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.

The race riot of 1906 made international headlines and threatened Atlanta's image as a thriving New South city. The caption on the French publication's cover reads "Lynchings in the United States: Massacre of Negroes in Atlanta."

The race riot of 1906 made international headlines and threatened Atlanta’s image as a thriving New South city.

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.

In the early 1900s many whites disapproved of the saloons that some blacks frequented in downtown Atlanta. Saloons were thought to fuel the city's growing crime rates, and concern over such establishments was one of the causes of the 1906 Atlanta race riot.

The saloons that lined downtown’s Decatur Street, where blacks and whites mingled, concerned many Atlantans.

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.

During the 1906 Atlanta race riot, the city came under the control of the state militia.

During the 1906 Atlanta race riot, the city came under the control of the state militia.

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.

A walking tour of sites related to the Atlanta race riot is conducted by Dr. Clifford Kuhn at 1 p.m. on the second Sunday of every month. The tour is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Dr. Kuhn at [email protected] or 404-413-6363.

Jamil Zainaldin is president of Georgia Humanities, a nonprofit organization working to ensure that humanities and culture remain an integral part of the lives of Georgians. The organization is a cultural leader in the state as well as a pioneer nationally in innovative history and humanities programs. The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a project of Georgia Humanities, in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, and the University System of Georgia/GALILEO. The first state encyclopedia to be conceived and designed exclusively for publication on the Internet, the NGE is an important and authoritative digital resource for all Georgians.

9 replies
  1. Kenneth J Coleman says:

    This would prove to be a pivotal time in Atlanta’s history and as, “the city too busy to hate.” While tensions were still high after the riots, dozens of young black Atlanta women were being found with their throats slashed and many were eviscerated. The at-large killer came to be referred to by the papers and the community as, “The Atlanta Ripper.” The book, of the same title by Jeff Wells, chronicles this terrifying time in the city. What’s also evident in the book is the city’s white and black communities working together for the first time after the race riots to locate and stop the murderer. I won’t ruin it for you, but a good read, especially if you love history and Atlanta …Report

    Reply
  2. LauraThomsonMcCarty says:

    Other “must reads” on this topic:
    Walter White’s A Man Called White (the chapter “I Learn What I Am”
    Rebecca Burn’s Rage in the Gate City: the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906Report

    Reply
  3. RandyMeyers says:

    Jamil’s unique talent of providing  the “Back story” of why things are the way they are always makes for an interesting “read”. I suspect he could make the nutrition label on a box of cereal interesting!Report

    Reply

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