Black History Post: A Look into The Augusta Riot of 1970

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With it being Black History Month and all, I felt I had to share this story about my hometown in Augusta,GA . Now, if you’re apart of the Millennial population like myself, or in the Gen Z squad then all you know about the Garden City is Golf and James Brown. I don’t recall Richmond County School Systems teaching us about a race riot that took place just a few miles away from our schools.

The 1970 Augusta riot was a community revolt in response to the death of a young black male by the name of Charles Oatman. He was imprisoned in an adult jail in Augusta, Georgia. He was brutally tortured and later murdered. The riot was a culminated response to the Augusta police force’s repeated use of brutality against the black residents of the county.

“On a Saturday night, May 9, I got a call from Carrie Mays, Willie Mays’ mother, telling me that she wanted me to come the funeral home to see a body that she had picked up at the hospital,” he said. “I went to Mays Mortuary and walked into the morgue. There, Willie (Mays) pulled a sheet back from this body.”

 Grady Abrams, a former city councilman

 Oatman was a sixteen-year-old boy and mentally challenged, yet instead of being sent to the Youth Detention Center he was held as an adult at the Richmond County Jail. On May 9 the child was found brutally beaten to death in his jail cell. Police stated that Oatman had died after falling from out of his bunk after a card game, but rumors swirled that the 16-year-old had actually been beaten to death by officers as was more than common at the time.

Then city-councilman Grady Abrams described the child’s corpse:

“There was this 16-year-old kid that had been brutally beaten,” he said. “He had three gashes the length of his back maybe about an inch deep. The back of his skull was crushed in. He had cigarette burns from the tip of his fingers down to his toes. They were all over his body.”[1]

 Eidson, Stacey (2015-05-02). “The Augusta Riots: 45 Years Later”Metro Spirit. Retrieved 2019-01-03.

Though his wounds were a clear indication of being brutally tortured and beaten, the police affirmed his death was caused by the fall from the bunk bed. News of his grisly demise spread throughout the county and because of the cover-up, and several other complaints of racist police brutality in that community, tensions between African American citizens and police officers started to rise.

The aftermath of the Riot

Civil Unrest and Aftermath

On May 11 Black community leaders met with the city council, wary that the situation would only get worse if the local council didn’t push for reform. 500 protesters were outside the Augusta Municipal Building, tearing apart the flag and destroying property. State governor Lester Maddox, a known bigot who believed civil rights activism to be a communist theory, ordered state police to shoot the protesters on-site and had the National Guard assembled at one o’clock in the morning May 12 to disperse the crowd.[2]

“A boy was walking through a store that was already burned and pilfered and stopped to pick up a small package left on the ground,” Williams said. “Suddenly, a policeman shot him in the leg. It was 3:15 in the afternoon, in broad daylight. … They boy couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 years old.”

Dr. Roscoe Williams

By the end of the riots six unarmed young men – Mack Wilson, Jr., John (Johnnie) Stokes, William Wright, Jr., Charlie Mack Murphy, Sammie Larry McCullough, and John Bennings[2] – were murdered by police after being shot in the back.[3]

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The Lester Maddox Way

According to the May 19, 1970 issue of The Augusta Chronicle, there was a total of 2,000 National Guardsmen sent to Augusta by then-Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox.

But the guard did not arrive in Augusta until much of the rioting had ceased.

Governor Maddox, who was 84 years old in 2000, told the Metro Spirit the reason the National Guard arrived in the late hours of the riots was because Sheriff E.R. Atkins turned down an earlier offer of troops.

“The day of the riots in Augusta, I was scheduled to have a meeting with President Richard Nixon,” Maddox recalled. “But the day prior to my trip to Washington, intelligence sources told me there might be trouble in Augusta, so I called the then-sheriff and district attorney and told them what I had heard and asked about the situation there.”

According to Maddox, Sheriff Atkins told him that local law enforcement could handle the situation.

“He said they had everything under control,” Maddox said.

But when Maddox arrived back in Georgia after his trip, Maddox was greeted by a slew of reporters.

“The minute I stepped off the plane there were more television, newspaper and radio reporters that I’ve ever seen in my life,” Maddox said. “They told me there was rioting in Augusta and by then, four or five people had been killed.”

Maddox immediately got on the phone to Monroe, Georgia to ask how many National Guardsmen had been sent to Augusta.

“They told me none,” Maddox said. “I asked them why? And they said they hadn’t been given the authority yet.”

“I said, ‘You’ve got the order. Arm them well and make sure it’s enough that they are not overpowered by the crowd,’” Maddox added. “I also told them, ‘If people are firing behind barricades, don’t try and negotiate, blow the barricades down.’”

Maddox doesn’t apologize for the amount of force used in Augusta. He believes he was simply protecting the lives and property of the citizens of Georgia.

“We were going to restore order in Augusta, Georgia,’” Maddox said. “I told them to tell the rioters that, if they continue to fire, they better be prepared to meet their maker.”

The most unfortunate aspect of the Augusta riots, Maddox said, is that they could have been prevented.

“It was a total failure on the part of local law officials,” Maddox said. “If I hadn’t moved the troops in, there would have been hundreds of people killed.” Source


  1.  Eidson, Stacey (2015-05-02). “The Augusta Riots: 45 Years Later”Metro Spirit. Retrieved 2019-01-03.
  2. Jump up to:a b “Augusta GA: The Forgotten Dead Of May, 1970”Daily Kos. Retrieved 2019-01-03.
  3. ^ “Race Riots Explode In Georgia, Rock City Of Augusta In 1970”News One. 2014-05-12. Retrieved 2019-01-03.
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