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Atlanta Marks Centennial of Deadly Race Riot

  • Philip Graitcer

September 22nd marks the 100th anniversary of an infamous 1906 race riot in the southern U.S. city of Atlanta, Georgia. Mobs of white men killed dozens of African-Americans during the 4-day rampage. The violence received worldwide newspaper attention at the time, but has now been largely forgotten. Still, many believe the legacy of the 1906 Atlanta riots continues to influence race relations in the city. A group of Atlantans is preparing to mark the centennial and use the occasion to open a new dialogue on race.

It was a warm Saturday night when a crowd of about 5,000 white men gathered in Atlanta's downtown and began randomly attacking African-American men, boys and women, pulling them from trolley cars and dragging barbers from their shops. June Dobbs Butts, now 78 years old, remembers her father talking about the riot. "As a child I thought they must have done something very bad," she admits. "I could not think that this rage came from the mayor, the governor, people running for governor. So when we tried to find out what bad things did the black people do, he said, 'nothing.' Like if you are going to be punished, what did you do wrong? I couldn't believe it was jealousy, anger, venom, what else?"

A century later, it's still not certain what caused the riots.

In 1906, Atlanta was a rapidly growing city, and the economic capital of the new South. Just 50 years after the end of the American Civil War and the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, Atlanta was a center of change. And it was home to a growing community of educated, affluent, and often-assertive African-Americans whose presence posed a threat to many whites within the city.

Cliff Kuhn, a professor of history at Georgia State University, says the summer of 1906 was a season of mounting racial tensions in Atlanta. Those tensions came to a head on September 22, 1906. "Thousands of men gathered that Saturday afternoon and early evening," Kuhn explains, adding that the afternoon newspapers had published 'extra editions' reporting new purported black on white assaults. "A guy gets up on a soapbox and waves one of these newspapers, saying, 'Are we going to let them do this to our women? Come on boys!' And the mob surges down Decatur Street. The mob scatters throughout the downtown area, attacking hundreds of black men and women -- a pitched battle in the heart of downtown Atlanta that lasts for over 4 hours."

The violence continued for 4 days, and in the end, at least two dozen blacks and two whites were dead. In Europe, newspaper reports compared the Atlanta riot to the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia. In the weeks after the riot, at least 1,000 African-Americans moved from Atlanta, never to return. Many black businesses moved out of the downtown area. And although black and white community leaders held meetings to repair Atlanta's image, most Atlantans -- both black and white -- went about their business.

Memories of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot seemed to fade quickly. It wasn't taught in Georgia history classes. Blacks who passed the story on to their children, did so as a cautionary tale. Others never discussed it.

But some Atlantans believe the unspoken memories of the riot have subtly influenced the city's race relations. "How is it that something so seemingly graphic and disturbing could have occurred in my home town, and I had no knowledge of it?" wonders Atlanta native Saudia Muwwakkil, a public information officer at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. She first learned about the riot just 10 years ago and thinks she knows why it had been forgotten. "The story of the riot was buried because it would have inflicted serious damage on the city's image as racially progressive."

But Muwwakkil adds there are lessons to be learned. "As we look back to 1906, what happened in our city, in Atlanta, at that time, we look for opportunities to learn and apply those lessons to our lives today."

Now, on the centennial of the riot, a group of civic leaders, historians, genealogists, and educators has formed a coalition to explore the riot's roots, document what happened, and use the story as a way to open a contemporary dialogue about race and race relations in Atlanta.

The coalition has organized a new exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Site. Along with news clippings and magazine stories from the period, it features life-sized models of a trolley car and barbershop, like the ones from which the angry mob dragged African American victims.

June Dobbs Butts plans to visit the exhibit. She hopes to learn the truth about the riot because, as she observes, "Uncovering lies is always useful." She says that after 100 years, it is more than enough time to find the truth and discover unwritten legacies.

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