AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — On May 11, 1970, Patricia Elam was a Paine College senior preparing to graduate.
Aside from the upcoming graduation march, the Bridgeport, Conn., native’s biggest concern was getting packed for her return trip home. She was unaware chaos was unfolding just a few blocks east of her Emmett Street dorm.
“At that time, Paine was protected from the city,” she recalls. “We were almost like an island. Everything that happened on campus was more like a family affair. It was like living in two different communities.”
That evening, Terry Elam, her fiancee and a junior at the college, was headed back to campus after finishing his day as a part-time delivery driver for a medical-supply company.
“I’m coming down 15th Street and I notice there is no traffic,” he said. “The signal lights were cut off. You could see smoke. I stopped in the security office, because I was going to see her, and they said, ‘Man, we’ve got a riot. Six people are dead.’ So I go by the dorm and by the time I leave to go home, the National Guard is here.”
Patricia left campus without pomp and circumstance; the class of 1970 would have no graduation ceremony.
The flames, smoke and gunfire that she and her future husband fled from that day would become the largest urban uprising in the Deep South during the civil rights era.
The Augusta riot of May 11-12 left six dead, dozens wounded and entire city blocks in ashes. It forever changed the state of community affairs in the city, and its effects are still visible 50 years later.
A cursory review shows the most searing two days in Augusta history starting with the suspicious death of a black teenager in police custody.
But those who lived through the violence – and those who continue to study it – note the death was merely the spark.
“This was an event that didn’t come from out of nowhere – the kindling had been there for decades,” said John Hayes, an associate professor of history at Augusta University, who is part of an interracial committee organizing a series of observance events.
Landmark civil rights rulings in the 1950s and 1960s had essentially outlawed the discriminatory Jim Crow era. Yet change didn’t spread evenly across America.
Leslie Pollard, a retired Paine College professor who has written extensively on local African-American history, describes 1970 Augusta as a city of two extremely different worlds: white and black.
The schools were segregated, as were most city neighborhoods. Blacks made up roughly half the city’s population but had little political power and almost no economic clout. Whites held the vast majority of government jobs and appointed positions at a time when some black neighborhoods still lacked paved streets and utility service.
The marginalization and flagrant racism of the era had created a powderkeg.
“It erupted in 1970,” Pollard said. “But its underlying causes went much deeper.”
The death of Charles Oatman was the final straw.
The mentally disabled 16-year-old was in custody for shooting his 5-year-old niece, a tragedy suspected of being accidental. Instead of being housed at the juvenile detention facility, Oatman was sent to the adult county jail.
Police initially said the boy died May 9 from hitting his head while falling from his bunk. The story did not jibe with the injuries that the late Grady Abrams, then an Augusta city councilman, saw the following day at W.H. Mays Mortuary.
Accompanying the skull fracture were deep lacerations on the body, as well as what appeared to be cigarette burns and stab wounds from a fork – telltale signs the boy had been beaten to death.
“There was no way for him to have sustained those injuries without jail personnel being aware,” Abrams told the Chronicle in 1995. “He was brutalized.”
Abrams, who died in 2018, was a member of the “Committee of Ten,” a group of black civil rights activists in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He helped spread the word of the suspicious death through the city’s black community as then-Sheriff E. R. Atkins amended the story: Oatman was killed by two fellow African-American inmates.
The following day, Abrams and the Committee organized what was to be a peaceful, fact-finding protest outside the Municipal Building.
This is where the riot began.
“The civil rights movement had somewhat switched after the death of Martin Luther King – the peacemaker,” Terry Elam notes. “So people weren’t looking for peace, they were looking for change.”
Then-Gov. Lester Maddox, a segregationist, called on Augusta’s most famous native son, James Brown, to break from his tour in Michigan to calm the violence.
The legendary soul singer adroitly summed up the black community’s pent-up rage during a 2000 interview with The Chronicle.
“I told Governor Maddox these are old sins revealing themselves,” Brown said.
Some say it started with a single rock thrown at a passing city bus. Others say it began when protesters at city hall burned the state and U.S. flags.
Abrams was inside the building having what he later described as a productive meeting with Richmond County Commission Chairman Matthew Mulherin when the crowd turned violent.
“From that one rock toss other people started tossing rocks at cars,” Abrams told Georgia Public Broadcasting in 2012. “One man was pulled out of his truck and pulled out and stomped and beat up in the middle of the street and his truck was overturned and set afire.”
Abrams and other Committee members dispersed the crowd south, toward the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods. City police arrived with shotguns drawn, forming a perimeter around the central business district.
By the end of the day, more than four dozen fires had been set over 130 square blocks of the urban core. Dozens of businesses, predominantly white and Asian-owned, were looted and destroyed. Property damage was estimated at $1.5 million, roughly $10 million in today’s dollars.
The late Ed McIntyre, who was elected the first black Richmond County commissioner later in 1970 and the city’s first black mayor a decade later, recalled the chaos during a 1995 Chronicle interview.
“I saved the life of an older white man who had been driving along Laney-Walker Boulevard,” McIntyre said. “We had to pull him from the mob.”
There were 62 reported injuries – and possibly dozens more that were never documented.
Roscoe Williams, the former dean of students at Augusta State University and former assistant to the president at Paine College, said he saw an officer shoot a child in the leg on the afternoon of May 12 at the corner of D’Antignac and Ninth streets.
Williams said the boy was rummaging through the candy aisle of a looted store when the officer fired his rifle. After the shot, Williams said, the officer casually got in his car and drove away.
“The kid still had his school books with him,” Williams said. “He was maybe 12 or 11 years old. Eventually somebody called an ambulance and it took the kid somewhere, I suppose, to an emergency room. But I was left baffled because, obviously, the kid was no threat. He wasn’t looking to do any damage. He was looking for some candy. I often wonder what was going on in his (the officer’s) head that he felt he had to do that.”
The riot’s greatest toll is measured in casualties. Six men were killed. All were black, unarmed and shot in the back by local police: Mack Wilson Jr., 45; Charles Mack Murphy, 39; John Bennings, 28; Sammy L. McCullough, 20; John Stokes, 19; and William Wright Jr., 18.
“The first thing we need when talking about the riot is honesty,” said Mallory Millender, a retired Paine College professor and historian who lived on 15th Street when the violence erupted. “We need to mention that all of the people who were killed were shot in the back with double-ought buckshot. There was no intent to wound anybody. Those people were intentionally killed.”
The streets were teeming with nearly 2,000 Georgia National Guard troops and 150 state troopers dispatched by Maddox.
The city had been ripped apart. Some say the city has never properly healed.
“I think it remains an open wound,” Hayes said. “I think that if there is racial division or mistrust that seems to be just barely below the surface of local politics, there’s a reason for that.”
The two black inmates authorities charged with Oatman’s death were convicted and served 10 years in prison. One of them continued to profess his innocence after his release; the other declined to speak publicly on the matter.
Officers charged with shooting the six men in the riot were exonerated by predominantly white juries.
If the riot had any immediate benefit, it was that city leaders were finally listening to the black community.
“I think the biggest thing (that the riot did) is acknowledge that Augusta had a race problem,” Millender said. “Prior to the riot, the power structure took the position that blacks and whites were happy and got along well, and that has never really been the case.”
A Human Relations Commission was formed in 1971 to give residents a forum to voice their grievances. Former Georgia State Sen. Charles Walker, then a businessman, was named its first director.
Topping the concerns was the city’s segregated school system, which African-American leaders said was a major source of resentment in the city.
“You could just look around and see the inequities flowing from one community to the next,” said Ben Allen, a longtime civil rights attorney who represented the plaintiff’s in the case that led to the court-ordered desegregation of Richmond County schools in 1972.
Integration did not come easily.
“They set aside a day, I think it was in February 1972, where not one white student went to school,” Allen said. “They boycotted the schools because they didn’t want to integrate. Then they called for another boycott and maybe 60 to 70% stayed home.”
The consolidation of Richmond County and the former city of Augusta’s governments in 1996 created a 10-district Augusta commission drawn largely by racial lines.
In 2020 Augusta, blacks hold more than half of all municipal jobs as well as the mayor’s office, the sheriff’s office, and a majority of the seats on the Augusta commission and county school board.
Allen said he does not necessarily see that as a sign of racial progress.
“Some of these political gains were by default,” Allen said. “What has taken place is whites abandoned Augusta. They left in droves.”
Terry Elam said the riots changed the demographics for the black community as well, noting that most middle-class blacks living in the city’s urban core moved to south Augusta neighborhoods such as Pepperidge and Belle Meade.
Bob Young, who was elected mayor in 1998 and reelected in 2002 during a runoff with McIntyre, said racial issues continue to cast a shadow over city politics because of past resentments coupled with present views on governance.
Young grew up in a segregated Augusta, as did many of the elected leaders he served with during his time in office.
“I found that in working with the African-American commissioners, their view of the city is different than mine,” Young said. “Their interests in government are different than mine.”
He said he formed the Blue Ribbon Committee on race relations with McIntyre in 2002 specifically to bridge the gaps between the two communities’ leaders.
“I think we were really opening up some dialogue in that time,” Young said. “We had a place where we could have a free exchange of ideas.”
The Blue Ribbon Committee, and the Human Relations Commission it was formed under, went away after the commission was defunded in 2008 amid budgetary constraints.
Young said most of the progress he has seen comes from younger leaders – white and black – who don’t carry the baggage of the Jim Crow era.
“The world is just different now, it’s entirely different,” he said. “Young white and black folks don’t look at each other the same way they used to.”
The Elams, who had to flee Paine College during the unrest 50 years ago, could be considered beneficiaries of Augusta’s defining civil rights event. Patricia, who was initially denied full-time employment with the Richmond County school system because of its antiquated racial quota system, retired from the system with full benefits more than a decade ago. Her husband retired last year as president of Augusta Technical College.
“I’m glad to say life is so different now,” she said. “Augusta has changed and grown with so people moving from all parts of the country.”
Paine College has a tradition at every 50-year reunion where the “Golden Class” recreates their graduation march. That reunion was canceled this week because of the coronavirus pandemic, essentially denying her second chance to accept her diploma on stage.
“I don’t think missing graduation in any way compares to losing six people and seeing hundreds of people hurt and businesses that lost everything,” Terry Elam says. “But it is kind of ironic that we now have this happening again, at the same time, for public safety reasons.”
Patricia said she was talking to a fellow graduate about the coincidence.
“I said, ‘Can you believe it? Again,’” she said. “It’s just amazing. I don’t know what it means, but it certainly gives you pause.”