- Paula Cochran
A version of this article originally appeared in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present.
On 22–24 September 1906, white mobs killed dozens of blacks, wounded many others, and caused considerable property damage across the city of Atlanta. This race riot was the result of racial tensions, political rage, and dramatized newspaper reports of black men assaulting white women.
By the early twentieth century, Atlanta was a center of regional commerce. The booming economy brought people from the South and other parts of the United States to the Atlanta area. The city's population soared almost 70 percent between 1900 and 1910. The rapid growth and prosperity rekindled racial and class tensions; competition for a limited number of jobs resulted in new tensions between blacks and poor whites. Georgia's 1906 gubernatorial campaign heightened these tensions by promoting the ideas that black prosperity took jobs from white men and that blacks gained social advances at the expense of whites. Newspapers ran dramatized reports of attempted rapes by black men against defenseless white women and warned white men to protect their wives and daughters from sex-crazed black men.
Hoke Smith and Clark Howell were both political leaders in Atlanta and candidates for governor in 1906. Smith was supported by the reform wing of the Democratic Party, while Howell was allied with conservative Democrats. Smith used the Atlanta Journal—which he had formerly owned—as a political platform, while Howell, publisher of the rival Constitution, did the same with his newspaper. Howell directed his campaign at the segment of whites who resented the success of black business owners in Atlanta, while Smith preached the necessity of keeping black men in a subordinate position. Allowing black men to own businesses, become prosperous, and vote, both Smith and Howell argued, would make the black men feel equal to whites and lead them to feel “worthy” of white women. Goaded by the threat of “Negro domination,” white business leaders joined forces to gain economic and social control of black businesses. Howell believed that the white primary and the poll tax were enough to limit black voting and claimed that Smith was not the separationist that he boasted himself to be, charging Smith with cooperating with black political leaders.
The working class was fed propaganda through the newspapers that Howell and Smith controlled. Sensational stories, meant to encourage the mobs, were printed about fictional sexual assaults by black men on white women. Other articles supported or encouraged lynching, lawlessness, and mob violence.
On the afternoon of 22 September 1906, Atlanta newspapers reported four alleged assaults on white women (none of which was ever proved). As shocking details circulated, white boys and men, fearing for the safety of their wives and daughters, gathered. City leaders, including Mayor James G. Woodward, failed to calm the growing crowd. By early evening the deadliest riot in the city's history had begun. For more than five hours mobs of more than ten thousand white men roamed the streets, killing at least sixteen black men, terrorizing others, and destroying the property of those in their path. The mobs attacked black business owners and entered streetcars, beating black men and women along the way and killing at least three men. The police attempted unsuccessfully to control the mobs. The militia was called in around midnight but was unable to restrain the mobs until a heavy rain drove them indoors.
On Sunday, 23 September, white police and militia patrolled the streets, while blacks, fearing the mobs’ return, secretly armed themselves. While the black community worked to defend their homes, vigilante groups continued to raid black neighborhoods.
On Monday, 24 September, a group of heavily armed blacks held a meeting in Brownsville. Fulton County police, fearing retaliation, appeared at the meeting, and a shootout ensued, during which one police officer was killed. Three companies of the local militia were sent to Brownsville, where they seized weapons and arrested more than 250 black men. On Monday and Tuesday white officials, businessmen, and clergy called for an end to the violence. Black leaders were called in to conduct negotiations for racial reconciliation. Newspaper accounts give different tallies of the killed, ranging from twenty to forty black men.
The two most prominent black leaders of the day, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, interpreted the riot and its aftermath in very different ways. Du Bois, who was teaching in Atlanta, witnessed firsthand the riot and its frightening aftermath. He joined with black men in the role of protector and defender and armed himself with a double-barreled shotgun. The riot forced Du Bois to reconsider his focus on the Talented Tenth and to push instead for radical justice. Washington, on the other hand, had rushed to Atlanta and urged the city's black community to exercise self-control. He reminded blacks that the disharmony in Atlanta was the exception, not the rule; blacks should shun violence and retaliation and focus on reconciliation.
The men and women who were attacked had followed Washington's advice. Du Bois acknowledged that the attacks resulted from the prodding of politicians, newspapers, and white supremacists, and his point of view changed to encompass support for defensive violence. Du Bois, despite threats, continued to expose racial injustices and push for civil rights agitation; Washington, whose gospel of nonviolent demonstration would not find a home until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, found himself secluded from his former supporters.
In 2006 the Coalition to Remember the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot held a series of events to promote public awareness of this episode in Atlanta's history. The coalition's intent was to restore the memory of the 1906 riot, as well as to encourage reconsolidation within the community.
- Bauerlein, Mark. Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001.
- Cohen, William. At Freedom's Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control 1861–1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991.
- Godshalk, David Fort. Veiled Vision: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
- Myrdal, Gunner. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1996.
- Wolters, Raymond. Du Bois and His Rivals. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.