On May 11, 1970, the city of Augusta, Ga., was rocked by a race riot sparked by a prison killing of a mentally handicapped Black teenager at the hands of prisoners. Black residents in the town frustrated by the treatment of police and the conditions of the jail marched through the town before it was a full-fledged riot. By the next day, six people were dead and more than 60 were injured after the melee.
Mayor Millard A. Beckum was reluctant to acknowledge that the riots were set off by the killing of Charles Oatman who was killed May 9th in his cell in what officials first said happened as a result of him falling out of a bed bunk. Rumors began to swirl of a cover-up and cops tried to pin the killing on Black cellmates. What’s worse, the story was never straightened out, which only made the tensions in the city between Blacks and police worse.
Black community leaders, aware that the situation was mounting, met with the city council on May 11th to address the police brutality claims and other instances of violence against Blacks in the town. Upon leaving the meeting, the leaders were shocked by what they saw: 500 protesters marched to the Augusta Municipal Building, ripping down the Georgia State flag. The group began rocking cars, throwing rocks, and looting stores in the downtown district, with some setting buildings on fire.
The state’s governor, Lester Maddox, who had been pegged a racist and was a known segregationist, allegedly ordered state police to shoot and kill rioters on the spot. He then ordered 1,200 Georgia National Guard troops to the region on May 12th in the wee hours of the morning.
By dawn, six young Black men were killed by shotgun blasts to the back.
The men were reportedly unarmed, and their wounds were consistent with riot gear used by police. Gov. Maddox traveled to the region and mentioned during a TV address with WSB-TV that the riots were sparked by communist and socialist interests and not race.
Like many conservatives at the time, Gov. Maddox believed that critics of segregation and the like were supported by communist interests. A young man on the TV address countered Gov. Maddox’s assertion, saying that issues between the city’s Black population and law enforcement had been strained for some time.
Singer James Brown, who lived in Augusta as a child, met with Maddox the day of his address to help calm down the rioters. Although Brown took a neutral stance in the matter, he did say to rioters and city officials via a WSB-TV interview, “We gotta respect each other, and we gotta sit down and talk about it as human beings.”
Brown’s words seemingly helped quell some of the tensions, with the popular singer stating that a collaboration of thought between the opposing parties was better than “people losing lives.”
The police accused of shooting the six Black men were later acquitted and more than 300 people were arrested as a result of the riot.