An Analysis of the Atlanta Race Riot

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This paper analyzes and explores the cause of the Atlanta Riot and how it contributed to forming coalition sponsored activities meant to restore the memory of the Atlanta Race Riot and move toward reconciliation that includes: an exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site gallery, curriculum material about the riot in various school areas, artistic expressions and a community-centered symposium sponsored by local colleges and universities.


Competition in every angle of life produces winners and losers. Atlanta’s economic status changed dramatically from an agrarian to an industrialized economy during 1906. Atlanta was a leading city, a financial center, a railroad center, and a part of the New South. Political leaders perceived it as an industrial center that would compete with the Northeast. These Southern leaders saw Atlanta have economic resources that the North did not have. This meant cheap land, but it also meant a large, compliant labor pool. Compliant meaning blacks are part of a labor pool that is part of caste society and they occupy the bottom caste. While in the North, there are labor riots, progressive organizers, union agitation, and leftist groups trying to activate labor as a movement contrary to the South were not as much labor demonstration occurs, because of the history of slavery (Bauerlein, 2006).

Atlanta newspapers alleged that black men were assaulting white women. The charges were untrue, but the reports nonetheless set off the Atlanta race riot of 1906.

During the summer of 1906, white fears of African Americans’ escalating economic and social power, sensationalized claims from white politicians, and unproven news stories about a black crime wave created a boom of racial tension in Atlanta. On Saturday, 22 September 1906, thousands of white men initiated a brutal attack against African Americans in downtown Atlanta. By dawn, at least twenty blacks lay dead and hundreds more had been seriously injured. When violence returned to Atlanta on Sunday and Monday, what began as a racial massacre escalated into a racial war. On both nights, armed blacks successfully defended their neighborhoods from attacks by whites—first in Dark Town, a working-class neighborhood near the city’s center, and then in Brownsville, a middle-class settlement south of the city. On Tuesday, whites, reinforced by three state militia companies, reentered Brownsville, beating, threatening, and arresting many of its male residents. Both white and black elites feared an escalating spiral of white attacks and black counterattacks.

The riot broke out in the Five Points area of Atlanta, the heart of the city. Today, Five Points is the center of a bustling downtown area, with high-rise office buildings and banks. Even then, Atlanta was considered the capital of the New South. People came from farms in search of better jobs and a better life. Many were poor and many were black, adding to racial and class tensions.

The roots of the riot, however, go far deeper than the unproven newspaper stories. Atlanta’s population was exploding. Black residents have a growing presence – and growing economic clout. The black working class and the elite did not get along. Those tensions were brought to a boil in the summer of 1906, as rival gubernatorial candidates made the race a central issue of the campaign (Lohr, 2007).

Atlanta had the largest black middle-class in America. There were also a few wealthy black Atlantans. The mob trashed it all – they went after businesses and barbershops and shot the barbers down. They were not after just the itinerant figures, they went after nice houses, even invaded some of the universities. Atlanta had the largest concentration of black colleges in the world, a large group of black intellectuals.

White Atlantans degrade blacks treating them as an inferior race but can improve through their guidance and examples. Some avoid blacks and sees them as fundamentally vicious, prone to vice, lustful, irresponsible, immoral, and dangerous animals. Negrophobes think the black man cannot be improved but can be controlled – bringing the idea of a chain gang, a system that imprisons wandering black men off the streets, forcing them to work for the state like build roads and other work holding them in bondage.

Over the years, the collective public memory of this act of terrorism has faded, but fears that arose from that violence have continued and have fed the racial attitudes that segregate our city.

In addition to killing, blacks faced intimidation designed to prevent them from voting. The Ku Klux Klan often played major roles in political campaigns by using violence and fear to prevent blacks from voting. Blacks were also the targets of politically motivated race riots, in which whites invaded black neighborhoods. Mobs in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), and Atlanta, Georgia (1906), killed or injured scores of blacks as a warning not to vote before disfranchisement laws were passed. After the riots, blacks ceased to be politically active in these two states. Riots in the North took their toll as well. A 1908 riot in Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abraham Lincoln, particularly shocked the nation (Finkelman, 2007).

Atlanta Riot Issues

It had a lot to do with mob psychology. People might have gone into it for different reasons. A guy who lost his job and sees black waiters working in a nice restaurant, a guy whose girlfriend left him for another man, and somehow a racial issue got mixed up with that, or a guy whose father depends on him because the man lost a leg at Shiloh, blaming slaves and not the North for the Civil War. Any number of forms of resentment can build up and get attached to a scapegoat.


Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site brings to life Atlanta Race Riot through an exhibition that opened last September 21, 2006.

The riot occupies only half of the limited gallery space. Much of the narrative is told in text panels and blown-up news coverage due to the scarcity of substantial reminders and artifacts. The exhibit displays a single-barrel shotgun purchased for $5 in 1906 by Bud Woody, a white farmer in Gilmer County. According to the story passed down in his family, the gun had been part of a shipment of weapons hidden in caskets on a train bound for Atlanta “during the time of the troubles with the Negroes (Auchmutey, 2006).”

Weeks before the riot, blacks in Atlanta secretly prepare weapons to guard themselves against white’s attacks.

At the closing stages, the exhibition tries to explain the riot’s double-edged legacy.

After 1906 in Atlanta apartheid and segregation grew more as blacks withdrew into the safety of their community, most notably Auburn Avenue. However, the riot marks the introduction of the city’s first interracial forums were white and black leaders negotiate to make sure the city never again erupted in racial fighting. Though it was an unfair arrangement which favors the white, it was the beginning and caused long-range repercussions.

The Riot and its repercussions

One repercussion for the city was to create safety measures to make sure a riot would never happen again: visits by city leaders to black congregations promising more protection; the censure of the most sensationalistic newspaper, the Atlanta Evening News; committees of white and black leaders that met regularly to discuss race relations. These measures enabled Atlanta to make the race issue go largely underground. The activist black intellectuals were too demoralized or fearful legitimately so to rouse much further protest.

The product of the riot is the start of the decline of Booker T. Washington’s vision of “go slowly” way of accommodation. In a few years, the NAACP would be formed, black activism would gravitate northward and Washington’s influence would decline.

Successful defensive measures by blacks and international denunciation persuaded leading whites that interracial dialogue offered the only way out of a bloody standoff and public relations humiliation. Previous southern racial massacres had provoked relatively little soul searching among powerful whites. In 1898, for example, many white North Carolina Democrats had gloried in their success at killing at least twenty African Americans in Wilmington as part of a larger campaign to crush an insurgent Republican-Populist coalition. But in Atlanta, white business and religious leaders enlisted the aid of black collaborators in hopes of resolving a short-term crisis and permanently increasing their power over a divided city. White elites sought to establish controls not simply over “disorderly” blacks but also over the city’s rapidly growing white working-class population, which was widely blamed for the eruption of the riot.

The riot’s destructiveness and these white overtures provoked a rising generation of self-styled New Black Men to reconsider their racial loyalties and masculine identities. Years before 1906, this strong group of college educators and most professionals hailed fellow Atlantan W. E. B. Du Bois. Their elitist ideals, similarly to Du Bois paralleled black masculinity with intellectual accomplishment and a courageous enthusiasm to speak out against racial injustice even when facing white threats and adversity. The heroic roles of middle-class black men in protecting black residential areas during the riot led some New Black Men to question their class prejudices. But white-imposed conditions for interracial negotiation included black denunciations of defensive violence. Black elites could seize the enhanced physical safety and public influence promised by biracial cooperation only if they forswore direct protest and turned their backs on their newly found working-class allies.

The responses of New Black Men to these dilemmas differ widely. Led by Henry Hugh Proctor of First Congregational Church of Atlanta, many shunned public militancy and outwardly embraced visions of order articulated by the white elite. In turn, white civic and business leaders promised to prevent renewed white racial violence, they selectively funded the institution-building efforts of accommodative blacks, and they presented a small group of black elites a nominal influence over municipal affairs. Other blacks, most notably the women-led Neighborhood Union (NU), worked to preserve black visions of full racial equality and to revive the sense of collective black unity so evident during the three days of rioting. A new social and racial order gradually emerged from these post-riot developments. Memories of the riot haunted Atlanta’s politics and public life throughout the twentieth century, influencing everything from Leo Frank’s famous 1913 trial to the distinctive twentieth-century evolution of the city’s civil rights movements.

These local struggles quickly became entangled with America’s broader political and racial debates. Published reports of the riot jolted black and white national audiences. The white mob’s brutality aroused black fears of racial genocide. The successful black counterattacks fueled disputes among African Americans over the wisdom of defensive violence. Among many northern whites, newspaper descriptions of “uncivilized” white mobs battling “savage” black criminals conjured up the specter of a coming race war engulfing the entire South.

No individual had more to lose from these national riot stories than did Booker T. Washington, the era’s most powerful African American. Washington immediately grasped that the mob’s violence against middle-class, clearly law-abiding African Americans called into question many of his public declarations. Particularly untenable became his argument that white southerners recognized their financial and moral stake in rewarding black progress and protecting African Americans from racial violence. Protests and federal intervention, he maintained, were therefore unnecessary and even counterproductive. Washington harnessed Atlanta’s interracial movements in defense of his besieged racial program. Du Bois, the leading black critic of Washington’s accommodative stance, braved local white threats in hopes of exposing his city’s lingering racial injustices and confirming the need for continuing civil rights agitation. But white intimidation and promises of interracial cooperation silenced many of his local black allies (Godshalk, 2005).

In the long run, Washington’s refusal to rework his philosophy in the riot’s aftermath further isolated him from both national white racial progressives and all but his most loyal black supporters. The emergent radicalization of these groups enabled the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 as a national civil rights organization. While these national debates helped spawn the NAACP, Atlanta’s interracial movements ultimately served as a model for the far more conservative Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC), described by one historian as “just about the only Southern organization with any influence or effectiveness at all in opposing racial violence” during the 1920s.

Echoes of the Atlanta riot are manifested in the writings and racial programs of countless other national figures who continue to influence American conceptions of race and the South. National Progressive commentators, including leading white muckraker Ray Stannard Baker, studied Atlanta’s interracial experiments in hopes of discovering lessons for other cities attempting to sort out similar urban problems. Baker’s findings laid the basis for his 1908 Following the Color Line, one of the early twentieth century’s most influential studies of race relations. Black Atlantan Walter White, dubbed “Mr. NAACP” for his role in guiding the civil rights organization between the 1930s and 1950s, traced his racial awakening at age thirteen to the riot and grounded his civil rights program on lessons learned in Atlanta. Margaret Mitchell’s childhood fears of black retaliatory attacks during the riot helped inspire Gone with the Wind’s vivid descriptions of black rapists and criminals. In a 1980 autobiography, Martin Luther King Sr. recounted the riot and the tradition of interracial cooperation that it had helped spark. King’s famous namesake son announced, just before his 1968 assassination, the possibility of protests against the unseemly underside of Atlanta’s riot-influenced framework for addressing racial conflict.


This study, like many other studies of southern racial violence, examines the origins of the Atlanta massacre and the striking disputes between blacks and whites during its unfolding. Influenced by scholars’ growing interest in historical memory and racial settlement, this also explores the comprehensive analysis of the local and national repercussions of the 1906 riot. Atlanta’s long-drawn-out struggles allow us to pinpoint the concrete ways in which the memories and representations of an individual race riot helped reshape a city and a nation—culturally, politically, and socially. So, too, do Atlanta’s experiences offer an unparalleled opportunity to heed scholars’ clamor for historical studies that analyze the political and social interplay among a broad spectrum of black and white groups—businesspersons and workers, men and women, civic leaders, and social outcasts—whose interactions are only beginning to be interwoven into an artificial narrative. Approached from this perspective, Atlanta’s history underscores the potential instability of Jim Crow social identities, the multiplicity of intraracial divisions among both blacks and whites, the potentially far-reaching consequences of highly localized struggles, and the numerous opportunities for social change, even at the nadir of American race relations.

To understand the riot and its repercussions, we must also recognize that local and national developments are not distinct phenomena that intersect only intermittently. In Atlanta, these levels crisscrossed and overlapped one another at so many points that they became nearly indistinguishable. Many historical actors recognized that their words and deeds had both local and national ramifications. By touring the city’s interracial movements in the national press, for example, black minister Henry Hugh Proctor was simultaneously cementing his relationship with local whites, drumming up northern donations for his Atlanta church, inventing what became the most influential national interpretation of the riot, and defending Booker T. Washington’s racial program. Examining these connections allows us to recover the national significance of “local” individuals such as Proctor. This approach also helps us uncover rationales for seemingly incongruous behaviors and utterances. Thus, threats by local whites temporarily forced Du Bois to exercise rhetorical restraint at the very moment that national developments were bolstering his confidence in the long-term viability of racial agitation.

Any attempt to examine a single riot and its significance risks exaggerating the historical importance of individual events, trivializing other turning points in American history, or slighting what Thomas Holt has characterized as the “global levels” of experience—that is, the cultural, political, discursive, and social frameworks that structure human activity and social relations. My goal, however, is not to turn our attention away from the historical influences of slowly evolving social and political structures, or even other incidents. The ultimate significance of the riot derived as much from its interactions with other events and broader social forces as from its internal processes.

Social distinctions exercised a particularly powerful hold over American imaginations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Atlanta and elsewhere, individuals and social groups defined themselves and others in terms of race, class, and gender differences—categories accented, in turn, by cultural distinctions based on factors such as education, religion, and behavior. Scholars now broadly agree that these social categories do not represent unchanging, innate divisions but are made and reshaped by political and cultural conflicts as well as broader social and economic relations. The meanings and implications of these categories vary over time and place and shift from social group to social group (Godshalk, 2005).


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