it wasn’t a riot at this point.”
As he stopped at the corner, Williams and his daughter noticed a number of police cars lined-up down the block.
“Almost as soon as I got to the corner, holding my daughter’s hand, someone threw a brick in the back of a police car,” Williams said. “It was a very dramatic crash that completely shattered the windshield.”
“A policeman immediately turned around with his gun raised and pointed it directly at me and my daughter,” Williams added. “I’m sure it was not intentional because we just happened to be standing in the direction from which the brick came, but he was aimed right at us. … I thought he was going to fire. But thank God he didn’t.”
Dr. Roscoe Williams
Williams quickly took his daughter home and returned to the area with his camera to witness a large group forming on Ninth and Gwinnett streets.
“It started out with one police car parked on the southwest corner of the street, seemingly in control of everything,” Williams said. “A large number of people stood at a distance, looking over at that one police officer.”
Slowly, the crowd began to approach the police car.
“The officer got out of the car and sort of held his ground with a weapon, like a high-powered rifle,” Williams recalled. “But after a while, the people kept walking towards him and the policeman finally got in his car and drove off. When he did, it was a free for all.”
Williams said the looting went on for at least three hours and it wasn’t until later that evening that order was partially restored. But when Williams woke the next day, he quickly realized that the danger was not over.
“A boy was walking through a store that was already burned and pilfered and stopped to pick up a small package left on the ground,” Williams said. “Suddenly, a policeman shot him in the leg. It was 3:15 in the afternoon, in broad daylight. … They boy couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 years old.”
On May 11, 1970, Dr. James Carter III – who retired from the Medical College of Georgia in 2000 – was visiting a co-worker who lived in south Augusta.
The two families had just sat down to talk, when Carter said someone came running in and told them that people were rioting downtown. Carter and his family quickly got in their car and began driving back home to Augusta Avenue, located in the heart of the city.
“As we reached Peach Orchard Road, we saw a column of smoke rising from downtown,” Carter said.
When he finally reached his house, Carter started asking neighbors what was going on.
“They said, ‘Oh, it is about to blow up,’” Carter said. “I asked them, ‘What’s about to blow up?’ “And they told me, ‘This city is going to blow up.’”
Carter remembers a large crowd was headed down to the south part of Ninth Street, where a combination of black, white, Jewish and Chinese businesses were located.
“The rioters decided to target all businesses that were non-black,” Carter said. “They began vandalizing many of the stores, but the rioters told the black business persons to get a spray paint can and write on the front of their stores, ‘Soul Brother.’ That way, the rioters wouldn’t bother them.”
By 7 o’clock that night, Carter remembers that rioters began setting fires.
“Down the street from me was what I called the ‘bomb headquarters,’” Carter said. “There was a house down there where I saw car loads of people running in with bottle crates and two or three of them had five gallon gas cans. In about 30 or 40 minutes they ran out with these things rigged. What they were doing were making Molotov cocktails. Within the next hour, I could sit on my porch on Augusta Avenue and see the sky light up.”
Dr. James Carter III
But Carter said one of the most terrifying moments of the riot occurred early the next morning on March 12.
“These tanks came down the street with troops on top of them with their machine guns ready to fire,” Carter said. “They came in in the middle of the night, maybe 1:30 or 2 o’clock in the morning.”
But he said, the deafening sound of the tanks did not wake up the neighborhood.
“Nobody was asleep that night.”
The Lester Maddox Way
According to the May 19, 1970 issue of The Augusta Chronicle, there was a total of 2,000 National Guardsmen sent to Augusta by then-Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox.
But the guard did not arrive in Augusta until much of the rioting had ceased.
Governor Maddox, who was 84 years old in 2000, told the Metro Spirit the reason the National Guard arrived in the late hours of the riots was because Sheriff E.R. Atkins turned down an earlier offer of troops.
“The day of the riots in Augusta, I was scheduled to have a meeting with President Richard Nixon,” Maddox recalled. “But the day prior to my trip to Washington, intelligence sources told me there might be trouble in Augusta, so I called the then-sheriff and district attorney and told them what I had heard and asked about the situation there.”
According to Maddox, Sheriff Atkins told him that local law enforcement could handle the situation.
“He said they had everything under control,” Maddox said.
But when Maddox arrived back in Georgia after his trip, Maddox was greeted by a slew of reporters.
“The minute I stepped off the plane there were more television, newspaper and radio reporters that I’ve ever seen in my life,” Maddox said. “They told me there was rioting in Augusta and by then, four or five people had been killed.”
Maddox immediately got on the phone to Monroe, Georgia to ask how many National Guardsmen had been sent to Augusta.
“They told me none,” Maddox said. “I asked them why? And they said they hadn’t been given the authority yet.”
“I said, ‘You’ve got the order. Arm them well and make sure it’s enough that they are not overpowered by the crowd,’” Maddox added. “I also told them, ‘If people are firing behind barricades, don’t try and negotiate, blow the barricades down.’”
Maddox doesn’t apologize for the amount of force used in Augusta. He believes he was simply protecting the lives and property of the citizens of Georgia.
“We were going to restore order in Augusta, Georgia,’” Maddox said. “I told them to tell the rioters that, if they continue to fire, they better be prepared to meet their maker.”
The most unfortunate aspect of the Augusta riots, Maddox said, is that they could have been prevented.
“It was a total failure on the part of local law officials,” Maddox said. “If I hadn’t moved the troops in, there would have been hundreds of people killed.”
Paine College’s Role
Paine College was constantly harassed by the National Guard when they came to Augusta.
Dr. Mallory Millender, professor of French at the college, said the guard made it impossible for the scheduled school year to continue after the riots.
The then-Paine College president, Dr. E. Clayton Calhoun, had no choice but to dismiss all student and cancel commencement in 1970 because the school could not guarantee the safety of its students.
“He closed down the campus because when he talked to the head of the National Guard, they made it clear to him that they were not there to protect Paine College,” Millender said. “They were there to contain Paine College.”
Dr. Mallory Millender
Millender said that many officials in local law enforcement blamed Paine College for the riots.
“We had a very active student body then,” he said. “In fact, I’ve been at Paine College since 1967, and I’ve never seen a more civic- minded student body. The students monitored everything that the government was doing.”
“There was a strong spirit of activism and need to correct the system,” Millender added. “There was a prevailing attitude that things were going to change by whatever means necessary.”
After the riots had ended and the smoke had cleared, six black men, ages 18 to 39, had been killed. There were conflicting reports about the manner in which the six men were shot.
Richmond County Corner Nathan Widener told then-Mayor Millard Beckum that all six of the victims had been “shot in the back – one as many as nine times,” according to the May 15, 1970 issue of The Augusta Chronicle.
But doctors at University Hospital said some were shot in the chest. It was later revealed that all the victims had been shot in the back.
“Some of them were shot five or six times with buck shots,” said Grady Abrams.
Two Augusta officers were tried, but acquitted, in federal court of violating the civil rights of two of the victims that were killed.
“People had testified these fellows were looting and they were running away when they were shot in the back,” Abrams said. “Those policemen weren’t trying to stop the rioting. It was a killing.”
A May 17, 1970 article in The New York Times blamed the death of the six men on the fact that few members of the 130-man Augusta police department were trained in civil disorder or riot control.
Years after the riots, someone asked Millender what he thought about the disturbance.
“I said, ‘I think it was the best thing that ever happened to Augusta,’” Millender said. “My point was that Augusta had failed, or rather, refused to confront the racism in this community. The riots forced them to address it.”