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Cities: Augusta

Governor Maddox Angers Black Augustans

On May 11, 1970, race riots erupt in Augusta. Although some argue the beating death of a sixteen year-old black inmate in the Richmond County Jail sparked the unrest, Mayor Millard A. Beckum claims the violence is unwarranted. Allegedly, two black inmates beat Charles Oatman to death in his cell. Officials insists that an inaccurate report blamed prison guards for the beating. Notwithstanding the offical report, black citizens doubted the guards' innocence and unrest spread throughout the downtown district. During an outbreak of violence at the City-County building where black citizens gathered in protest of Oatman's death, demonstrators destroyed a Georgia state flag. Over the course of the protest, citizens looted businesses, set fifty-one fires, and blocked fire engines and police cars from entering the area. Six men lay dead at the end of the hostilities.

The next day, Georgia Governor Lester Maddox traveled to Augusta to address the city's residents. This WSB clip filmed May 12, 1970 shows the visual effects of the riot followed by comments from Maddox an an unidentified African American man. Governor Maddox blames the riots on a forty-year-old conspiracy supported by Americans and international sympathizers. His reference points to the oft repeated charge of civil rights activist being affiliated with communism. The young black man from Augusta disagrees with the governor’s statements. He explains that unlike whites who had little contact with the black communities in the city, local blacks recognize the long simmering racial tensions in Augusta as a catalyst for the riots.

Mayor Beckum met with black leaders two days after the riots to discuss long-term solutions to the race based problems that instigated the riots. The mayor agreed to grant African Americans opportunities to obtain higher paying jobs within the city's business district. The meeting also resutled in the formation of a Human Rights Committee aimed at closing the communication gap between black and white Augustans. In spite of the violence that occurred to secure these gains, The Augusta Chronicle described Augusta as more progressive than other southern cities in terms of its treatment of issues regarding race.

A staunch segregationists, Governor Maddox often warned Georgians to stay away from communists and socialists influences. Many conservatives before and after the 1940s and 1950s believed communists supported desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement as an effort to divide Americans. They pointed to the argument presented by some communists that America would decay from within; therefore the racial divide represented an open door for the fall of the country. By ignoring the racial problems that led to civil disobedience, politicians attemped to label African American protesters as unpatriotic and disloyal to the United States.

The press conference and interview seen in this clip epitomize distinctions between white conservatives and civil rights activists. The two often held opposing view points on the state of race relations, the solution to such problems, and, as this clip shows, if such problems really existed. Maddox’s words displayed his refusal to accept the dire situation of African Americans in Augusta. His stance and those of other segregationists remained an integral component of the Civil Rights Movement. In the days after assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr on April 4, 1968, race riots broke out in nearly every major American city as blacks retaliated in disbelief to the murder. They also protested the slow progress of civil rights legislation. The depth of discontent among African Americans that the riots revelaed suprised some whites who had denied or refused to believe the racial tensions in their cities. The riots forced Americans to pay attention to racial equality and reconciliation.

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Discussion Questions

1. The young man in this WSB clip speaks for Augusta's African American community. Do you think that his words are an accurate portrayal of the entire community? If not, what facet of the Civil Rights Movement do you think he most likely represented and why? Are there problems with the media creating "spokespersons" to speak for race, gender, or other group?

2. To what extent do you believe that Maddox’s fear of a Communist conspiracy was a legitimate threat to the nation? What role, if any, do you think Communism played in the Civil Rights Movement?

3. The event preceding the Augusta riot was the beating death of an inmate in the jail which was never linked to violence from jail officers. Listening to the young man in the clip, he doesn't mention the jail death as a reason for the riot. What issues might contribute to such strong reactions as riots? What issues in the nation today do you believe would provoke an incident of this caliber?

4. Riots and protests do not receive same amount of attention or result in as much social progress today as they once did. Is violence a good option in getting change or attention or are there more effective means?

Take it to the Streets!

On December 4, 2006, six black students at Jena High School beat white student Justin Barker.  The beating occurred because of recent hate crimes in Jena, Louisiana in which white students hung nooses from trees in clear view of African Americans.  The Jena 6, face charges of attempted murder and battery but many supporters believe these charges to be racially discriminatory.  The white students, who hung the nooses, have yet to be charged, and as a result, thousands of protestors marched on Jena causing “the largest civil rights demonstration in years.” 

Research a hate crime in the United States from the civil rights movement that caused a strong reaction in the African American community.  Did the media or government choose one side over another?  What was the national reaction in both black and white communities?  In what ways was the situation different or similar than the Jena-6 incident?  Finally, formulate your own opinion about the hate crime that you researched and the Jena-6 incident.  In your opinion, is the quote correct in claiming that the Jena incident was indeed a civil rights demonstration?  Could/Should more such civil rights demonstrations take place in the immediate future?  Why or Why not?

Writers: Kayley Perkins, Emily Stone, Ava Landrum, Andrew Bagley and Abigail Shrader, students in Professor Barbara McCaskill's ENGL 4860 (The Civil Rights Movement in American Literature), Fall 2007.

Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, and Professor Barbara McCaskill                                                                                                                                                                                  Web Site Designer: William Weems

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