All About Atlanta: The Race Riot of 1906

Atlanta Studies.
The content of this image speaks for itself. Image courtesy of Atlanta Studies.

The democratic debate in Las Vegas just ended not too long ago. I tuned into watch fully expecting Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to rip Mike Bloomberg a new one. I was not disappointed. They not only came for Bloomberg, they attacked each other without mercy. It was as entertaining as it was dismaying. I won’t be surprised if Donald Trump stays in office.

I’m not saying that there aren’t viable options among the democratic contenders. There are. It’s just that their viability doesn’t matter because they are not running against Donald Trump. They are running against what Donald Trump represents. They are vying against America’s problematic history of itself and its people. And their chance of defeating that behemoth is a small one.

Back in 2008, I sincerely hoped we had gotten over our problematic past when Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president. But I knew better. I recall a woman in my office weeping bitterly the next day and having to go home. She said she hadn’t realized how much she’d supported John McCain but I knew better than that too. A Black man was president of her country and the idea of that went against everything she’d been taught about her place in her society and her view of Black people.

Her conditioning was the same conditioning that justified race-based chattel slavery for nearly 400 years. And afterwards it justified Jim Crow, segregation, the Klu Klux Klan, and the pervasiveness of lynching. It also justified the three-day race riot that took place here in Atlanta in 1906.

By September 22 of 1906, it has already been a long, hot summer. A gubernatorial race was going on. Trial attorney and Atlanta Journal publisher Hoke Smith competed against Atlanta Constitution editorial executive and owner Clark Howell. (Yes, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was once two rival newspapers.)

Georgia’s capital city was becoming unrecognizable to its White citizenry. Keep in mind, this was 43 years after Emancipation and 29 years out of Reconstruction. A lot of Blacks had moved into Atlanta to establish new lives for themselves as free men and women. They were skilled laborers. Many were outright artisans in their crafts and White people suddenly had to compete with these Black citizens for jobs in ways that they never had to before. Colleges and universities had been established for Blacks. There were Black businesses and Black home and land ownership. A wealthy Black population began to grow and flourish. And all of this seemed quite unnatural and downright frightening to White Atlantans. How could inferior, subhuman, ex-slaves be wealthy and leading lives more comfortable than some of their White counterparts? To them, this seemed very wrong. As wrong as a Black man in the Oval Office.

Gubernatorial candidates Smith and Howell seized upon this collective sentiment of Atlantan Whites and ran on platforms of Black disenfranchisement to secure more of the White vote.

“Vote for me and I’ll restore your reality to what it once was. (I’ll make America great again.) Give me you support and I’ll keep them out of your jobs and away from interfering with your livelihood. (I’ll build a wall.) Support me and I’ll make sure you remain better, stronger, richer than them, just as you should be. (I’ll fiddle with the tax code in your favor.)

To make matters worse, there was a play entitled The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan traveling throughout Georgia at the same time. As the precursor toBirth of a Nation, this play was centered around the dangers of Black upward social mobility. And on top of that, a series of newspaper articles came out reporting lies on Black men raping White women. (It should be noted that most of these alleged Black rapists throughout Jim Crow history were typically Black business owners.)

This combo of circumstances were the tinder and spark needed to ignite the 1906 riot. On that 22nd day in September, White people rode through Atlanta attacking Blacks at random. They pulled them out of homes, automobiles and businesses, beating and kicking them, shooting, lynching, murdering them.

The violence went on without cease until the evening of September 24th. The official death report was 10 Blacks and 2 Whites. But there were likely hundreds of Blacks killed. The carnage was reported nationally and internationally in the news, but the riot showed no signs of stopping until local businessman and clergy realized that all the chaos was bad for Atlanta’s desired reputation as the crown jewel of the South. After all, in a capitalist nation, green ultimately always trumps Black or White.

There are many accounts of this riot online. And that, in and of itself, is a recent development. For the longest time, the history of the riot was kept silent or concealed as it was definitely not Atlanta’s finest moment. I’m glad, however, that the history is out. It’s obvious that history is repeating itself and any history we forget we are often doomed to relive. After the riots ended, Blacks did lose voting rights and were indeed disenfranchised just as the gubernatorial candidates promised.

So what’s next for us in the here and now as 2020’s election approaches? We need to all think on that.

Until tomorrow.

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