Not many governors had to prove their courage by facing down a lynch mob. William Yates Atkinson did. The two-term governor was one of Georgia’s most progressive voices in an era known more for racial demagogues.
Born in 1854 in Oakland, Ga., Atkinson practiced law in Newnan in 1893, he became one of Georgia’s youngest governors, and took on the old guard. Atkinson's progressive leadership helped establish Georgia’s first women’s college, now Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville. He hired Helen Dortch, the first female salaried state employee. He reformed the convict lease system. And in 1899 he courageously stood in the courthouse door in Newnan and tried to prevent the lynching of Sam Hose, a black man accused of rape and murder. Despite Atkinson's plea that he be given a fair trial, the mob burned Hose alive.
After two terms as governor, Atkinson returned to his law practice. He seemed destined for even greater distinction, but Georgia lost a visionary leader when Atkinson died unexpectedly at age 44 on August 8, 1899, Today in Georgia History.
Today in Georgia History is a joint collaboration of the Georgia Historical Society & Georgia Public Broadcasting.