Was the Augusta riot worth it? Fifty years after the uprising, we look at the societal changes that it sparked, and what the Civil Rights Movement looks like today.


TRANSCRIPT:

Sea Stachura: Hey there, if you are just tuning in, start back at the beginning. Everything will make a lot more sense if you start from the beginning. Previously on “Shots in the Back”:

[MONTAGE] 


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

Arthur Sims: There was a fear, a great fear. But nevertheless, the boycott excelled.

Louis Dinkins: 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.” About that time, somebody had hit me on the back of the head with something and knocked me down.

Peace Officer: It seems the courts are blind to the fact that police officers also have civil rights.

[END MONTAGE]

Sea Stachura: This is “Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 Riot.” I’m Sea Stachura. So at the end of Episode Four, Reverend Claude Harris asked a question that stuck with us:

Reverend Claude Harris: Was it worth it? Was it worth all of these people getting arrested? Was it worth that little boy getting shot? Was it worth him dying?

Sea Stachura: I have wrestled with Harris’s question since I first interviewed him in 2012. How do you go about answering that question? So, in our final episode, we’ll examine this from a few different points of view. And then we’ll ask, where does Augusta’s quest for racial justice go from here? Recently, I had a group call with some of my students from Jessye Norman School of the Arts and Atticus Dillard-Wright was one of them.

Atticus:  Maybe it was worth it. But since these things are happening still today for the same sorts of reasons….but for the most part yes.

Sea Stachura: But when I asked how they arrived at their answers, they kind of struggled. Let’s be honest, it has been five months away from a classroom and this project. Their thoughts were a little fuzzy. But Essence Willingham gave it a shot.

Essence: don't really know how to answer the question, but I feel like the looting and stuff that didn't need to happen, but I understand like what they tried to get through.  Like if they didn't do that then they couldn't like, really get their point across. Like they needed something to get the police government involved in, get their point out, get it through.

Sea Stachura: To Essence’s mind, it was worth it. She sees it this way: Black Augustans finally got the sincere attention of city officials and  white business leaders. And ultimately it resulted in a few positives. A summer work program targeted at Black boys. And, in the Turpin Hill Neighborhood, the city installed water and sewerage by 1972. But some would argue these could have been achieved by peaceful means. Corey Rogers isn’t convinced. He’s a historian at Augusta’s Lucy Craft Laney Museum.

Corey Rogers: Do we really know if the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of ‘64 and ‘65 would have been passed if in the back of the mind of white politicians they didn't also see Malcolm X? They didn't just see Martin Luther King.

Sea Stachura: Rogers says mutiny can be a powerful tool.

Corey Rogers: You know, Malcolm X once said, you know, to the Kings, I can be the boogie man. I could be the bad cop to King's good cop, you know? And sometimes you need to strike that balance where you are marching for peace, but you also at the drop of a dime, know that you want to put the fear of God into your enemy and know that we gonna stand up for what we believe. 

Sea Stachura: There's plenty of evidence that the threat of violence prompted action. After the 1968 riots that broke out across the country several racist laws and legal rulings were overturned. But the progress didn't last.

Robert Pratt: No sooner did we have those pieces of legislation that we had, the campaign and the presidency of Richard Nixon who campaigned, he rode the white backlash into office because he campaigned in 1968 on the theme of Law and Order.

Sea Stachura: That’s University of Georgia Historian Robert Pratt and he says Nixon campaigned on fear. Here is one of Nixon’s ads. It features an older white woman walking by herself at night along a downtown street.

Political Ad: Today, a violent crime is committed every 60 seconds. A robbery every two-and-a-half minutes. A mugging every six minutes. A murder every 43 minutes. And it will get worse unless we take the offensive. Freedom from fear is a basic right of every American. We must restore it.

Sea Stachura: Crime had increased around this time in the U.S. It was in proportion to the nation’s population growth, namely the Baby Boomers. Nixon’s team stoked white fear that Black people in particular would sully white morality and safety. It played into stereotypes of Black men as violent and depraved. Nixon’s solution was the War on Crime and War on Drugs. That, in turn, ushered in the long-lived era of mass incarceration of Black people. Nixon’s Vice President later admitted this was a strategy. The administration wanted to undermine Black progress and progressive politics. Pratt says Donald Trump is using the same tactics.

Robert Pratt: I am convinced that much of what we see today in the Donald Trump presidency is a response and a backlash to eight years of Obama's presidency.

Sea Stachura: Backlash has happened in response to all major American social movements. Jim Crow in the wake of Reconstruction. Conversion Therapy after gains made in LGBTQ rights. To my student Aidan Allen, this suggests ultimately the violence of the 1970 rebellion wasn’t worth it.

Aidan: Honestly I kind of think that it kind of wasn’t worth it because in the end, like, the message wasn't really, like, didn’t get out there. Like, in the end it was forgotten and like a bunch of people got hurt and died for the riot just to be forgotten.

Sea Stachura: Does the fact that the uprising was forgotten mean that it wasn’t worth it? Would Augusta have opened an office to field discrimination complaints if there hadn’t been the riot? Would the teenagers have been kept in the county jail? How do we measure what makes an uprising worth it? And if we figure out how to do that, can we also figure out a way to move forward? Recently, several academic researchers have come out with findings that nonviolent resistance is statistically far more effective than violent resistance. Omar Wasow is one of those researchers. He’s an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University.

Omar Wasow: In about 50 percent of the cases where social movements used nonviolent tactics, they were able to achieve their outcomes as compared with about 25 percent of the cases where protesters used violent tactics.

Sea Stachura: Wasow looked specifically at how different types of Civil Rights-era activism influenced voting.

Omar Wasow: And what I found in the 1960s was that protests that were generally nonviolent and or were objects of violence tended to get more sympathetic press coverage that tended to have your headlines that focused on civil rights. In the later period, beginning in the mid 60s, going through the early 70s, protests that included protestor-initiated violence tended to generate headlines that were more likely to include words like riot.

Sea Stachura: This doesn’t mean that violence is always absent from the protest. It means the activists are nonviolent. So the media captures images of police or counter-protestor violence. And, in reaction, public opinion swings in favor of the activists. Wasow says this can shape public opinion, policy, and elections. He uses the 1964 and 1968 presidential elections as examples. The Civil Rights Amendment passed just before the 1964 election. It pitted President Lyndon Johnson against U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater.

Omar Wasow: So we have Johnson, who's clearly a champion of civil rights on the one hand. Goldwater is running on a Law and Order campaign. So a clear kind of contrast. And in that moment, Johnson wins in a landslide, Law and Order does not carry the day. But what's interesting is that by 1968, we have another contest. Nixon running on Law and Order. Humphrey, who is the lead author of the Civil Rights Act, running on the Democratic side. And this time, Nixon wins.

Sea Stachura: The popular vote  between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey was close. And it came following the asassination of Martin Luther King and uprisings across the country.

Omar Wasow: But in my research, looking at survey data, looking at county-level election results and a variety of other factors, I find evidence consistent with the possibility that violent protests tipped the election that—that violent protest may have cost Humphrey, hundreds of thousands of votes, particularly the Midwest and the mid Atlantic.

Sea Stachura: Some of Wasow’s colleagues take issue with his conclusions and suggest other factors led to Nixon’s election. In particular, white backlash, the type Robert Pratt spoke of earlier in this episode.Research shows that backlash often begins before any progress is made. It appears as caution. Martin Luther King Junior’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” addresses that concern.

Martin Luther King: I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom.

Sea Stachura: In King’s view, white inaction was the problem. Their claim that violence was what deterred them from supporting racial equality, was an excuse. An excuse not to change the status quo.

Martin Luther King: You assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.

Sea Stachura: My student Atticus sees both sides of this quandary. Yes, the violence in Augusta forced white leaders to finally address some of Black residents’ concerns. But he also sees that whites opposed to justice then found new ways to stymie Black progress.

Atticus: To make long-term change happen you cannot use violence because, like, what has been happening now is very similar to what was happening in 1970 and we’re still calling for the same types of change. And still not very much is happening. 

Sea Stachura: In King’s opinion, social change wouldn’t take that long if white Americans got onboard. If they became committed to their nation’s ideals of justice, instead of comfort, then progress would come. Without it, progress is as slow as a mule-drawn cart. As was the case in Augusta’s Hyde Park neighborhood. We talked about that neighborhood in Episode Two. It was built in a flood plain and surrounded by industry. Former resident Charles Utley and I are visiting it.

Sea Stachura: This smell. Do you smell that smell? 

Charles Utley:  Yeah...

Sea Stachura: It smells like cat litter and laundry detergent. Is that what it smells like to you? 

Charles Utley: Well ...I would say like something that's been burned. Well, like it wouldn't be a tire burn, but it would be like a chemical burn.

Sea Stachura: Yeah.

Charles Utley: that would be what I’m smelling. 

Sea Stachura: Some of you wondered what happened to it. Did it get sewers and paved streets? Yes, it did. But after that battle was won, another one started. In the 1980s, the county’s health department told residents that their wells were poisoned. They shouldn’t use them for drinking, bathing, garden watering, pretty much anything. Residents stopped using the wells, but they still were getting sick. Utley says babies were born with birth defects, kids had skin lesions. And cancer was ubiquitous.

Charles Utley: There were over 300 families out here. you're going to get at least over a 100 hundred people easily. I'm almost sure we are over 100 now. 

Sea Stachura: Actually, that tally is much higher. In the 1990s alone, the county health department recorded 180 cancer-related deaths: brain, bone, and skin cancers were common. Utley and others began trying to understand why. Eventually, they learned a telephone pole factory across from their neighborhood had admitted to contaminating the area with creosote and arsenic. The company had compensated white residents in a neighboring subdivision. But they never told Hyde Park residents. The residents asked for help, first from local government, then the county and finally the state.   They got nowhere. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division    declared their neighborhood’s soil and water had acceptable levels of arsenic and lead. So did the U-S Department of Health. Both statements were untrue.  But residents would need proof, and that would take money.  So they applied for a federal   Environmental Protection Agency grant.  These grants are usually applied for  by local governments.  They are complicated and massive applications.  But Utley says residents had been put off so many times.  The neighbors had no choice but to take on the process themselves.

Charles Utley: And so therefore we had to go through all of those—we had to go to Washington. We had been on a Senate hearing. We had carried the water—contaminated water—to Congress and presented it to them for evidence, so it was bringing embarrassment to the city of Augusta.

Sea Stachura: The EPA approved their application. Utley takes me to the first intersection of the neighborhood and stops. He points at a fenced off lot. The telephone pole factory wasn’t the only polluter.

Charles Utley: On this side was Goldberg Brothers junkyard, approximately 10 stories high was stacked with just junk…

Sea Stachura: Like cars or what?

Charles Utley: Cars! Old recyclable and we also found in the junk yard building, which was right in this corner here, car batteries, just stacks of them. 

Sea Stachura: Researchers found that the soil and water in the neighborhood had extremely high levels of known carcinogens. It was a win, but clean-up wouldn’t start until 2001, 17 years later. Funding came primarily from state and federal coffers.

Charles Utley: The junkyard took 10 million dollars to clean it. It was that much junk on it that—it had that much tires and rubbish on it.

Sea Stachura: Residents were relieved. Their efforts had made a difference. Unfortunately, their land and water were still toxic. The insulation factory, the major power substation, the railroads, the new junkyard—all of these contributed to the pollution. Bob Young was mayor at the time. His administration cleaned up the junkyard. But residents still lived on toxic soil. Young says, there was no money and no solid plan for the residents. Instead they put up warning signs. One advised residents not to swim in the drainage ditches.

Bob Young: And  then we had to deal with it. Well, what are we going to do next? What comes after that? Are we going to do anything with the neighborhood? Are we going to improve it. We're going to get people out of here. And then those were subsequent steps that really came, the big buyout and all that came after I left office.

Sea Stachura: Almost ten years later, Augusta-Richmond County finally agreed to buy out residents. All told, getting out of Hyde Park took more than thirty years of contamination reports, lawsuits, and public pressure. That’s a long time to wait. In that time, six different men held office as Augusta’s mayors. This sort of environmental racism is still common. Take Flint Michigan. In 2014, residents started complaining about their water. It was brown. The state denied any problems. Two years later, Michigan was forced to acknowledge the contamination: The water was poisoned with lead. In 2020, the state has agreed to pay Flint residents and their victims’ compensation account currently stands at $600 million. These are the sorts of facts that give students like Atticus Dillard-Wright pause.

Atticus: It feels like on a personal level only people in positions of really high power can do much of anything at all to stop systemic racism from happening in the police and other government agencies.

Sea Stachura: Historically, those are the people who haven’t made stopping systemic racism a priority, or who won’t admit it is a problem. And there’s a fundamental rule in politics. Here’s former Mayor Young explaining it.

Bob Young: People don't give up something without getting something. And the key is finding out what the other person wants. And politics has taught me it's not necessarily the thing on the table that the person wants.

Sea Stachura: What do disenfranchised Black people have to offer politicians? Hyde Park residents had something to offer Augusta’s politicians. The chance to avoid further national embarrassment. All the region had to do was clean up a toxic waste site. What do today’s racial equity activists have in their back pockets? When we come back, we’ll hear about the kinds of protest tactics Augustans are using today. That’s ahead on “Shots in the Back.”

[INTERLUDE]

Sea Stachura: This is “Shots in the Back,” I’m Sea Stachura, welcome back. In this second half of our final episode, we’re talking about the ways Black Augustans and others are continuing to push for racial equity, fifty years after Augsuta’s riot. Shawn Edwards is one of those Augustans. He’s the executive director of the Augusta Land Bank Authority. It’s a nonprofit that works with the region’s government to improve housing access and redevelop blighted areas. He also sits on the 1970 Augusta Riot Observation Committee. He and I know each other through that committee.

Shawn Edwards: I have to fight for my people. That is not to say that I don't want all people to win. I wouldn't be human— and really, I wouldn't be black if I was that way—because that's just not our nature. We are not conquerors and emperors looking to establish empires around the world. It’s never been what we’ve done throughout history. We find harmony and balance with nature.

Sea Stachura: Many of Edwards’s redevelopment projects are in the neighborhoods where the riot took place. A little over 10 years ago, the region began reinvesting in the area. At that time, it was about 50 percent vacant.

Shawn Edwards: So the goal starting out was to bring people back. You can't put a designation on who “people” is. It's just those who want to live in a community. You don't want to racialize it. But it is going to be racialized because the primary person that's going to come back is going to have a connection to the area. Be its history, be it proximity. And that's what our project started. It then blossoms because you're getting an occupancy to where now, it feels more safe. 

Sea Stachura: Right now these neighborhoods are a mix of people: seniors on fixed incomes live in bungalows worth 30 thousand dollars. Those sit next to newly constructed two-story houses selling for 150 thousand. Students at Augusta University’s Dental College needed housing, so vacant churches and houses were torn down to build high-rise apartments nearby. Edwards says that housing was necessary, but it will lead to an era of gentrification.

Shawn Edwards: You want to bring a bunch of people in to repopulate the area. You want to be able to raise incomes in order to provide services. All of that is necessary. But when you bring in 200 units at one time, you're not bringing in 200 black folks—so that goes back to the ripple effects. Does the African-American neighborhood stay an African-American neighborhood? It doesn't. Why is that? Because African-American neighborhoods are allowed to become depressed areas.

Sea Stachura: That can happen for a variety of reasons, but no matter why it happens,

Edwards says it cuts into Black intergenerational wealth. Let’s say all of your grandma’s wealth is tied up in her home. If her neighborhood goes into decline, her home depreciates. She has less to borrow against. She also has a smaller inheritance for the grandchildren. Edwards says for Black folks, grandma’s house is almost always in a depressed neighborhood.

Shawn Edwards:  Blacks are no further along than we were when we were released from the plantation. Our percentage of ownership, what we own control and can pass down to our children has not moved.

Sea Stachura: To his point, in June of 2020, a study came out about the wealth gap between Black and White families with school-aged children. Here’s an anchor with Chicago’s WTTW with the headline.

News Anchor: New research shows the wealth gap between black families and white families has widened since the Great Recession. And, although the gap between white and Hispanic families has shrunk slightly, it is still massive. The study from Northwestern University shows that for every dollar a white family has, black families only have one cent.

Sea Stachura: That’s not news to Edwards. For him, it points out how necessary these reinvestment projects are for Black success, and how much more there is to do. He questions whether the county really wants to see economic and social advancement.

Shawn Edwards: What you put your money into is what’s important. Doesn’t matter your value system, doesn’t matter your  ethnicity, gender, race, none of it. What you spend your money on is what you believe in.

Sea Stachura: In the past decade, Augusta-Richmond County has concentrated its urban renewal efforts on projects that foster primarily white, middle- and upper-class opportunities. Projects like the Georgia Cyber Center campus, high-rise apartments for medical students, and parking decks for corporate offices. Meanwhile, Edwards says historically Black neighborhoods remain disinvested by comparison. Augusta’s current mayor, Hardie Davis, says local government tries to be conscientious of how growth impacts all of its residents.

Mayor Hardie Davis: When we talk about risk, you know, we don't always do SWOT analysis of the opportunities that present themselves. But you have to humanize opportunity and in underserved parts of our community in Augusta, we have always got to keep in mind that as we're moving new people in, we can't do it at the expense of those who already exist here.

Sea Stachura: But those legacy residents are being priced out of Augusta’s historic neighborhoods. So activists like Jamie Tutson are focusing their energies on empowering Augusta’s disenfranchised. Tutson is an oncology nurse, mother, and founder of the organization BLACC.That stands for Bringing Lives and Communities Closer.

Jamie Tutson: How you doin’? You want to get registered to vote? Come over here. Come on, don’t walk off.

Sea Stachura: Tutson’s organization has a wide aim, from neighborhood improvement, to police accountability. Most weeks, she and her volunteers deliver food and supplies to the homeless. And right now, before the election, they are registering voters. The young man she’s talking to though? He isn’t interested.

Jamie Tutson: That's their reaction. My vote doesn't count. Why am I wasting my time? I don’t know who’s in office. They don't care about me anyway. And they think it's just the presidency. I'm like it's more than just the president up for election…. What about your local elections? The D.A., the D.A. for young black guys especially is a big deal… That's why we're targeting these neighborhoods specifically, because, you know, it’s these young kids, who don't even know what's going on. Don't even know, like, where their polling location is or if they're registered. Those are the ones we're trying to get.

Sea Stachura: Tutson says she volunteers as an activist because her parents couldn’t.

Jamie Tutson: I do kinda feel like our parents were just working so hard to survive that they probably couldn't focus on these things. But now it's like, okay, we're surviving, but I'm not living. I'm, like, working so hard, you know, for what generations before us were handed. You know, like the cost of college, cost of houses. And so it came to a point of like, why? Like, I guess it is more frustration about what's going on now and then wanting a better future for my kids before I did.

Sea Stachura: This evening, she and another organizer send out eight volunteers to register voters. They cross a busy road, and head into a sprawling apartment complex. After an hour, they return with eight new registrations. It’s not a big haul, so they talk strategy. How else could they best approach people and convince them that registering isn’t dangerous or pointless? But, overall, activist Morris Porter feels alright about their results. Over time, they’ve added quite a few voters to the roles.

Morris Porter: if I had to give you a guesstimate, a round figure, I will say maybe six, seven hundred, you know, just these past few months… we do it throughout the whole year.

Jamie Tutson:  Yeah, I was gonna say you guys do it on a regular basis. I’m so glad you come out and do it. I’ve learned a lot doing it with you.

Sea Stachura: Porter leads the Augusta chapter of the National Action Network. It’s a civil rights organization founded in the mid-90s. He’s also helped develop local leadership groups for young men and women of color. And he’s leading the protest for the removal of Augusta’s largest confederate monument. All of this is a lot of effort and others have failed in the  past. But Porter feels a change in the air.

Morris Porter:  Finally our white counterparts actually feel or see what we've been enduring all this time. Luckily, technology has brought that to light for us cause, you know, our voice or our work just wasn't good enough. Now they actually see it themselves. And it bothers them too. So that makes them want to get involved.

Sea Stachura: This harkens back to Dr. King’s call for white engagement—putting justice ahead of order. Tutson sees this, too. And she is both frustrated and pleased. Frustrated that it has taken seeing police repeatedly murder Black men to get white Americans to care, pleased they finally are. And she’s stepping up, her game, too. She’s studying the county sheriff’s standard operating manual. 

Jamie Tutson: We requested their S.O.P. and like their code of conduct and everything, we've been like slowly just going through it all. We don't want to say—we can't hold them accountable if we don't know, like what they need to be held accountable for.

Sea Stachura: For instance, the sheriff’s website claims permits for marches and rallies must be submitted 30 days in advance. The sheriff’s manual, though, says only 3 to 5 days are required. When it comes to public change, knowing these little details can make all the difference. And this is the sort of thing that teenagers can do. Still, students like Atticus Dillard-Wright are cynical. He wants to be hopeful. He sees a need for his generation to step up. But….

Atticus: We can go in and try to run for seats of government—like Senate or the president—but I don’t think that would do anything. Um, and we could use the powers of those people to pass laws that create change.

Sea Stachura: Essence Willingham struggles as well to come up with a plan of action.

Essence:  I feel like there should be like more black cops incorporated into the police or something like that.

Sea Stachura: According to 2016 Bureau of Justice statistics, only about a quarter of all law enforcement officers are people of color. But academic research has found those officers still stop Black and brown drivers disproportionately. But how would Essence or any other student know these facts? They aren’t taught in this school. And generally public schools don’t teach how Civil Rights activists or suffragists or even Mahatma Gandhi engaged in nonviolent protest. So it’s no wonder ideas aren’t readily at hand. And then there’s student Aidan Allen. After I’ve buttonholed Atticus and Essence, I turn to him. I ask him what he might do with this knowledge about the riot or how he might reduce racism.

Aidan: I'm kind of, just like, I'm not sure what to do. I don't really... I kind of like being useless. It’s very comfortable.

Sea Stachura: I laugh because it is very comfortable.If you can’t think of something to do, then you can’t be blamed for not doing something. Without this podcast project, Aidan most likely wouldn’t be talking about racism. And he does see value in that.

Aidan: The podcast is helping. So, like, could be helping. And so it's like I’m kind of helping with, like, getting stuff like the podcast out.

Sea Stachura: If there’s one truth about this podcast, it’s that the students’ perspectives have been invaluable. So, yes, I’d agree that he and the others have helped get this history into the world. The uprising isn’t included in the state history curriculum. But recently, a few area teachers have said they intend to include it in future Georgia History classes.

Christie Bryan:  Hello, my name is Christie Bryan, I am a Georgia Studies teacher and Lincoln County Middle School, and we are about 45 minutes away from Augusta.

Sea Stachura: Christie Bryan is one of them. She has been a teacher for nearly 30 years, and she already talks with her students about the Augusta riot. She was born a year before the uprising, and she remembers her mom talking about it when she was in grade school.

Christie Bryan:  What I remember her just telling me at that time was that a riot occurred. There was burning of buildings in downtown Augusta. She didn’t tell me the rest of the story, and I don't even know if she knew the whole rest of the story. The kids need to know everything, so that they can make their own, I guess you’d say, minds up about what happened.

Sea Stachura: The kids ARE Christie Bryan’s students at Lincoln County Middle School.  She says her district was fully integrated just a few months after Augusta’s uprising.  About half of her students are either Black or white.

Christie Bryan: The number one rule in my classroom is respect. And it's respect of other people's feelings and respect of other people's opinions. And once I have that down it leads to a lot of just open discussions for the kids.

Sea Stachura: When she brings up the 1970 riot, it's more in passing. It’s mentioned as part of the lessons on the Civil Rights Era protests.  Bryan sticks to the facts—nothing more, nothing less and she’s careful to do so. She knows how touchy the topic is. She says that’s why many teachers don’t want to cover it and other instances of racial violence.

Christie Bryan: I believe a lot of teachers are afraid that they might lose their jobs. As someone was saying to me last night, we walk such a fine line. And it's really difficult to pacify everybody in it. Even though it's facts, this happened, a lot of people are like, why do you want to bring that up? Why do you want to stir up trouble?

Sea Stachura: But Bryan asks, for whom would it be trouble? It’s certainly a painful memory, a painful moment in our past. Several of the people we spoke with expressed a degree of shame over their actions and inactions. Many others expressed bewilderment at the hate they witnessed. One of the things my students learned over the course of this project was to overcome fear. The fear of being misunderstood or ridiculed, and the fear of feeling, witnessing someone else’s pain. For my student Tiara, that’s what made learning about the uprising worth it.

Tiara: I don't like just knowing stuff. I like to at least know like at least two or three levels below. I just need to get a deeper understanding of it so that I can see where people are coming from, because my biggest thing and my mom's biggest thing right now is like empathy… just knowing where both sides come from is like, OK, I see that. I don't necessarily agree with that, but I see that.

Sea Stachura: She hopes other people develop empathy, too. In particular,  she’s thinking of Americans who typically haven’t believed systemic racism—or police brutality—is a big problem. A year ago, Tiara was only beginning to notice how similar present day racism is to what was happening in 1970. She was one of the students I drove down to Charles Oatman’s gravesite. They recorded audio, took photos, asked questions, mispronounced names. And then we headed back to more familiar territory: Wendy’s. A couple of them had never been. We sat around a table, and I turned on my recorder. I asked them if talking about the riot had gotten easier for them. At first nobody wanted to respond. It had been a long day. Then Atticus complained about his fries.

Atticus: My fries are super salty.

Tiara: I hate having a pile of salt in the bottom of the thing.

Thomas: That's my favorite part. That’s Thomas Collins and Tiara you’re hearing. At first all eyes go to Tiara.

Tiara: I talk all the time.

Sea Stachura: She does talk all the time. Thomas, you talk.

Thomas: I didn't hear your question but I was just making sure we're all on that same topic. I only think it’s a lot more approachable now, though. Not not in the sense that like other things are randomly spouting out, but, you know, if it comes up. I'm not going to be like, oh, yeah, that oh, I got an appointment at the dentist doctor,

Atticus: A doctor dentist?

Thomas: Doctor dentist

Sea Stachura: Everyone laughs and starts joking. After a while I ask if he knows what has changed to make it easier. 

Thomas: It's gotten easier to speak about racism in general since we've been talking about the riot. That's what I meant to say. I'm trying to break down why.

Tiara: It's kind of like change. When change first happens you don't really like it that much. But then once it keeps going on, you kind of get comfortable with it. Like a lot of what we've been talking about. It's kind of it's kind of like we've had to talk about it. So it's like we've all become familiar with what needs to be said.

Sea Stachura: Over the course of this podcast, you’ve heard these students evolve. You’ve heard them struggle to relate to what was happening, sometimes to believe that what they were learning about was being mirrored in the present. And you’ve heard the struggles of others, too. Black men and women who took on city, county and state elected officials. They took on people who denied their complaints were even justified or important or based in reality. People who had the power to fire them, arrest them without cause, let them die in jail cells, or worse. Shawn Edwards sees that as the gift of the young: they are less attached to the status quo, and more willing to take risks.

Shawn Edwards: Kwame Tureé said that revolution is for the young and that’s just the reality of it. It is going to be young people in the streets be it Civil Rights Movement with individuals in the forefront, being in their 20s, talking to a generation that despite the fact that they were making trouble. Or it is the Generation Z teenagers throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks and bottles at police shields. Revolution is for the young. It is my job as an older generation to help finance that push and to help be a part of the strategic plan that comes after.

Sea Stachura: The men and women who stood up in Augusta didn’t have to. They could’ve stayed quiet—accepted the status quo. But they saw fit to fight for their rights and for change for the future. They risked their livelihoods and their lives for a chance at better.

These are people like Grady Abrams, Wilbert Allen and Claude Harris; they didn’t have to relive those painful memories. But they did so that you would know the story of what happened in Augusta in 1970. Even the ones whose behavior was reprehensible, or whose views were controversial or outdated, none of them had to participate. But they did.

And my students, who reluctantly took on this project with me. They challenged themselves,

they challenged me, and ultimately, they gave this podcast an unexpected dimension. They all made this possible. And what comes next, is up to all of us.

That’s our series, thanks for listening. Please support the organizations that funded this project: Jessye Norman School of the Arts and Georgia Public Broadcasting.

“Shots in the Back” is reported and hosted by me, Sea Stachura, and assistant producer, Rosemary Scott. Our editor is Keocia Howard. Additional editing support from Josephine Bennett. Nefertiti Robinson, editorial assistant. Research support comes from Corey Rogers at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History and John Hayes at Augusta University. Archival material from the WSB News film collection at the University of Georgia Libraries. Oral histories courtesy of Reese Library Special Collections at Augusta University. Additional audio equipment courtesy of Eric Kinlaw.

Our theme was composed by Tony Aaron Music, additional music provided by DeWolfe Music. Mixing by Jesse Nighswonger. Throughout this series, you’ve heard some incredible voice actors. They include Baker Rouseau, McKenzie Stallings, Fred Hill, Steve Carten, Don Smith, Kimberly Davis, Kimberly Mobley, Nicole Swanson, Mark Scott, Cheniqua Dickens, and Hab Halbertson. Thank you to all of them.

Sean Powers is our Podcasting Director and MaryLynn 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.