As I walk from Laney Walker and 9th toward downtown Augusta there’s an entire block without a single home, just weeds. Across the street are newly-constructed bungalows. This is about where the riot broke out. People were angry because two days before a black, mentally handicapped teenager had been killed at the county jail. Grady Abrams told everyone about what happened on his radio show. He was a city council member at the time and had seen the body.
"He had three long gashes across his back about half an inch deep and a foot long. The back of his skull was busted out. He had fork marks all across his body. The only explanation was that he was in a card game and he fell off a bunk," Abrams said.
People were suspicious. Police in Augusta had repeatedly harassed African Americans. Abrams said even he had been arrested without cause that spring. So a rally formed at the courthouse. Abrams was inside when someone set the Georgia state flag on fire. He directed the crowd away, to 9th and Laney Walker.
"As we were walking someone threw a rock at a public bus. From that one rock toss other people started tossing rocks at cars. One man was pulled out of his truck and pulled out and stomped and beat up in the middle of the street and his truck was overturned and set afire," he said.
The riot spread over 130 blocks. At the time, a lot of white leaders wondered aloud why blacks were rioting, and why in 1970. The Kent State Massacre had taken place the week before. But local resentments had long been festering. Some black neighborhoods still had dirt streets. They didn’t have sewers or city water. People like Grady Abrams had tried to draw attention to the problems.
"The mayor gave an interview, saying ‘I can’t believe people live in those conditions and not do anything about it,’" he said.
And black Augustans were angry about the Vietnam War. Barbara McCaskill is a professor at the University of Georgia and co-Director of the Civil Rights Digital Library. She said African Americans felt they were disproportionately being sent to Vietnam.
"There was a growing sense that here we go again, we’re in a war dying in large numbers only to return to communities where on a daily basis it is underscored to us that that we still don’t have access to the rights of citizenship that we’ve put our lives on the line to protect," McCaskill said.
The riot ended by morning. When the dust settled, six black men had been shot in the back by police who admitted to the shootings but were later acquitted. Police arrested 300 more.
More than 40 years later, remnants of the riot remain. Downtown, may of the burned businesses have not re-opened. And the black communities that once populated downtown spread out south and north of the city.