On September 22, 1906—106 years ago today—Atlanta, Georgia, dissolved into horrifying and unrestrained violence which after a few days would leave dozens of African Americans dead and many more wounded.
Although Atlanta had developed a reputation for relative racial harmony, extensive population growth over the previous two decades led to competition and tension between whites and African Americans. White supremacists instituted Jim Crow laws to keep the races segregated both in public accommodations and in residential neighborhoods.
As publicity abounded in the months leading up to the 1906 gubernatorial election, racial tensions flared between those advocating African American disfranchisement and those pushing for equality. White supremacists used the media as a vehicle of racial hatred, spreading lies about African Americans—especially rumors about African American violence against whites.
Thus it perhaps was not surprising that after rumors raged of four alleged sexual assaults by African American men on white women, white mobs hit the streets on the night of September 22, beating hundreds of African Americans and destroying their businesses.
State militia and police officers were called in, but were not immediately effective at quelling the violence. African Americans were forced to defend their homes and businesses, and many innocent African American individuals were killed.
On September 24, when police officers learned of a meeting of African Americans in a town just outside Atlanta, they raided the meeting, claiming fear of a counterattack. A shootout resulted in the death of one police officer; heavily armed militia arrested hundreds of African Americans.
Fearing the destruction of the city’s formerly positive reputation, local officials and public figures called for an end to the riot, beginning a dialogue with African American elites.
Estimates show that as many as 10,000 whites rioted against African Americans, leaving at least 25 African Americans dead—but most likely many more than that. The biracial meetings that developed as a result of the riot served as a model for white-African American relations.
Discussed in middle and high schools, the riot stands today—more than a century later—as a bitter reminder of the racial hostility and violence African Americans faced for decades.
This article from the Atlanta Constitution demonstrates the blame white supremacists placed on African Americans. This New York Times article discusses the aftermath of the riot, stating that militia disarmed African Americans (most of whom, presumably, were armed simply to protect themselves and their families from white mob violence).
To learn more, check out David Godshalk’s Veiled Visions: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations (UNC Press 2005), Gregory Mixon’s The Atlanta Riot: Race, Class, and Violence in a New South City (University Press of Florida 2005), and Rebecca Burns’ Rage in the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot (University of Georgia Press 2009).
To learn more about Atlanta’s race relations, check out Ronald Bayor’s Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta (UNC Press 1996).
Walter White, who would serve as NAACP secretary for more than two decades, witnessed the riot as a 13-year-old child. He described the riot in his autobiography, A Man Called White. To learn more about White, check out Kenneth Janken’s Walter White: Mr. NAACP (UNC Press 2006).