In the months following Augusta's riot, activism was at an all-time high. As white Augustans braced themselves for the possibility of more violence, Black activists worked for more immediate change. Meanwhile, the police department rewarded the officers involved in the riot, and the friends and families of "The Augusta Six" demanded justice.
Shots In The Back (Episode 5): The Smoke Clears
Sea Stachura: Hey there, if you are just tuning in, start at the beginning. Everything will make a lot more sense if you do. Previously on “Shots in the Back”:
Louis Dinkins: They said put out a shoot to kill order over the radio.
James Walton: Well, they were just ready to shoot... They were ready to go, just like rabbit hunting, like deer hunting, they were ready to shoot.
Vernon Stokes: It was like someone turned off a light switch- I could him in the day and in the night. Sometimes I wish it was me instead of him..
Claude Harris: And the whole time I am wondering was this worth it.
[END OF MONTAGE]
Sea Stachura: From Jessye Norman School of the Arts and Georgia Public Broadcasting. This is “Shots in the Back.” I’m Sea Stachura. In this episode, we look at the immediate aftermath of the Riot. Was there justice for Charles Oatman’s family? Or for the families of the men who were killed in the riot? What happened to the police officers who were involved? And how did the public respond? On May 13, 1970, one day after the riot, 16-year-old Charles Oatman was laid to rest. His funeral was held at True Vine Missionary Baptist Church. Friends and family lined the walls. At Charles’ funeral, pastor R.V. Sims said, quote: “God, give us the courage to face these cruel days we are now facing.”
[ARCHIVAL CHURCH MUSIC PLAYS]
In the archival footage, you can see women in white dresses fanning themselves with programs. A news camera was stationed behind Charlie’s bronze casket. You can’t see his face in the footage. Just the white, satin inlay of the casket. And at the feet of the coffin is a massive heart made from white and red flowers. True Vine Church still holds Sunday services in the very same brick building. I wanted to see it, to remind myself that what happened in Augusta fifty years ago hasn’t entirely disappeared. I drove my student Tiara Duggar there.
Sea Stachura (field): You know how I said that Charles Oatman’s funeral took place right over there? ‘Cause we already passed it. So we'll go back just a little bit. Mercer is the cross Street.
Tiara Duggar: I think my great grandmother also had her funeral there. Yeah, they were here for a long time.
Sea Stachura: True Vine is on a busy street. Only three lanes, but lots of cars and trucks pass through on their way downtown. The neighborhoods behind it are full of bungalows. They are owned and rented by Black families and seniors. And kiddie-corner across the street would have been the Whirz-Hernlan Department Store.
Sea Stachura: We're just past this spot like, right, this little dot right here... That's where Charles Mack Murphy died… And he would have died like, right, right near that I just think that’s...
Tiara Duggar: Next to the church?
Sea Stachura: Yeah. Yeah.
Tiara Duggar: Yeah, that’s true. So it was like in this area near the funeral home.
Sea Stachura: Yeah.
Tiara Duggar: That’s crazy.
Sea Stachura: The afternoon of Charles’s funeral, the streets would’ve smelled like smoke and gunpowder. Families would have been bailing their loved ones out of jail. Roughly 300 Black people were arrested during the riot. The streets of their neighborhoods were under lockdown by the National Guard. The first 500 troops wouldn’t leave for another three days. Even True Vine Missionary Baptist was surrounded by them. They were stationed outside - in part because Whites were afraid Black anger would swell again and turn violent. But Blacks were also afraid that White vigilantes would firebomb the church. Some White residents had been deputized following the riot. Roy Harris says white Augustans armed themselves for a war. Harris was a staunch segregationist and he was the former Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives.
Roy Harris: I never saw people buy as many guns in my life. I’m 74 years old and never owned a pistol... Never thought of the necessity of having one. But I got one now and I take it in my car wherever I go.
Sea Stachura: Harris was interviewed in 1970 for a documentary series called “Realities.” It was produced by National Educational Television.
Roy Harris: The leaders amongst the Black population and the Whites have been bragging about the fine race relations that have existed in this town. And they’ve been bragging all the time, all those years. But I’ll tell you the relations aren’t good now.
Sea Stachura: Many White people in Augusta were afraid Black people were coming to get them. Fred McBrayer remembers his neighbor went door-to-door distributing ammunition the night of the riot. McBrayer is the former-high school Rehabilitation Counselor who worked with Charles Oatman. He’s white and, at the time of the riot, he lived in a working-class neighborhood. He remembers realtors preying on white people’s fears.
Fred McBrayer: Every doorstep in our neighborhood had a pamphlet put on it saying that they were willing to buy our home. And I’m sure they were going to give pennies on the dollar.
Sea Stachura: The implication was that Blacks would destroy their neighborhoods in another riot. Or move-in. So White residents should move out before that happened. If a buyer agreed to sell, the realtor could buy the house cheap. Then they’d mark up the price for a Black family. Many Whites moved out to Augusta’s neighboring county. It was farmland until the Civil Rights Era. After the 1970 rebellion, that county’s population jumped 6% in one decade. Augusta’s outlying areas also saw a spike in housing. Richmond County Commission Chair Matthew Mulherin tried right away to minimize the appearance of risk. He emphasized the soul-searching opportunity this provided in an interview with WSB-TV.
Matthew Mulherin: Well, I think we have to, one, sit down and analyze ourselves and the present leadership. I think we have to ask for divine guidance in trying to rectify a great amount of this that has happened last night. We have certainly got to change the image. This is a tremendous community, as you know.
Sea Stachura: Mulherin acknowledged White officials may not have been listening to the concerns of younger Black Augustans. He promised to change that.
Matthew Mulherin: Certainly, we want to establish a line of communication with the new leadership. We have met all morning we plan to meet again this afternoon late and I assume all through the night.
Sea Stachura: From those conversations came a few agreements. The most notable was the creation of the Human Relations Commission. Essentially, it was a task force that would investigate claims of racial discrimination, and we’ll get to it later in the episode. But Mulherin’s conciliatory tone wasn’t echoed by other White leaders. Then-Governor Lester Maddox told reporters that Augusta’s uprising was a shame. The rioters and even the young demonstrators at the state capitol had been led astray.
Governor Lester Maddox: I don’t blame those young people. I don’t even blame the National Guard. I blame the leaders in our government, leaders in our Supreme Court, leaders in our church, education who have been downplaying God, downplaying America, downplaying the right to private property, downplaying the authority in government.
Sea Stachura: Other white leaders found it hard to even acknowledge that Black Augustans had any reason to rebel. Then-Richmond County Sheriff E. R. Atkins was one of them.
E. R. Atkins: Well, it seems as though there would be something else behind it though I can’t put my finger on it at the moment….
Sea Stachura: He and others suggested outsiders came to Augusta to start trouble.
E. R. Atkins: But something caused this serious outbreak last night of looting and setting places on fire and running around and doing the things that they did.
Sea Stachura: Blacks had repeatedly protested conditions at his jail, but Atkins didn’t connect the complaints with the violence. Augusta’s Mayor Millard Beckum blamed the victim when he spoke with a CBS News reporter.
CBS Reporter: The fad since May's violence is for White officials to make ghetto tours. Shortly after the riot Mayor Millard Beckum made his journey, was shocked at what he saw, said he was going to do something about it. A month later, he was still saying he was going to do something about it, but he saw more fault with Blacks than the government.
Millard Beckum: I said I had seen things that were hard for me to believe that one would have to see it in order to believe it.
CBS Reporter: What is it you don't believe that you saw?
Millard Beckum: That people could allow themselves to live in such filth without actually exerting themselves to some extent do something about it.
Sea Stachura: But Black residents had asserted themselves. Before the riot, they repeatedly spoke out at city council meetings. They told Beckum that their living conditions were untenable. People like Mrs. Connolly from Turpin Hill showed up at City Council meetings regularly. She addressed Beckhum directly during one of those meetings.Here’s an actor reading some of her public remarks.
Mrs. Connolly Reenactment: I have been to see you about water and sewage in our area. We have signed petitions and sent, we wrote to Atlanta, we wrote to Washington -
Sea Stachura: At the time, Beckum said the fault was with the federal government. Augusta activists knew they would need to keep up the pressure. One way they did that was with public protests. On May 20th, activists started a 100-mile “March Against Oppression.” It honored the lives of the Augusta Six. The six Black men shot in the back and killed by police during the riot. An ABC News reporter covered the event.
ABC Reporter: In Perry, Georgia today some 300 demonstrators, most of them Black, began a march through Georgia.
Sea Stachura: The activists walked from Perry to Atlanta over the course of five days. Along with the protestors was a mule-driven cart carrying six coffins. The mules were named Nixon for President Richard Nixon and Lester for Georgia Governor Lester Maddox.
ABC Reporter: Their purpose: to protest the fatal shootings of students at Jackson State and Kent State and the death by gunfire of 6 Negros in Augusta, Georgia.
Sea Stachura: SCLC leader Hosea Williams was one of the primary organizers. Here he is speaking with ABC News.
Hosea Williams: Our major purpose for marching and this demonstration is to protect the rights that have already been given. We are not out here trying to get new rights, although we know we are not free….we do have the right to freedom of assembly. And we will exercise that right, whether it means jail or death.
Sea Stachura: But then-Governor Lester Maddox urged them not to exercise that right.
John Hayes: He insists that they cancel the march.
Sea Stachura: That’s John Hayes, a history professor at Augusta University. He’s also a member of the 1970 Augusta Riot Observation Committee. He says Maddox refused the SCLC a state patrol escort. And, right before they started, he sent them a telegram.
John Hayes: And says in the telegram, “your actions breed lawlessness, disorder and injustice, which join in the conspiracy to destroy freedom… “ He goes even further and says of the SCLC, they're doing a disservice to Black people in this country. They're more guilty than anyone else for the six deaths in Augusta.
Sea Stachura: SCLC leader Hosea Williams called Maddox’s claims an attempt to suppress Black voices.
John Hayes: Two days into the march, Maddox claims that he's now received intelligence that members of the Black Panther Party are part of the march. And as the March reaches its conclusion at Morehouse College, they will assassinate one of the marchers to create a martyr and make white law enforcement look bad. Hosea William shrugs this off. Here’s a voice actor reading his response.
Hosea Williams (read by actor): Only a mind like Maddox's could have come up with a statement like that. If Maddox himself doesn't send someone out to kill us. None of us will die.
Sea Stachura: Ten thousand more protesters joined the March Against Oppression when it reached Atlanta. And Hosea Williams reminded the crowd why they carried those six coffins. Here’s a voice actor reading a portion of his remarks.
Hosea Williams (read by an actor): We have come to mourn the passing of a nation that has gotten so wrapped up in perpetuating itself that it would shoot down six of her proud sons.
Sea Stachura: Augusta Activists were also harnessing the public’s attention. They registered more voters, and kept up pressure on the region’s government and businesses. Less than two weeks after the uprising, the Committee of Ten announced a boycott on certain White-owned businesses. The group was made up of Augusta-area activists. Leon Larue was the head of the Committee. Here’s a voice actor reading some of his remarks.
Leon Larue (read by an actor): We will boycott each of the stores one by one until either the White owners come down to Tabernacle Church about improving economic conditions in the Black community or until every store on Broad Street is closed down.
Sea Stachura: Larue said Black residents spent two million dollars in white-owned businesses. He wanted to see some of those dollars return to the community. At the same time, then-attorney John Ruffin had long been battling Richmond County Schools. They had an anemic desegregation effort. After the riot, he pushed harder. He filed an appeal challenging the city’s education plan. His civil rights work was significant. Eventually he became the first black Chief Judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals. The Richmond County Courthouse was named after him
Taira Duggar: So, I also remember when this was being built, I was little at the time. So it's like it's like a fever dream. At the same time, I can't recall what it looked like before, but I'm pretty sure it was also a plot of grass.
Sea Stachura (field): Yeah, I think before, in like before 1970, it probably was something and then so much of this downtown area got destroyed... They didn't really do anything to rebuild the area. Because this is like right on the dividing line between downtown and the Black neighborhoods. And, yeah, so this -- it was the municipal building where they would have had the suit, the lawsuit for Charles Oatman, and that would not have existed.
Sea Stachura: I’m talking about the lawsuit Cornelia Oatman filed against Richmond county officials. Ruffin served as her lawyer. It asked for four million dollars in restitution. In the lawsuit, Ruffin alleged that beatings and corporal punishment were widespread at the county jail. This was especially the case amongst Black prisoners. It argued that the sheriff and the jailer encouraged fellow inmates to beat each other. They believed this was also a form of racial discrimination. It seemed, at first, like Cornelia Oatman’s suit might get somewhere. Instead, the court cited her for fraud. Cornelia wasn’t Charles’s birth mother. Because of that, the court ruled she had no standing to sue and it ruled she was committing a crime by stating she was his mother. Biologically, she wasn’t. Charles’s Uncle Lenton Oatman believes the boy was adopted around two or three years old.
Lenton Oatman: He was about three years old when I come home... He was about that tall.
Sea Stachura: And your brother Grover… He said when you asked him where is this kid from?
Lenton Oatman: He said he got him out the chicken coop...
Sea Stachura: Cornelia and Grover Oatman never formally adopted their son. Adoption is an expensive process. It also hadn’t been necessary for these families. But the U.S. District Court for Southern Georgia ruled that Cornelia had lied about being his parent. In response, Ruffin and Oatman added Charles’s birth mother to the suit. But the case stalled out. Eventually, Charles’s birth mother received a small settlement. The Oatman’s weren’t the only ones who endured a miscarriage of justice, and that’s ahead on “Shots in the Back.”
Sea Stachura: This is “Shots in the Back,” I’m Sea Stachura. Welcome back. In this episode we’re focusing on what happened in the days, months, and years as a result of the riot. Now let’s turn to what happened to the Black people who were arrested during that time. What is a jury of one’s peers? Let’s say that you’re a Black woman living in a neighborhood without sewers who was recently fired from her job. The cause was one day you were late-the day of the riot. Are your peers wealthy, white men who are also business owners? Downtown business owners who were perhaps affected by the riot? Those were the people who served as the grand jury for riot-related crimes. They found 128 Black Augustans guilty of burglary and attempted burglary during the 1970 uprising. The Augusta Chronicle published all of their names and addresses on the front page of the local news section. Then-Governor Lester Maddox announced the state had spent $200,000 on the riot. He called it money well-spent. And if the law and order message wasn’t clear enough, white business owners bought the city its own Armored Personnel Carrier. The city sponsored a parade downtown to honor and support law enforcement. The city’s Civil Service Commission promoted three officers who had policed the riot, and named Captain James Beck acting Chief. Chief Broadus Bequest took a leave of absence. So it’s probably not surprising to hear that Louis Dinkins was later promoted to Captain, and he was named Officer of the Year. But within the Black community his actions were a dark cloud following him. You may remember, from our last episode he was at two of the officer-involved killings during the uprising. And he admitted to shooting a teenager, Louis Nelson Williams, in the knee during the riot. On July 15, 1970, Dinkins and his family stopped at a traffic light on Paine College’s campus. High school and college students were leaving the campus chapel after a motivational speech. As they headed back to dorms, some of them noticed Dinkins. Hands on the wheel, windows down, family in the car. A couple of students approached Dinkins’s car at the stoplight.
Louis Dinkins: We stopped at a traffic light and there were two boys there - just got out of a meeting - I’m waiting on the light to change, and they—one of them walked over and he put his head in the back window right in my kid’s face and started all this “MF white hulky” crap. And that was unheard of then. And I started to get out and get him but I didn’t have a badge or a gun, nothing.
Sea Stachura: The students started running, but he caught up to one of them.
Louis Dinkins: But I couldn’t, I couldn’t hold him. I keep turning him and keep my back away from this other kid….. So this guy got away.
Sea Stachura: Dinkins began walking back to his car. Students were still leaving the meeting at the chapel. Historian John Hayes says this is when the situation escalated.
John Hayes: And several more members of the group who were at the meeting are around the car. And there’s an altercation, we don’t know who started it. Someone announced to the crowd that Dinkins is back.
Louis Dinkins: Probably one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life, I walked down there. And it seems like there was a girl out there that had seen the incident happen…. And she said, “That’s him. That’s the white man that did that. That beat up somebody.” Calling my name. So by that time somebody had hit me in the back of the head with something and knocked me down, not out, just knocked me to my knees.
Sea Stachura: People started kicking and beating Dinkins on the street. A little ways off, a Paine College security guard was watching all of it happen.
Louis Dinkins: So I was crawling that way with them all over my back and everything else. And I crawled right in—there was a guy standing in front me—crawled right up to him, and when I looked up, he had a pistol strapped on, with these little RG32’s I didn’t know at the time but I reached up with my left hand pulled on the belt to pull myself up. And the belt came loose and all of a sudden I had it in my left hand.
Sea Stachura: When Dinkins got a hold of the man’s gun, he started running.
Louis Dinkins: And uh, as I ran I was trying to get the pistol out of the holster and I finally did.And I turned around and there was one guy. He was right on me so that when I turned, the gun touched his chest, and I fired it here….He went down.
Sea Stachura: Dinkins kept firing. He hit two other people and a car that was driving by.
Louis Dinkins: And when he went down, the guy right behind him went down. And the third guy was coming at me but he was trying to turn and he had about halfway turned, and I thought about shooting him, but then I decided I didn’t want to kill him, so I shot him in the leg. And uh, he - he went down, and the third guy was still coming and I shot him in the leg….Now that was three bullets. And, and once I started shooting I mean it just like I couldn’t stop [laughs] you know.
Sea Stachura: Investigators ruled that Dinkins was acting in self-defense. But three of the college students were charged with aggravated assault. One of them was Jasento Alfonzo Greene. Greene was shot in the leg. Rodney Jason was shot in the chest. Dinkins had some bumps and bruises. He wasn’t charged for this incident, but the case brought attention back to Dinkins’ actions during the riot. He and another officer did eventually have their day in court.
Sea Stachura (field): The third, like, law enforcement place is the federal courthouse where the FBI would have tried Louis Dinkins and William Dennis would have been... And do you-do you remember anything about those lawsuits, like what those officers were charged with or anything?
Tiara Duggar: Not at all.
Sea Stachura (field): All right. Well, so, Louis Dinkins and Billy Dennis. They were the only two officers charged with anything related to people who were injured and killed in the riot
Sea Stachura: The Department of Justice charged then-sergeant Dinkins and Officer Dennis with Civil Rights violations. Dinkins shot Louis Nelson Williams for allegedly smashing the police cruiser’s windshield. Dennis shot and killed John Stokes for allegedly looting Davis Market. According to the DOJ, both officers issued summary judgements on their victims instead of arresting them. If convicted, each could have been sentenced to one year in prison. The Georgia Peace Officer Association found this absolutely outrageous. It volunteered to pay all legal fees. WSB-TV attended its press event.
WSB-TV Reporter: The indictment of the two Augusta police officers on a civil rights violation is an affront to the thousands of Georgia law officers who daily risk their lives in the public interest. It seems the courts are blind to the fact that police officers also have Civil Rights.
Sea Stachura: Of the two cases, William Dennis’s was the more serious. Multiple people witnessed his shooting John Stokes. Louis Dinkins says two of the witnesses were in the police cruiser. He told me this story at a cafeteria.
Louis Dinkins: But uh…they were in the back of Dennis’ car and under arrest and Dennis was talking to his partner and says… “I know these guys. I’ll just let them go. We’re gonna get them some other time.” And they were talking but when they got a call that they were looting at a grocery store down on 4th Street….
Sea Stachura: As soon as they arrived at the market Dennis started shooting. He told the F-B-I someone was shooting from inside the building. But the men in his car disagreed. They didn’t see or hear gunfire coming from the store.
Louis Dinkins: And uh…they had a testimony and was, um, yeah they drove up in front and Dennis…when I get down to the car, saw the shooting and somebody inside the building with a shotgun and no they didn’t remember any of the shots coming from the building.
Sea Stachura: Dinkins was at his fellow officer’s trial because he was working as an investigator for the defense team. They included Roy Harris, the heavyweight in Georgia politics; we heard from him earlier in this episode. The others were Torbit Ivey and Bert Hester.
Louis Dinkins: On the cross, Bert Hester was the sickest, smoothest attorney you ever saw in your life. They started out telling the same story and before it was over, they said under oath that no, they didn’t see a thing and said that when the shooting started, they laid down in the back seat of the car and didn’t even peak out. They don’t know what was going on.
Sea Stachura: William Dennis was acquitted. His lawyers were hoping Dennis’s acquittal would discourage the Justice Department. Enough to drop the case against Dinkins. But that didn’t happen, and Dinkins went to trial in February of 1971. His victim had his own charges to deal with. In November police arrested Louis Nelson Williams. The charge was aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and his victim was Louis Dinkins. His crime was throwing a brick at Dinkins’s windshield during the riot. The charges were brought after Dinkins had been indicted in September and months after all other riot related cases had been processed. It’s noticeable that Louis Nelson Williams was the DOJs star witness. He had walked toward Dinkins, Dinkins had grabbed him and pulled him over to the patrol car, then WIlliams ran away from Dinkins. Dinkins shot him, helped get him into the car, then drove him to the hospital.
Louis Dinkins: We got him in the wheelchair and … there was a black that was standing out there, an older man. When I was walking back toward the car, and he said, “What happened to him?” and I said, “I shot him.”
Sea Stachura: He had plenty of chances to see Dinkins’ face, his badge number, and his name. But when Williams got on the stand in February of 1971, he said he couldn’t identify who shot him. Shortly after Dinkins was acquitted, Williams’s assault case was postponed. And five years later it was dropped entirely. Not many details about the Dennis and Dinkins trials were discussed in the local media. The opposite was true for the trial of Sammie Lee Parks and Lloyd Brown. These were the two teens accused of murdering Charles Oatman. Parks and Brown shared a cell with Oatman and three other inmates at the Richmond County jailhouse. In the cell next door, was Clifford Graham.
Clifford Graham: Now, don’t get me wrong I didn't physically see him get beat..
Sea Stachura: So did you ever did you ever walk past that cell and see him getting beat?
Clifford Graham: No not physically, I couldn't go walk past to see it because I was in jail right.
Sea Stachura: Right yeah.
Clifford Graham: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it is like this: I'm 90 percent sure that what went on is that they beat that boy. And he was saying oh don't beat me oh don't hurt me, he was crying and all that just like I say, they were hitting him. And then by being in jail you put two and two together cause you in jail. And the strong survive, he was weak. He was a young weak boy. He was a frail little boy.
Sea Stachura: How many cells away do you think you were from him?
Clifford Graham: Next door.
Sea Stachura: Really? Right next door?
Clifford Graham: Right next door. Mhmm.
Sea Stachura: Parks and Brown pled not guilty. Parks even said that Brown was a quiet kid who, quote “didn’t mess with anybody.” Cellmates testified Oatman was beaten daily, and was beaten for three hours on the day he died. One witness testified that Oatman was tied in a crucifix position and beaten. They testified that once Oatman was unconscious, they poured salt into his eyes. They also poured hot water onto his chest in an attempt to revive him. Historian John Hayes reviewed the preliminary hearing documents. He noticed significant differences between what they said during the trial and what they had told the courts initially.
John Hayes: the preliminary hearing-it's pretty basic. You know, they beat him. They beat him with their fists, with his shoe, with a belt, with a stick....But then by September, you've got these lurid new details that were never in the preliminary hearing.
Sea Stachura: Hayes said the reason for these changes could lie in the timeline. Oatman’s autopsy was not released to the public until after the first trial in May. The injuries listed in the report couldn’t be explained with their initial testimonies.
John Hayes: The autopsy is out there by this point, as it was not publicly out there by the Friday of the preliminary hearing back in May. It's out there. Everybody reading The Chronicle can read the autopsy. So four months later for this case of the state, evidence needs to match the autopsy. There are just too many suspicious details there.
Sea Stachura: The grand jury charged both Parks and Brown with voluntary manslaughter by mid-July. They were found guilty in September. They were both sentenced to ten years in prison. Augusta officers are acquitted and promoted. The Oatmans don’t get recompense. On national television the city’s mayor insinuates Black Augustans are lazy. But Black people didn’t give up. Arthur Sims certainly didn’t. He was the head of the local chapter of the SCLC. He was also a reverend in Augusta.
Arthur Sims: Operation Mountain Top is the vision the Lord gave me to establish.
Sea Stachura: Sims knew dead-end jobs and poor pay were the norm for Black Augustans. So Operation Mountaintop’s first initiative was to plan a boycott of Broad Street. Broad Street is the downtown’s main drag and, at the time, all the businesses on it were owned by whites.
Arthur Sims: And I used the membership of my church and young people, even those from Columbia County to sponsor this Boycott and it was because merchants in Augusta were not hiring Blacks, were not paying them fair wages, and were not contributing to the broad community. And I think we used the expression “‘till hell freezes over” we would boycott.
Sea Stachura: Sims was able to recruit a large crowd to protest on Broad Street daily. But for many in the Black community, fear of retaliation kept them from participating.
Arthur Sims: There was a fear, a great fear. But nevertheless, the boycott excelled. We started on Broad Street and I remember as we participated, many Blacks would pass by and bring us food, but they would not march. But to those who did it, God bless them.
Sea Stachura: The pressure on merchants built, enough so that the city finally stepped in. It asked the newly formed Human Relations Commission to negotiate between downtown merchants and Operation Mountain Top leaders. Charles Walker was one of those.
Charles Walker: So the Human Relations Commission was created to bring the community together to finally have that evasive conversation of desegregation and racial hatred. We finally said, well we gonna have this conversation.
Sea Stachura: One of Operation Mountain Top’s demands was that the city follow through on funding and staffing that organization. Until then the Human Relations Committee existed in name only.
Charles Walker: They needed an executive director. And guess who they hired as the executive director? Me.
Sea Stachura: Walker and his secretary were the only staffers. But they got a contract with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They were investigating discrimination.
Charles Walker: I initiated the investigation at Continental Canning out there.
Sea Stachura: This was in 1975.
Charles Walker: They had five or six hundred employees and they were - they paid the blacks well but they couldn't go anywhere but to the woodyard. They would not let the Blacks work in any other department except for the woodyard. They were there with the saws and all the stuff that hurt you. So I went out there and I was doing an investigation and I got out there, they had about two or three days they gave me about 3,000 applications and that was designed to discourage me. And, by accident, I discovered something. On the application on the top left hand corner there was one dot, and in the top right hand corner there two dots. And then all of a sudden I started looking at all these things - all these dots are in the same spot. So I started checking out the ones who were two dots and then one dot: Two dots were Black people, minorities. And then one dot turned out to be - everybody who had one dot was white.
Sea Stachura: Walker continued to fight for better economic conditions for black people in Augusta. And progress was made, but it wasn’t without opposition.
Charles Walker: They would not move until we made them move.
Sea Stachura: For instance, in 1972, the state of Georgia implemented state-wide bussing measures.White families were outraged, especially in Augusta. ABC News was there when they protested it.
ABC News Reporter: The rally to kick off the boycott attempt was held in Augusta, Georgia, a city where most community and school officials have openly supported previous anti-bussing protests. A public school stadium was open for the rally and an estimated 5,000 people.
Sea Stachura: Thousands of white parents kept their kids home from school as a show of protest. Then some of them moved to another county or sent their kids to private school. Richmond County’s Superintendent retired instead of submit to desegregation. But bussing did eventually happen, and that gain helped. Students like Donna Jackson were able to attend more well-funded, traditionally white schools.
Donna Jackson: I got other family members that wound up at Laney and the disparity was just, oh my gosh. What do you mean you don't have books? What do you mean you don't know what a microscope is? There were a lot of differences.
Sea Stachura: Differences that people like Black Panther Wilbert Allen and Augusta City Councilman Grady Abrams risked their lives to end. Allen continued to push for police and housing reform. But Allen says the FBI and local law enforcement had infiltrated Black Panther chapters.
Wilbert Allen: Basically, what they did is destroy the structure we had in Augusta. They destroyed it. And all I get was 20 years of hell. That's what I get, 25 or 30 years of hell because when I came back to Augusta, I could not even work in Augusta. I couldn't even get a job in Augusta. I only got a job when I left this area for about 20 something years and worked. Allen was eventually sent to prison, and Grady Abrams would leave the city council in 1971 out of frustration.
Sea Stachura: Activism in Augusta slowed down again. But it wasn’t the only city in the nation worn out after losing a lot of Black lives and a lot of Black leaders. Some Augustans never stopped reminding white officials they would be held accountable. Grady Abrams was one of those people. In July of 1970, Abrams made a speech to the city council. Here’s an actor reading an excerpt.
Grady Abrams (read by an actor): Since the May 11 event, this administration has been fiddling. Endorsing the police department in their actions will not solve the problem. Having a big “Support Your Local Police Department” parade does not solve the problem… In fact all of these actions have done more to polarize the black and white community… Officials in Augusta are clothed in uniforms, invested with authority, armed with the instruments of violence and death and conditioned to believe that they can intimidate, maim, or kill black people with the same recklessness that once motivated the slave owners. There are too many elected officials who have been quick to label every protest or demonstration by Blacks against the administration of government as a communist plot to overthrow the government. The Black citizens will not stand for the unjustified and arbitrary invasion of the rights guaranteed to all people under the constitution.
Sea Stachura: The fight wasn’t over. And after all this effort how much progress did Black Augustans really see? In our next episode, we look at the present day. What’s happening now? How much different is it from back then? I’m Sea Stachura. Thanks for joining us. For transcripts and multimedia, check out our website, www.GPB.org/Shots. And subscribe and review us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and wherever else you get your podcasts. “Shots in the Back” is reported and hosted by me, Sea Stachura, and assistant producer, Rosemary Scott. Our editor is Keocia Howard. Additional assistance by Nefertiti Robinson and Lars Lonnroth. Research support comes from Corey Rogers at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History and John Hayes at Augusta University. Supplemental equipment from Eric Kinlaw. Our theme was composed by Tony Aaron Music, additional music provided by De Wolfe Music. Mixing by Jesse Nighswonger. We heard archival material in this episode from the WSB News film collection at the University of Georgia Libraries, and the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. Oral histories courtesy of Reese Library Special Collections at Augusta University. Sean Powers is our Podcasting Director and Mary Lynn Ryan is the station’s Vice President of News. Gary Dennis is the executive director of Jessye Norman School of the Arts. This podcast is funded in part by a South Arts grant.