September 22, 2006 All Things Considered National public radio
Century-Old Race Riot Still Resonates in Atlanta
On a warm and sultry Saturday, on Sept. 22, 1906, thousands of whites in
Atlanta joined together in the downtown area and began attacking and killing
blacks in the city. The violence continued for four days. By the official
count, 12 blacks and two whites were killed. Although many historians say
dozens were murdered, the 1906 race riot has not been commemorated or taught in
schools until now.
A Riot and Its Repercussions
A Pressure Cooker of Anxieties
W.E.B. Du Bois, an African-American educator, writer and social activist,
wrote the poem "The Litany of Atlanta" in the wake of the 1906 riot. The riot's
aftermath helped move black activists away from an accommodationist stance and
toward the more aggressive push for racial equality advocated by Du Bois.
Mayhem and Murder on the Streets
Rose Martin Palmer is Walter White's niece. She says witnessing the riot was
the defining moment of White's life. "This is what stirred in him the feeling
of understanding of what hatred was all about -- race hatred," she
A City Engulfed in Chaos
"Bodies disappeared," Harris says. "Families did not want it known that their loved ones died during the riot, because they feared further retribution. They feared that someone would come attack them."
Atlanta officials, she says, also did not want the true death toll reported, because "that would further damage the reputation of the city."
An Opening for Interracial Dialogue
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Did all white Atlantans have a negative image of the black population?
What did the local newspapers say about racial issues?
There was intense competition among newspapers, [with] four white papers in
town. What builds up circulation more than race and sex, sensational stories of
black men preying on white women? Editorials warned white women to stop sitting
in the front seat of their carriages with their black drivers because a black
man on the street who sees them will "get ideas."
Tell us about the black middle-class at this time.
Atlanta had the largest black middle-class in America. There were also a few
wealthy black Atlantans. The mob trashed it all -- they went after businesses
and barbershops and shot the barbers down. They weren't after just the
itinerant figures, they went after nice houses, even invaded some of the
Was the Atlanta riot about racism or something else?
It had a lot to do with mob psychology. People might have gone into it for
different reasons. A guy who lost his job and sees black waiters working in a
nice restaurant, a guy whose girlfriend left him for another man, and somehow a
racial issue got mixed up with that, or a guy [whose] father carries a crutch
with him because he lost a leg at Shiloh, blaming slaves and not the North for
the Civil War. Any number of forms of resentment can build up and get attached
to a scapegoat.
What were the long-term repercussions for the city, and for black
One repercussion for the city was to create safety measures to make sure a riot
would never happen again: visits by city leaders to black congregations to
promise more protection; censure of the most sensationalistic newspaper, the
Atlanta Evening News, which went out of business a few weeks later; committees
of white and black leaders that met regularly to discuss race relations. These
[measures] enabled Atlanta to make the race issue go largely underground. The
activist black intelligentsia were too demoralized or fearful (legitimately so)
to rouse much further protest.
What did it mean that Booker T. Washington's influence waned?
The Washington formula was to work hard, save some money, keep your yard neat,
impress your employer. His formula broke down with the Atlanta riot. They went
after everyone, including black citizens who did all these things. Booker T.
Washington was a famous, powerful, fascinating, brilliant figure, but in the
wake of the riots, his philosophy sounded empty. A more militant version of
advocacy seemed to become more attractive.
What do people need to understand about the 1906 riot?
We live in a nation of historical forgetfulness. Young people don't know the
basic facts of the founding, the Progressive Era or the Cold War. They live in
the present. Atlanta, too, emphasizes the present, and that goes for black
leadership as well as white leadership. We have obscured our heritage, the bad
and the good, and live with superficial, pop-culture images and sounds from the
past. A society is only as thoughtful and deliberative as is its historical
memory, and these days we are failing.
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