The year was 1970. Black people in Augusta, Georgia, were getting frustrated about racial injustice. There were problems everywhere, from education to infrastructure. Data from the 1960 U.S. Census cited by NPR showed only 20% of African American adults in Augusta held high school diplomas. Officials also denied many Black communities basic amenities like water and sewerage.
Then came the news of a prison killing of a mentally handicapped Black teen. Black residents couldn’t take it anymore. The death of 16-year-old Charles Oatman sparked a race riot in Augusta that left six Black men dead from police bullets in May 1970. Historians say it is one of the largest uprisings of the Civil Rights Era in the Deep South.
Oatman died in the Richmond County Jail on May 9, 1970. Apart from being intellectually disabled, officials said he weighed about 100 lbs. “He should not have been in the county jail. He should have been out at Youth Development Center,” Former City Councilman Grady Abrams said in 2013. Oatman had accidentally shot and killed his five-year-old niece called JoAnna Robinson. He was sent to the county jail despite not having any previous record.
While in jail, he made complaints to his family that he was being “tortured and abused”. His family tried to get him moved from that jail but they failed. After six weeks, Oatman died. Carrie Mays, the undertaker at Mays Mortuary, was shocked when he saw Oatman’s body so he called Abrams.
“He had three long gashes across his back, about a half an inch deep and about a foot long. The back of his skull was busted out. He had cigarette burns all over his body,” he said.
An autopsy found that the Black teen died by drowning. He had fluid in his lungs. But prison officials said Oatman fell off his bunk after a card game. Following the autopsy, officials said they will start an investigation but closed that investigation in less than a day. On the morning of the race riot, two other juveniles, Sammy Lee Parks and Lloyd Brown, who were in Oatman’s cell, were charged with his murder. Black Augustans did not buy that story. They believed that Oatman was killed by jailers. A protest-turned-riot over the murder began.
But before the riot, young militant activists spoke at a rally, according to Dr. Mallory Millender, who was a young faculty member at Paine College during the riot. He was present at the rally. “Somebody cautioned [one of the student speakers] about the intensity of his message, in light of the fact shotguns were trained on him from every direction,” Millender recalled. “And he told them exactly what those police could do with those shotguns … And he followed with ‘tonight we are going to war.’”
Soon, protesters tore down the Georgia state flag and set it on fire in the presence of the police. Violence broke out. In two days, beginning on May 11, protesters set about 30 businesses on fire. Most of these businesses were White or Chinese-American-owned. In the process, the police shot and wounded 10 Black residents and killed six Black men.
“And not only were they killed, but they were also shot in their backs, and not only were they shot in the back all of the white police officers that shot them in their backs were promoted,” said Millender, according to WJBF News.
The state’s governor, Lester Maddox, said at the time that communist and socialist interests, and not race, sparked the riots. Some 1,500 members of the National Guard were called in to calm the situation. Singer James Brown helped bring down tensions after the riot and killings, asking opposing parties to meet. Black and White leaders met to look at the concerns of Black Augustans but nothing much came out of that meeting.
And until recently, most people in Augusta did not know that a race riot occurred in May 1970. A podcast, “Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 Augusta Riot”, helped create awareness about the incident. And after more than five decades, the department of justice said it is investigating the killings of the six Black men, asking witnesses to come forward to assist in the investigation.
Millender believes that the investigation “will bring justice to those families of those victims who have been labeled as looters.”