I’ve lived in metro Atlanta for nearly 20 years, and I can attest that every Atlantan can tell you that the city was burned to the ground during the Civil War. What they won’t tell you–indeed, what they probably don’t even know–is that during four days in 1906 Atlanta nearly tore itself apart.
The Atlanta Race Riot is a painful chapter in Georgia history, and the subject of Rage in the Gate City (revised ed. pub. by The Univ. of Georgia Press, Jul 2009, 214 pp trade ppb, $19.95) , a book by Rebecca Burns (editor in chief of Atlanta Magazine). It’s a strange story in which several prominent Americans of the early 20th century make cameo appearances, including William Jennings Bryan and civil rights icons W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.
So what exactly happened? Black journalist Max Barber offered this terse summary soon after the chaos ended: “Sensationalist newspapers and unscrupulous politicians.”
Southern whites of the era were psychotically touchy–to a point that makes the Taliban look like libertines by comparison–about the danger to the virtue of their women-folk. And that danger took exactly one form: the mythical black male libido. Nothing whipped post-Reconstruction whites into a more rabid froth than the idea of “Negroes” laying hands on their wives and daughters.
Both newspaper publishers and politicians were more than happy to exploit this phobia. Politicians routinely connected black enfranchisement with the specter of race-mixing: give blacks the vote, the argument went, and the next thing you know they’ll debauch our women. Rebecca Latimer Felton, wife of politician William Felton and an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, openly declared, “If it takes lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week.” White-run newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, openly called for a return of the Ku Klux Klan and published sensational (and usually bogus) accounts of “outrages” against white women. I say “usually” since, unfortunately, the occasional black-on-white rape did occur. Equally unfortunate is that the white populace thought much along the lines of Latimer Felton–a black man merely accused of raping a white woman almost always ended up a victim of a lynch mob.
Atlanta’s black leadership–mostly ministers of prominent churches, but also business leaders and officials with the city’s pioneering black universities–were powerless to avert disaster. First, it was flatly impossible for them to control the actions of every single black man in the metro area; second, their voices of reason could not compete with the shrill calls for blood published daily in the white newspapers.
And so…for four days white mobs roamed the streets of the city, intent on seeking vengeance against any black they could find–never mind the police, and never mind due process. In the end, countless black businesses were destroyed, and at least 25 people killed (only two of which were white). The riot made international headlines, and tainted Atlanta’s reputation as the comparatively progressive heart of the New South.
The legacy of the Atlanta Race Riot is a mixed one. It rankled blacks that their community continued to be blamed–falsely–for inciting the violence. (And it’s telling that the majority of the black leadership looking to avert trouble were clergy, while white interests were represented mostly by businessmen. Rage in the Gate City names no white clergy who put their necks on the line.) Eleven years after the Race Riot, another lynch mob murdered Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman falsely accused of the rape and murder of teenager Mary Phagan.
Still, Atlanta was at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, and was dubbed (with unintentional irony) “the city too busy to hate” by Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. Today, while Atlantans of all races work side-by-side, they live and play in self-imposed segregation. (Burns claims that modern Atlantans “refer to “the ‘eighty/twenty’ rule, meaning that most people, especially whites, prefer a group to be eighty percent formed of their own race, and leave when the numbers from other racial groups represent more than a fifth.” This may be an observable rule-of-thumb; nonetheless, in my two decades in Atlanta I have never heard a single person talk about this eighty/twenty rule.)
Also observable is that racial politics is the elephant in the room when it comes to local government, something that probably won’t go away for the foreseeable future–but there is hope, since Atlanta is increasingly becoming a city of Yankees. I don’t have handy demographics on-hand, but I don’t think it’s disputable that the majority of people in the metro area were not born here. This trend–together with the fact that, in the age of the internet, citizens are less culturally bound by region–can only make Atlanta more cosmopolitan. Right?