When our work began in December 2018, we sought to confront misinformation and erasure surrounding the “riot” of May 11-12, 1970, in Augusta, Georgia, the Deep South city where we live. We were acutely aware of how the term “riot” was used to deny political intent and to erase the substance of Black grievance. We hoped to subvert those connotations, to show that the “riot,” like so many others of the era, was a collective rebellion, inspired by indignant rage at violent injustice. We couldn’t have known, as we prepared to go public in the winter of 2019 and 2020, that we would hear the term wielded that summer by those seeking to discredit the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, nor that we would hear it again the following that winter to describe an attempted insurrection in the Capitol. Far from a remote past to be recovered for local community reckoning, our work on an event in 1970 felt eerily contemporary, as if the past wasn’t even the past. Indeed, confronting misinformation and erasure took on a greater urgency—and one with national resonance.
For there is so much that we simply don’t know about the Civil Rights and Black Power struggle of the late 1960s-early 1970s, despite its proximity in time and the work of a growing cadre of scholars.1 And much of what we do know is framed in ways that, taken uncritically, operate to perpetuate the very injustices those movements were trying to change. The existing narrative that we were seeking to challenge imagined the riot as erupting out of nowhere, disconnected from the era’s activism, the work of nameless, faceless “angry blacks.” “Racial violence,” the city’s white newspaper asserts every May 11, “erupted when large crowds of blacks began gathering.” Provoked by rumors about the death of a teenage “black inmate” in the county jail, a “mob” went on a rampage of destruction. Only the rapid mobilization of the National Guard restored order to chaos. When the dust and smoke settled, the narrative concluded, six Black men had been killed, and it was revealed that two other “black inmates” had in fact killed the teenager. They were subsequently convicted, as were over a hundred rioters. And then the city went back to the status quo ante, its future trajectory unrelated to this episodic, isolated event.
Stocked with images of Black criminality, violence, and irrationality, this narrative has cast a long, powerful shadow in Augusta. Indeed, for many in the community, it was simply the story of what happened, and a casual internet search (before our public work) would have yielded a seemingly credible, supportive paper trail. In reality, we learned, it was police brutality that sparked the riot—as it did in so many other cities. “Police,” Black Panther leader Wilbert Allen told us, “controlled this community like it was a plantation.” Police routinely harassed, beat, and criminalized Black people, especially younger men. They turned a grim family trauma into a cold-blooded killing in late March 1970 when 16-year-old, mentally disabled Charles Oatman, the only son of a working-class Black family, accidentally mortally wounded his young niece. Police promptly arrested him, charged him with murder, and incarcerated him. He was the “black inmate” in the county jail. When his badly beaten dead body was delivered to a Black-owned mortuary on the evening of May 9, the graphic news spread quickly. Black citizens heard it within the context they knew painfully well: the long history of White violence against Black people.
Their rapid mobilization rested on established networks: chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Black Panther Party; a student movement at Paine College; and a local “Committee of Ten.” That mobilization met with a response straight out of the familiar script: the entire sheriff’s department surrounding (and on the roof of) the county jail, with guns drawn, facing demonstrators on the evening of May 10. Reconvening at the city’s largest Black church, they held a classic mass meeting of the era: 800 people, praying, singing, and testifying for three hours. The recurrent theme in their testimonies was police brutality.
Energized and empowered, Black citizens gathered again the next afternoon at the Municipal Building, intent on justice. When news emerged that the sheriff had concluded his overnight “investigation” and charged two Black teenagers with manslaughter in Oatman’s death, demonstrators were indignant. Shouts of “Unfair!” “We don’t want to hear that mess!” “Let’s get ‘em!” “Burn, baby, burn!” rose up in rage. The police department sent heavily armed reinforcements, while various leaders gave impromptu speeches about what to do. Paine student leader Oliver Pope made an impassioned call to militancy: “This is warfare! Tonight we’re going to war!” It resonated especially with younger, working-class Black people who could see themselves in Charles Oatman. When, a few hours later, they launched a riot, it was their collective, empowered, and visceral, “No!” One elderly woman, too old to participate, heartily agreed. “The young people’s action,” she told Committee of Ten leader Grady Abrams shortly afterwards, “was necessary to let the white man know that he could not treat us this way and not expect any retaliation.”
Police went into high gear to violently suppress the riot. With shoot-to-kill orders after sunset, they fired shotguns at unarmed participants and witnesses, wounding sixty and killing six, turning burglary or by-standing into capital crimes. The massacre brought a repressive end to the riot just as the National Guard arrived. But the Guard was no neutral presence. “We are not here to protect you,” Professor Mallory Millender remembers the Guard’s commander telling Paine’s president, “we are here to contain you.” In subsequent trials, all-White juries did the follow-up work for the police, always finding Black guilt and proclaiming white innocence. Despite the violent suppression and the legal injustice, the riot had a galvanizing effect. Black activists organized a new wave of rallies, demonstrations, boycotts, voter registration drives, and civil rights lawsuits that, in time, bore real fruit.
This is a glimpse of the real story that we have worked to recover in the face of destructive misinformation. But why, we have wondered, was there such erasure of the event? Part of the answer is obvious: the killing of white people occupied the center stage of national attention; attention to the killing of Black people was always secondary. Who doesn’t know of Kent State, May 4, 1970? And how many know of Augusta, May 11, 1970? But that is only part of the answer. Even in Augusta, many Black people who lived through May 11 speak of it in whispers. The palpable silence means that many younger Black people have never heard of it. Here the power of the existing narrative performs its injustice: if that’s what happened, it’s understandable why, in shame, Black people would recoil from telling it.
But that begs the question of what happened to the real story. And this takes us back to the broad question of why the later Civil Rights/Black Power era has been so obscured. The fervor of the White backlash cannot be overstated. The federal government was determined to destroy the Black Panthers and SNCC, to attack Dr. King, and to surveil the student movement at HBCUs. Nixon’s “law and order” summons was not fringe, but in fact the majority sentiment of White people. In the face of this, sustaining the real story was difficult. At the same time, the first phase of the Civil Rights struggle had won major victories with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Looking back in the wake of these legal gains, the severity of injustice—the wounding, killing, and criminalization of so many activists—could be redeemed. They had suffered and sacrificed for the sake of a greater good. With fewer and more incremental victories, the later phase of the movement had less obvious things to point to. It became harder to believe that suffering was redemptive, too painful to sustain the memory of injustice. And finally, the victories of the first phase were opening doors to middle-class Black people just as the first pangs of globalization were hitting the Black working class.2 The Black middle class had compelling personal reasons to preserve the triumphs of the movement: they were living them. Suffering economic contraction and living in older, formerly mixed-class Black neighborhoods undergoing an anguished decline, the Black working class faced diminished resources—personal and institutional—to sustain the memory of riots that were largely theirs.
Not just for Augusta, but for the nation, the real story of late ‘60s and early ‘70s riots needs to be recovered, past the layers of the white backlash, past the injustice, past disparate class trajectories. Working back through the frameworks that foster silence and shame, it’s imperative to uncover that riots were inherently political and that they were indignant, empowered responses to injustice, primarily police brutality. As a handbill circulating in the Black community shortly after May 11 put it, “The rebellion Monday, May 11 was an effort of the Blacks in Augusta, in Georgia, and in Amerikka to seek liberation, freedom, and justice. . . The PEOPLE REVOLTED.”
- Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name: a True Story (New York: Crown, 2004); Peter B. Levy, The Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America during the 1960s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Elizabeth Hinton, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s (New York: Norton, 2021). ↩
- William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987); Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Broadway, 2016) ↩