In 1970, what happened in Augusta was actually part of a larger national story as campuses across the country were shut down due to protests.


TRANSCRIPT:

Sea Stachura: Hey, it’s Sea Stachura, host of “Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 Augusta Riot.” By now you know about some of the effects the riot had on the city of Augusta. But what happened there was actually part of a larger national story. Young Americans protested across the country in 1970, particularly in the month of May. Most of those protests were about the Vietnam War. One of the most well-known occurred at Kent State University. It happened on the afternoon of May 4th. Mostly white college students were peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. The Ohio National Guard had been called in. Here’s part of a 1970 CBS News story on the campus shooting.

National Guardsman: Leave this area immediately.

[Students chanting]

Student: And all of a sudden I heard them shooting.

[Gunfire]

Sea Stachura: This was exactly one week before Augusta’s rebellion. Without warning, 28 of the guardsmen opened fire on the students.

Student: And then I saw people dropping to the ground and then I fell to the ground also, ‘cause I couldn't walk anymore.

CBS Reporter: What the investigators have to determine, then, is whether indeed there was a sniper and whether the guard was justified in firing its weapons. Or whether, as some people here believe, the guard, under the pressure of a rock throwing attack, panicked and fired its weapons indiscriminately, killing four people.

Sea Stachura: The shooting was a watershed moment. Demonstrations broke out across the nation’s campuses and by the end of May over 800 colleges had had at least one rally. Many campuses had shut down to avoid potential violence. But in the midst of the anti-war campaigns, Black Americans were still facing ruthless discrimination. Those two tensions converged on May 11th. At least three different uprisings took place that day: One in Portland, Oregon; another in Augusta, Georgia; and a third in Oxford, North Carolina. At Portland State University’s campus, 3,000 students were protesting. May 11th was the third day of their sit-in. Police were called in to break it up. According to Portland’s KGW News, they arrived with their billy clubs raised.

KGW Newscast: When it was over, 30 student demonstrators and two policemen were injured. The students were on a three-day strike protesting police action at Kent State.

Sea Stachura: On the other side of the country at about the same time Augusta’s story was beginning to unfold. Black members of the community were gathering at the Municipal Building downtown. They were protesting the death of Charles Oatman and by nightfall, Augusta’s streets were full of violence. The rebellion against racism had begun. Up in Oxford, North Carolina, the very same thing was happening. In that town a family of white men shot and then beat a Black man to death. Allegedly he had spoken rudely to a white woman. A violent uprising immediately ensued and one Black man died. And that wasn’t the end of the violence. Three days later, after Augusta, another tragedy played out—This time at a Historically Black college in Mississippi. Here’s a remembrance by the show “Democracy Now.”

Juan González: But the media has largely forgotten what happened just ten days after the Kent State shootings. On May 14, 1970, local police opened fire on a group of students at Jackson State College in Mississippi…

Sea Stachura: Students had been protesting to force the city to close a street. It bisected the campus and white drivers often tore through that thoroughfare. They threw bricks and yelled slurs at the students. Six years before, one white person hit a black female student with his car. After that incident students protested every spring—that’s what they were doing on the night of May 14th. Earlier that evening there had been vandalism and city leaders called in police and state patrol. The protests tapered off, but around midnight law enforcement opened fire on the students who remained. A large number of shots were aimed at a dorm.

Juan González: Police fired hundreds of rounds into the crowd. Two were killed and a dozen injured.

Sea Stachura: Those two young men were 21-year-old Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and 17-year-old James Earl Green. Gibbs was a junior pre-law major at Jackson State. He and his wife had an 18-month-old son. Green was a senior at Jim Hill High School in Jackson. The women’s dormitory was scarred with bullet holes. Civil Rights activists created a mantra that they featured on buttons and posters: “Remember Kent, Augusta, Jackson, and Southeast Asia.” But most protests from white college students continued to focus on the war in Vietnam. The incidents in Oxford, Augusta and at Jackson State have only recently returned to the public’s attention. Ultimately, the rebellions didn’t push the oppression of black people to the forefront of the American agenda. And that’s according to Akinyele Umoja. Umoja is the Chair of the African American Studies Department at Georgia State University.

Akinyele Umoja: It did put Black folks, particularly poor black people, on the agenda. The question is: Is this the most effective way to bring about change for Black folks? Are there other organized ways to bring about resistance that can actually bring a more sustained and even self-determined change, if you will, where Black people can determine what the change is gonna be? 

Sea Stachura: And that’s one of the questions we’ll explore next week in our final episode. Was Augusta’s uprising worth it? How are activists today pushing for change? I’m Sea Stachura. This is “Shots in the Back.” It’s a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting and Jessye Norman School of the Arts. For more of our reporting, visit GPB.org/Shots. Subscribe and review the show wherever you get podcasts.