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Atlanta Group Seeks to Recognize Race Riots


I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

One hundred years ago today, thousands of white residents in Atlanta took to the city's streets. Their target: African-Americans.

Politicians in the newspapers of the day fanned the flames of racial tension that led to the Atlanta riot. The battle lasted four days and ended in the murder of dozens of African-Americans.

Few in America know anything about the riot, but some in Atlanta are trying to change that. From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: Historians say the riot is one of the ten most significant events in Atlanta's history. But it was so disturbing that city leaders minimized the trouble, and others just didn't want to talk about it.

There was a nasty campaign for the governor's office that year involving two Democrats who used race as a pivotal issue. Cliff Kuhn is a history professor at Georgia State University and a member of the coalition to remember the race riot.

Professor CLIFF KUHN (Professor of History, Georgia State University): African-American men had attained the vote during Reconstruction, and now there was a broad consensus in the white community that if the black man sought equality in one sphere, in the political sphere, he would seek equality in other spheres, in particular the so-called social sphere.

LOHR: Newspapers began reporting on a black crime wave, focusing on alleged attacks on white women. Many were reported but few were ever substantiated. Kuhn says prohibitionists also stirred things up, focusing on an area downtown where bars and houses of prostitution had sprung up.

Prof. KUHN: In the words of one observer, Atlanta is like a crusty crater of a volcano dangerously nearing eruptions. You know, and for several weeks before the riot takes place there's a sense that something horrible is going to take place.

LOHR: Thousands of whites gathered downtown. They armed themselves and began attacking any blacks they could find. The mob focused on barbershops and streetcars. Here's an account from Evelyn Witherspoon, a white woman who was just 10 years old at the time. Witherspoon was interviewed for a documentary that ran in 1980 on radio station WRFG in Atlanta.

Ms. EVELYN WITHERSPOON (Atlanta Resident): There was a streetcar coming along Auburn Avenue and they opened fire on it. It was loaded with colored people, and the colored people got down in the aisle, crouched down, but they went on murdering anyway.

LOHR: Evelyn Witherspoon also witnessed a lynching from her bedroom window. A horrific event that she said stayed with her for the rest of her life.

The violence continued for days. According to the official reports, a dozen people were murdered, including two whites. But the true impact was far greater.

Professor CLARISSA MYRICK-HARRIS (Co-Curator, Red Was the Midnight: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot.): It's important to know what occurred after the riot.

LOHR: Clarissa Myrick-Harris is a history professor and a co-curator of an exhibit on the riot.

Prof. MYRICK-HARRIS: Many, many people died. We'll never know how many. But also what occurred was unfortunately an attempt to bury the particulars of the riot.

LOHR: But many in Atlanta say it's time for that kind of social amnesia to change. Thee Smith is a religion professor at Emory University and a member of a group known as STAR - Southern Truth and Reconciliation.

Professor THEE SMITH (Professor of Religion, Emory University): Have we learned anything about human psychology so that we don't have to continue to forget in order to heal?

LOHR: The riot led to greater segregation and efforts by elite whites and blacks to build a coalition. Many years later, officials wanting to sell Atlanta as the capital of the new South began calling it the city too busy to hate. Smith says groups are finally meeting now to talk about how race still affects the city in housing, healthcare and education.

The coalition to remember the Atlanta race riot is sponsoring events all weekend to document the 1906 massacre and to address social and racial issues today so they won't explode in violence later.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Whether covering the manhunt and eventual capture of Eric Robert Rudolph in the mountains of North Carolina, the remnants of the Oklahoma City federal building with its twisted metal frame and shattered glass, flood-ravaged Midwestern communities, or the terrorist bombings across the country, including the blast that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, correspondent Kathy Lohr has been at the heart of stories all across the nation.
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