Atlanta, Georgia 2021-01-12 20:24:28 –
Like millions around the world, I watched in horror on January 6 as a horde stormed the U.S. Capitol, smashing windows and surging into the building as they screamed in rage.
The scenes were appalling because of what they represented: a literal and direct attack on the core of American democracy. But as news anchors described the scene as “unimaginable,” I realized the surge of enraged violence was a scene I’d spent months imagining and have mentally revisited over the past 15 years. I researched and wrote about a gruesome chapter in Atlanta’s history—the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot—during which 5,000 white men and boys rampaged through downtown Atlanta, destroying Black businesses and homes and killing Black Atlantans at work, on streets, and in the streetcars.
In the process of writing the book, I found it almost impossible to visualize the horror. To piece together the events, I relied on newspaper accounts, reports, diaries, snippets of oral history, and the limited existing visual depictions—front-page illustrations from French newspapers and a few grainy photos. I wrote about the “roar of the mob” as white men and boys “swarmed” down Houston Street. Sitting in my living room and watching an insurrectionist, virtually all-white mob roar and swarm through the halls of the Capitol, it felt as though the events from 115 years ago were being broadcast on BBC and CNN.
In the aftermath of the insurrectionist violence in Washington, D.C. we have heard politicians and commentators say, “This is not who we are.” But—I’m hardly the first to point this out—violence entwined with white supremacy has been a constant since the first Europeans arrived on this continent.
To take just one example out of four centuries, here’s a recap of what happened in Atlanta in September 1906, when political posturing, racist attitudes, and false narratives sparked an outburst of deadly violence.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Atlanta bustled. In the “Gate City of the New South,” railways boomed, Coca-Cola flowed, and skyscrapers rose along Peachtree Street. In the face of great obstacles presented by Jim Crow oppression, a strong Black working and middle class emerged, anchored by the Atlanta University Center, progressive churches, and entrepreneurs such as Alonzo Herndon, founder of Atlanta Life Insurance.
During the vicious 1906 gubernatorial race, Hoke Smith, former publisher of the Atlanta Journal, campaigned against Clark Howell, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Aligned with populist Tom Watson, Smith made Black disenfranchisement the cornerstone of his platform, trading ugly campaign tropes and telling white voters that granting Black men equal access to the ballot box would amount to giving them permission to have their way with white women. Local newspapers fanned the inflammatory campaign messaging with lurid—and fabricated—accounts of rape and assault and praise for lynch mobs.
Things came to a head on the evening of September 22, 1906, when Atlanta newspapers distributed extra editions falsely claiming four assaults on white women by Black men had taken place that day. In response, white men and boys went on an hours-long deadly rampage. One Black man was stabbed with broken glass bottles in front of the Piedmont Hotel. A Black woman, Mattie Adams, was bludgeoned in her Peters Street restaurant by a rioter wielding a wagon-wheel spoke while another rioter fired shots at her young grandson. Western Union messenger Frank Smith was stoned to death, his body then tossed from the Forsyth Street viaduct. One hardware shop sold 1,600 guns that night, and rioters shot Black barbers at point-blank range as they worked. Black passengers were beaten to death in the streetcars. Police stood by; some officers even joined in the melee.
Over the next three days, white rioters made forays into Black communities. In response, the governor deployed the state militia—with orders to protect white Atlantans against possible retaliation. By the end of the riot, at least 25 Black Atlantans had been killed and hundreds of homes and businesses damaged. Two white people died; a police officer and a woman who had a heart attack witnessing the violence.
Attempting to imagine the violence that played out across Atlanta in 1906, I could only visualize the mob as a unit. Historical research let me track the movement of men and boys through Atlanta’s streets and on its streetcar lines, but could not reveal individual faces within those crowds, as some actively engaged in violence and others cheered as spectators. When rioters stormed the Capitol, some attacked officers and destroyed property as others took selfies and gawked at the spectacle. But, individual faces were contorted by rage.
I used the word “rage” in the title of my book about the Atlanta riot as an attempt to capture the senseless and violent actions of the mob and the rhetoric that fueled them. The ostensible cause of the riot was protest over claims of assault, but the deeper causes were resentment over Black economic and educational success and growing power at the ballot box. These people were not angry—anger can be inspired by righteousness. Rage is uncontrolled lashing out at a perceived injustice. The mob in Atlanta acted out of grievances fueled by false claims from politicians and media. So did the mob in Washington D.C.
This is Atlanta. This is Georgia. This is America.
The Atlanta Race Riot was hardly a unique event. In 1898, a white mob toppled the biracial government of Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1921, whites destroyed “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (My wager is that far more Americans learned about that event from the Watchmen TV series than from history books.)
In those historic events, white Americans acted to claim what they considered rightfully theirs based on the belief in white supremacy. Today, when white politicians and their followers talk about “taking our country back,” or “fighting to save America,” they are talking about preserving that same white status quo.
In a 1906 speech after securing the gubernatorial nomination, Hoke Smith vowed: “The white voters of Georgia are to be given the fullest opportunity to rule in the state and to express their wishes at the ballot box.”
After winning the election, Smith pushed for—and eventually secured—an amendment to the Georgia constitution that effectively disenfranchised Black voters. Over the past century, voting restrictions have continued in Georgia elections. The recent runoffs were the result of a later Georgia law intentionally designed to thwart Black candidates, demanding that a candidate win 50-percent-plus of the vote rather than a simple majority to ensure a Black candidate would not beat out a crowded field of white contenders.
It is no coincidence that along with Trump banners, this week’s mob carried the banner of the Confederacy. Their targets on January 6 were mostly white politicians, but the anger that grew over the past years and escalated in the two months following the election was fueled by racially charged rhetoric and fostering grievances. It is no coincidence that in call after call to Georgia election officials, President Donald Trump fixated on votes in majority Black counties in our state. False statements by Trump and his allies fueled the rage we saw at the Capitol, just as the false extra editions of newspapers fueled the violent outburst at Five Points in 1906.
From his original “birther” claims about President Obama’s citizenship status to his description of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” to his refusal to condemn the Proud Boys, Trump’s political career has been overshadowed by racism. This was enabled by his supporters and, for at least the first half of his presidency, mainstream media that defaulted to euphemism. It allowed xenophobic politicians, including QAnon-supporting and newly elected Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor-Greene, to enter the mainstream. And it normalized episodes such as Senator David Perdue mocking Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s name on the campaign trail and Senator Kelly Loeffler describing Black Lives Matter as Marxist.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Black officers described enduring racist abuse from the rioters in the Capitol; one recalls being called the n-word 15 times. Another described the jarring offense of seeing a white officer taking selfies with the insurrectionists.
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In the aftermath of the Atlanta riot, the city’s PR machinery went into overdrive. The official report was produced by the Chamber of Commerce. When I started working on the book in 2005, the riot did not appear on the Atlanta History Center’s timeline of key events. Over the years I have spoken with many native Atlantans and longtime residents who had never heard of it.
In the weeks following the riot, white civic leaders met with Black business owners and pastors to form a biracial coalition to prevent future violence. This was one of the seeds that contributed to Atlanta’s eventual “Too Busy to Hate” mantra. The coalition members also, however, reinforced segregation in the city across lines of both race and class.
The riot galvanized activism among Black leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, the Atlanta University professor, and John Wesley Dobbs, the U.S. railway postal clerk, who both stood guard, armed, in protection of their young families in the ongoing days of the riot. Dobbs would become a voting rights activist and his grandson, Maynard Jackson, would be elected Atlanta’s first Black mayor in 1973. Du Bois was a founder of the NAACP, which would be led by Walter White, who as a teenager had been caught in the middle of the riot’s outbreak.
For a few hours on January 6, the top story was the historic election of Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and the first Black Georgian elected to the U.S. Senate. Later that day, Jon Ossoff’s victory would be declared, making him the state’s first Jewish Senator. But by then, these groundbreaking victories in Georgia were overshadowed by the violence in Washington D.C.
In the days since the storming of the U.S. Capitol, politicians who had gone along with Trump’s false claims of a victory and enabled his spurious insistence that voter fraud led to his election loss, had decried the violence and urged Americans to move on, or remained silent.
In these non-responses, I keep hearing echoes of the official report on the Atlanta riot, which claimed that the mob was comprised entirely of “the tougher element” of the city’s white residents. The same narrative persisted in newspaper accounts; Atlanta’s white-owned newspapers decried the violence but blamed Blacks for causing it and lower-class whites for carrying it out. The New York Times called the event a case of “lynching fever” and, like other papers across the country, perpetuated the narrative spun by white Atlanta press.
Max Barber, the editor of The Voice of the Negro, countered that view. In a report published under the byline “A Colored Citizen,” in the New York World shortly after the riot, he asserted that followers of Hoke Smith had been complicit in staging some of the reported assaults and concluded: “The source of the riot: Sensational newspapers and unscrupulous politicians.”
Threatened, Barber left Atlanta and relaunched his paper in Chicago as The Voice. In November 1906, he published his account of the events and white Atlanta’s response to the riot. “Again we have a city that struts before the world as the liberal gateway of a great section, but is really the same old Atlanta steeped in the foul odors of antebellum traditions and held firmly in the remorseless clutch of a vile and unreasonable race prejudice. The white man’s attitude toward the negro still has in it a mixture of a fine conceit of superiority.”
Over the coming days and weeks, we will continue to see politicians who enabled Trump, even to the extent of trying to overthrow a fair election in Congress, try to distance themselves from what happened. We will witness efforts to create false equivalencies between racial justice protests and the violent display of the Confederate flag in the Capitol. We will hear calls to move on. But that implies, like the glossing over of the events in Atlanta, Wilmington, and Tulsa, a suppression of the outrage and horror we have witnessed. History, as the saying goes and the facts reveal, repeats itself.
This is our shared history. This is American history.
Often I am asked if, as a white writer, I even have the right to document the events in 1906, which, like so much of American history, consisted of white people doing horrible things in the interest of maintaining their dominance. The Atlanta Race Riot is a chapter in the shared history of the city as a whole. And white people are the ones who need to learn from it—and learn from what’s happening today. We need to own our history—all of it.
We don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming days in Washington or across the country. There is a chance that, just as the Atlanta Riot continued over several days, we will see more instances of violence. What we do know is that calls to “move on” would enable the temptation to consign this horrible chapter to the history books too soon.
Rebecca Burns is the author of Rage in the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot (University of Georgia Press) and the former editor-in-chief of Atlanta magazine. She lives in Athens, Georgia.