The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906: Why it matters 107 years later

By Jamil Zainaldin

A horrific event in Atlanta’s past changed the course of civil and human rights in the United States.

On September 22, 1906, whites began rampaging through Atlanta’s downtown streets and continued for three days.

When it was over, as many as 25 to 40 African Americans were dead, while only two whites died, one of whom was a woman who died of a heart attack after seeing the mob outside her home. The incident made national and even international headlines.

The riot was largely unknown and unremembered in Atlanta’s public mind by whites in later years, though many African Americans whose family histories in the city extend at least two or three generations vividly recalled the Atlanta race riot.

What provoked the riot? According to New Georgia Encyclopedia authors Gregory Mixon and Clifford Kuhn, racial tensions had been building in Atlanta. Some whites resented the wealth of industrious black citizens working and running their businesses in and near the business district, while job competition also played a role. Rival newspapers were vying to see which could print the most sensational accusations of alleged assaults of white women by black males.

The saloons that lined downtown’s Decatur Street, where blacks and whites mingled, concerned many Atlantans. Both candidates in the bitter governor’s race of 1906 further appealed to racial fears and manipulated racial images, proposing the removal of black males entirely from electoral politics.

What particularly upset Atlanta’s white citizens was the fear that the city’s segregation and separation of the races was breaking down.

Though we do not know what actually ignited the riot that Saturday in September, we can be sure that the rival papers created an atmosphere of tension in which rumors played a role. When the riot erupted, mobs of whites roamed the city’s downtown streets, destroying black property, beating and shooting blacks, and even pulling them off streetcars to do so.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, and with the help of a ferocious storm, the state militia arrived and restored order, though white mobs continued to terrorize parts of the city for the next two days.

Many peoples’ lives were forever changed by witnessing these events. For both Walter White, then 13 years of age, and W. E. B. Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University, the riot became a defining moment.

What White witnessed, standing in the window of his family’s downtown home, frightened and horrified him. Du Bois secured himself and his wife in their apartment and later did what was completely out of character for him: he purchased a gun that he fully expected to use if his family was threatened. After the riot, Du Bois penned a poem, “The Litany of Atlanta,” a searing and powerful statement.

The riot convinced Du Bois that the best protection for African Americans in the South as well as the North was an organization dedicated to promoting social justice and protection of legal rights. He helped found the NAACP in 1909. Walter White, who did not know Du Bois at the time, later attended Atlanta University and, after graduating, was recruited by the NAACP in 1918 to work in their New York office. Du Bois at the time worked as the founding editor of the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis.

What they both had in common was the 1906 riot.

In 1929 White became secretary of the NAACP, and in that capacity later hired Thurgood Marshall for its legal staff. Marshall and White formulated a legal strategy that culminated in Marshall’s argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954). That decision declared segregation unconstitutional and helped lay the foundation for the rise of the modern civil rights movement.

When these events are retraced—from Brown v. Board of Education to Marshall, to White, and to Du Bois and the founding of the NAACP—they point back to that Atlanta moment of 1906, the galvanizing event that led White, and that pushed Du Bois, into their leadership roles in the advocacy for civil rights. The United States and by extension, human rights, were changed forever.

This article appeared in an earlier form as part of “Jamil’s Georgia” on the SaportaReport.

Jamil Zainaldin is the president of Georgia Humanities.

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