May 11, 2010

May '70: 12. The Forgotten Dead [UPDATED]

There were six of them, gunned down by the armed force of the state.

I could be talking about the four students murdered at Kent State just seven days before plus the two who would would die later in the week at Jackson State.

But I’m not. I’m talking about six young Black men killed in Augusta, Georgia, 40 years ago tonight. Each was shot in the back by police shotguns, and their deaths were woven into the fabric of struggle and repression that was growing day by day in May, 1970.

Like many an urban rebellion in the ‘60s, it started with the cops. On May 9, Charles Oatman died in the Augusta city jail. He was 16 and mentally disabled. The police announced that he had died in a fall from his bunk. At the funeral home, his body was discovered to have fresh cigarette burns and bruises all over it. Open wounds from a whipping marred the corpse’s back. His skull was caved in. Changing their tune, the cops moved to charge his cellmates with murder.

On May 11, community activists who had been dealing with police brutality issues for a long time met with officials and left the meeting to find 500 furious community residents outside demanding action. A march was called on the spot and soon erupted into rock throwing and looting which went on into the evening.

The governor of Georgia, a foam-flecked racist named Lester Maddox, swung into action. He ordered out the state police to deal with the citizens he called “communists” and Black Panthers. He gave the cops orders to shoot to kill and even to raze “any building they’re in to its very foundation if necessary to get them out.” Maddox followed up by mobilizing 1,200 troops of the Georgia National Guard, who reached Augusta about 1:00 in the morning on the 12th.

By dawn on the 12th, the “Augusta riot” was over and over 80 people were wounded. Six young Black men were dead. None had been armed. All were hit in the back by shotgun blasts consistent with police riot guns.

Why do these ugly police murders belong in a series of articles about the campus uprising of 1970? To us, at the time, it was obvious. These kids were murdered just like the kids at Kent State. Augusta was, in fact, one of the last of the great urban rebellions against racism that shook the US to its foundations in the ‘60s. Those rebellions had helped form our understanding that of the oppression of African Americans was far broader and deeper than a question of Jim Crow segregation in the south. Around the country, leaflets and posters about the Augusta murders started to appear within hours.

Sure, the riot wasn’t on campus, but the folks in Augusta’s segregated inner city knew that colleges around the country were erupting in protests and had in one case been met with bullets. And how was the Guard able to mobilize so quickly, if they were not already on alert to deal with campus unrest?

But even our steps in solidarity with the Augusta rebellion wound up butting up against the ugly realities of life in a society built on, and shot through with, white supremacy and white privilege. If you went through the month of May in 1970, you will always have a visceral response to the names of Sandy Scheuer, Bill Schroeder, Alison Krause and Jeffrey Miller. You may even recall that Philip Gibbs and James Earl Green were the two slaughtered at Jackson State. I hope this piece has jogged your memory about Augusta.


When this was first written in 2010, I reported that I had been unable to find the names of the six whose lives were snatched from them by the Augusta cops forty years before. Then filmmaker Banks Pappas, who made an independent documentary on the Augusta uprising (see his trailer here) contacted me after reading the original version. Thanks to him, I offer for your respect and your remembrance: 
Mack  Wilson, Jr.
John (Johnnie) Stokes
William Wright, Jr.
Charlie Mack Murphy
Sammie Larry McCullough
John Bennings
They deserve to be recalled with the others as young people whose lives were taken in May '70, at one of the historic peaks of the long struggle to bring into being a better world...

Click here to read this series from the beginning.

Click here to read the next installment.


Unknown said...

In 1970 many of us leftists criticized the racism of the overwhelming media attention devoted to the Kent State murders vs. the much smaller coverage of the Jackson State murders, and I thought about that a lot recently during the national media coverage of the 40th anniversary, which was devoted exclusively to Kent State. But I have to admit that I had not remembered the Augusta events at all until this article reminded me.

Unknown said...

I am currently in the post production phase of a documentary concerning the events surrounding the riot which occurred on May 11th, 1970 in Augusta. Entitled "Stars and Bars Aflame: The Forgotten Story of the Augusta Riots" you can "like" the documentary and find information at the facebook page:

Tybee Tammie said...

I remember these riots very plainly from the other side of the fence. I still have reoccurring nightmares of (real) black panthers b/c of this incident. I was 6 yrs old and my grandmothers both lived in Nellieville on Hollis Rd. which is an area bordering downtown Augusta. My father went armed to rescue them after work in the dark. My parents were raised in that area and my father knew many of the black families that lived there as well. They were also frightened and helped get my family out of the neighborhood.
White flight took place shortly after that from that area. It was a quaint and wonderfully diverse neighborhood before May 1970. You should see it now. =/