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Augusta (Georgia) Riot of 1970

The Augusta (Georgia) Riot of 1970 began on the evening of May 11 and ended before dawn the next day. During the riot, six people were killed, all black men, each one shot in the back by police. In addition to those deaths, 80 people were injured, 200 were arrested, and 50 businesses in the city’s center, many owned by Augusta’s Chinese residents, were burned.

The riot occurred at the close of a decade marked by protest and urban unrest (see Long Hot Summer Riots, 1965_1967). The events that framed the riot clearly demonstrate the nature of resistance and of government response to that resistance in the period. One week before the riot, on May 4, Ohio national guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University, where they were part of a group protesting the Vietnam War (see Antiwar Protests). Three days after the Augusta riot, Mississippi Highway Patrol officers killed two of the students protesting the alleged murder of Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Although these events were a part of life in the United States in the late 1960s, the riot in Augusta, the ”Garden City of the South,” was the first major riot of the new decade and the largest riot of the period in Georgia. In 1970, 70,000 people lived in Augusta. Half the city’s population was black. The city was rigidly segregated; blacks were concentrated within the city’s limits while whites lived in the surrounding county and in North Augusta. Eighty percent of rental housing in the city was in violation of the housing code, and black high school attrition rates were abysmal. Unemployment among African Americans was widespread, despite economic growth in the city as a whole, much of it brought by Fort Gordon and the Atomic Energy Commission, both federal projects. Augusta is also home of golf’s fabled Masters Tournament. In the months before the riot, blacks bristled at the fact that the tournament hosted a white South African participant. Housing, unemployment, and blatant racism created the backdrop for the riot, making the city a powder keg ready to explode. As occurred in many other riots of the period, an instance of police misconduct was the riot’s precipitating event (see Police Brutality).

The riot began when a sixteen-year-old mentally disabled boy, Charles Oatman, was killed in the Augusta jail on May 9. The jail had long been an issue of concern for blacks in Augusta. Many of the town’s residents were unhappy with the conditions there; they were particularly upset with the practice of holding youth offenders with members of the adult population. A group known as the Committee of 10 asked for a federal investigation of the Augusta Police Department and of the city and county penal system six months before the riot, after police arrested and allegedly manhandled Grady Abrams, a black city councilman. Police initially reported that Oatman sustained fatal injuries after he fell from his bunk, but an autopsy determined that he had been tortured over several days. His body was covered with cigarette burns and bruises, all in different states of healing. The coroner determined that he had endured numerous severe beatings. Upon these revelations, the police changed their story and charged two of his cellmates with the murder.

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