In 1902, a historian wrote: "There has never been a race riot in Atlanta. The white man and the negro have lived together in this city more peacefully and in better spirit than in any other city, in either the North or South." For many whites as well as blacks, Atlanta seemed to be the least likely place for a race riot at the turn of the century. Atlanta was a model city of the new South. Its economy was booming. Black businesses were springing up. There were jobs for working men and women. At the center of its cultural life were the six black colleges. The colleges, and the churches, provided much of the intellectual leadership for the black community. The dominating figure was the aristocratic scholar Dr. W.E.B. DuBois of Atlanta University. African-American women were also quite active in Atlanta. Many joined women's clubs, most of which were affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women, the dominant black women's organization in America. Women took it upon themselves to provide community services to poor blacks, and to instill in them middle class standards and values. The men's organizations invested their energy into building social and fraternal organizations that worked for community betterment.
But despite the accomplishments of the black community, Atlanta remained one of the most segregated cities in the South. Race relations, always tense beneath the surface, seriously deteriorated in 1905 and 1906. A Thomas Dixon play called "The Clansman" glorified the Ku Klux Klan and denigrated blacks, exacerbating racial tensions in 1905. Racial hostility was intensified the next year during a race-baiting political campaign for governor. The local press contributed to the climate by publishing a number of articles claiming that black men had sexually assaulted white women. Almost all of the reports were false. By September, many felt that a race riot would soon explode. On Saturday, September 22, white crowds along Decatur Street, many of them drunk and inflamed by the headlines, began to gather. Someone shouted, "Kill the niggers," and soon the cry was running along the crowded streets. Some 10,000 men and boys in the mob began to search for African Americans. Whenever the whites would see one, someone would cry, "There is one of the black fiends"; minutes later, the "fiend" would be dead or beaten senseless.
Among the many victims, a disabled man was chased down and beaten to death. The mob rampaged for several days before the militia restored order. Officially, 25 blacks and one white died. Unofficially, over 100 may have died. After the riots whites tried to be somewhat conciliatory, winning the praise of Booker T. Washington. But the fact that a riot had occurred in a city that he had described as a model for racial harmony weakened his moral authority.
--adapted from the website The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow
MARK BAUERLEIN Atlanta was considered the most progressive city in the South. And what they could point to was concrete evidence. More Negro colleges than any other city in the United States. More African American publications than almost any other city in the United States.
JUNE DOBBS BUTTS And people took real pride in the accomplishments of black people. It made us feel vindicated, and validated. My dad was so proud. He had visitors come to our home, he would take them on a tour of all of the schools, drive through the neighborhoods. So and so built that house. And he would show them how blacks lived in Atlanta.
LEROY DAVIS Booker T. Washington more or less took a few success stories and tried to use that to show that, in fact African Americans, if you played by the rules that I’ve established, that in fact, you too could be successful. That was of course not the reality.
NARRATOR The reality was that Atlanta was the one of the most racially segregated city in the South.
MARK BAUERLEIN W. E. B. Dubois is one of the most intelligent, eloquent figures in the country. If he has an appointment with an attorney in the Candler Building...he can’t just go in and get in the elevator. He has to wait for the freight elevator or...or walk up the stairs. The white elevator operator is not going to take him upstairs.
MARK BAUERLEIN So, that’s a place where Dubois leaves the affluent black community, goes into the white community and has to respect forms of segregation, of Jim Crow hierarchy where his affluence, his intelligence, his education means nothing.
NARRATOR Racial tensions were intensified when Thomas Dixon’s play, the Clansman, arrives in Atlanta.
MARK BAUERLEIN Dixon’s play presented in stark contrast the two strongest images in the South at this time. One image is of the innocent, virginal, defenseless, eighteen year old, Anglo Saxon female. The other is the dark-skinned, leering, lustful, criminal, degenerate black man. And the latter is preying upon the former. And for him there was only solution the Klansmen.
NARRATOR The play glorified the Ku Klux Klan and denigrated blacks. Throughout the week of September 17th, the press began to publish incidents of alleged rape, almost all of which later proved to be false. By Saturday the 22, white tempers were at boiling point.
MARK BAUERLEIN The streets were swelling with people. Extras were flooding the streets corners, "Second Assault. Third Assault." At one point, a man got up on a box and started delivering a speech. "We got to do something to protect our white women." Packs of white men and boys began rushing from the train station, from the hotel lobbies, from the theaters to the spot. You had by now five thousand people there in that one spot. The cries of revenge, anger, of white retaliation against blacks increased.
MARK BAUERLEIN A black messenger boy rides by on a bicycle. Someone knocks him down. He gets up and tries to defend himself and ten people swarm in on him beat him senseless, leave him bleeding in the gutter. This openly excites greater blood lust. So the mob begins to spread out...packs of 200, 100 begin marching up and down the alleyways trying to find black stragglers, black men working in the shops, dragging them outside and beating them.
MARK BAUERLEIN Streetcars bringing blacks into the city, mobs surround the car. If a black didn’t fight back, he was usually knocked down, kicked around and usually left alone. If he fought back, he was dead.
MARK BAUERLEIN This was downtown Atlanta. This was a few blocks from the police station; the state capital is just a few blocks up on the hill. The governor is up there.
NARRATOR As the mob rampaged, 13 year-old Walter White and his postman father, who were often mistaken for Caucasian, were driving through downtown Atlanta. Their fair complexion allowed White and his father to safely pass through the rioters. Later White recalled how they prepared to defend their home as the mob approached.
WALTER WHITE (ACTOR) In a voice as quiet as if He was asking me to pass the sugar, my father said, "Son, don't shoot until the first man puts his foot on the lawn and then- don't you miss!" In that instant there opened up in me a great awareness. I knew then who I was. I was a negro, a person to be hunted, hanged, abused, discriminated against, kept in poverty and ignorance. It made no difference how intelligent, or talented, my millions of brothers and I were nor how virtuously we lived. A curse like that of Judas was on us.
NARRATOR Walter White’s experience would lead him to become one of the foremost civil rights leaders in America.
NARRATOR The militia finally arrived to end the riot and restore order.
MARK BAUERLEIN After the riot Washington came to the city and He tried to find a silver lining in what had happened. But in truth, this time Washington’s conciliatory attitude just didn’t hold water for many people.
MARK BAUERLAIN This was Atlanta. This was supposedly the experiment that would prove what you projected in terms of racial uplift. We would cooperate with the white community. We wouldn’t agitate too much politically. We wouldn’t demand the vote too much. We would try to follow a good Protestant work ethic, buy a little property and gain a little capital. We did that in Atlanta and look what happened this time.
NARRATOR The riot reinforced Du Bois's growing resolve to exchange his scholar’s life for an agitator's.
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