The riots that broke out in Atlanta, Georgia between 1898 and 1906 were part of a pattern of anti-black violence that included several hundred lynchings each year.

The so-called "Atlanta Race Riot" took place September 22-24, 1906.

During the summer of 1906, white fears of African Americans’ increasing economic and social power, sensationalized rhetoric from white politicians, and unsubstantiated news stories about a black crime wave created a powder keg of racial tension in Atlanta. The powder keg exploded on the night of September 22nd in what became known as the Atlanta Race Riot.

Over five days at least ten black people were killed while Atlanta’s police did nothing to protect black citizens, going so far as to confiscate guns from black Atlantans while allowing whites to remain armed. White mobs killed dozens of blacks, wounded scores of others, and inflicted considerable property damage.

On the afternoon of Saturday, September 22, Atlanta newspapers reported four alleged assaults upon local white women, none of which were ever substantiated.

These newspaper reports were the catalyst for the riot.


The New Georgia Encyclopedia summarizes additional causes of the riots as follows:

By the 1880s Atlanta had become the hub of the regional economy, and the city's overall population soared from 89,000 in 1900 to 150,000 in 1910; the black population was approximately 9,000 in 1880 and 35,000 by 1900. Such growth put pressure on municipal services, increased job competition among black and white workers, heightened class distinctions, and led the city's white leadership to respond with restrictions intended to control the daily behavior of the growing working class, with mixed success. Such conditions caused concern among elite whites, who feared the social intermingling of the races, and led to an expansion of Jim Crow segregation, particularly in the separation of white and black neighborhoods and separate seating areas for public transportation.

The emergence during this time of a black elite in Atlanta also contributed to racial tensions in the city. During Reconstruction (1867-76), black men were given the right to vote, and as blacks became more involved in the political realm, they began to establish businesses, create social networks, and build communities. As this black elite acquired wealth, education, and prestige, its members attempted to distance themselves from an affiliation with the black working class, and especially from the unemployed black men who frequented the saloons on Atlanta's Decatur Street. Many whites, while uncomfortable with the advances of the black elite, also disapproved of these saloons, which were said to be decorated with depictions of nude women. Concern over such establishments fueled prohibition advocates in the city, and many whites began to blame black saloon-goers for rising crime rates in the growing city, and particularly for threats of black sexual violence against white women.

Additionally, the candidates for the 1906 governor's race played to white fears of a black upper class. They inflamed racial tensions in Atlanta by insisting that black disfranchisement was necessary to ensure that blacks were kept "in their place"; that is, in a position inferior to that of whites. By disfranchising blacks, whites could maintain the social order.

Walter White, the future head of the NAACP grew up in Atlanta and was 13 years old during the 1906 riots. What follows are excerpts from his memoirs of how he and his father defended their home from white rioters.

The unseasonably oppressive heat of an Indian summer day hung like a steaming blanket over Atlanta. My sisters and I had casually commented upon the unusual quietness. It seemed to stay Mother’s volubility and reduced Father, who was more taciturn, to monosyllables. But, as I remember it, no other sense of impending trouble impinged upon our consciousness.

I had read the inflammatory headlines in the Atlanta News and the more restrained ones in the Atlanta Constitution which reported alleged rapes and other crimes committed by Negroes. But these were so standard and familiar that they made—as I look back on it now—little impression. The stories were more frequent, however, and consisted of eight-column streamers instead of the usual two or four-column ones.

Fuel was added to the fire by a dramatization of Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman in Atlanta. (This was later made by David Wark Griffith into The Birth of a Nation, and did more than anything else to make successful the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.) The late Ray Stannard Baker, telling the story of the Atlanta riot in Along the Color Line, characterized Dixon’s fiction and its effect on Atlanta and the South as “incendiary and cruel.” No more apt or accurate description could have been chosen.

During the afternoon preceding the riot little bands of sullen, evil-looking men talked excitedly on street corners all over downtown Atlanta. Around seven o’clock my father and I were driving toward a mail box at the corner of Peachtree and Houston Streets when there came from near-by Pryor Street a roar the like of which I had never heard before, but which sent a sensation of mingled fear and excitement coursing through my body. I asked permission of Father to go and see what the trouble was. He bluntly ordered me to stay in the cart. A little later we drove down Atlanta’s main business thoroughfare, Peachtree Street. Again we heard the terrifying cries, this time near at hand and coming toward us. We saw a lame Negro bootblack from Herndon’s barbershop pathetically trying to outrun a mob of whites. Less than a hundred yards from us the chase ended. We saw clubs and fists descending to the accompaniment of savage shouting and cursing. Suddenly a voice cried, “There goes another nigger!” Its work done, the mob went after new prey. The body with the withered foot lay dead in a pool of blood on the street.

Father’s apprehension and mine steadily increased during the evening, although the fact that our skins were white kept us from attack. Another circumstance favored us—the mob had not yet grown violent enough to attack United States government property. But I could see Father’s relief when he punched the time clock at eleven P.M. and got into the cart to go home. He wanted to go the back way down Forsyth Street, but I begged him, in my childish excitement and ignorance, to drive down Marietta to Five Points, the heart of Atlanta’s business district, where the crowds were densest and the yells loudest. No sooner had we turned into Marietta Street, however, than we saw careening toward us an undertaker’s barouche. Crouched in the rear of the vehicle were three Negroes clinging to the sides of the carriage as it lunged and swerved. On the driver’s seat crouched a white man, the reins held taut in his left hand. A huge whip was gripped in his right. Alternately he lashed the horses and, without looking backward, swung the whip in savage swoops in the faces of members of the mob as they lunged at the carriage determined to seize the three Negroes.

There was no time for us to get out of its path, so sudden and swift was the appearance of the vehicle. The hubcap of the right rear wheel of the barouche hit the right side of our much lighter wagon. Father and I instinctively threw our weight and kept the cart from turning completely over. Our mare was a Texas mustang which, frightened by the sudden blow, lunged in the air as Father clung to the reins. Good fortune was with us. The cart settled back on its four wheels as Father said in a voice which brooked no dissent, “We are going home the back way and not down Marietta.”

But again on Pryor Street we heard the cry of the mob. Close to us and in our direction ran a stout and elderly woman who cooked at a downtown white hotel. Fifty yards behind, a mob which filled the street from curb to curb was closing in. Father handed the reins to me and, though he was of slight stature, reached down and lifted the woman into the cart. I did not need to be told to lash the mare to the fastest speed she could muster.

The church bells tolled the next morning for Sunday service. But no one in Atlanta believed for a moment that the hatred and lust for blood had been appeased. Like skulls on a cannibal’s hut the hats and caps of victims of the mob of the night before had been hung on the iron hooks of telegraph poles. None could tell whether each hat represented a dead Negro. But we knew that some of those who had worn the hats would never again wear any.

Late in the afternoon friends of my father’s came to warn of more trouble that night. They told us that plans had been perfected for a mob to form on Peachtree Street just after nightfall to march down Houston Street to what the white people called “Darktown,” three blocks or so below our house, to “clean out the niggers.” There had never been a firearm in our house before that day. Father was reluctant even in those circumstances to violate the law, but he at last gave in at Mother’s insistence.

We turned out the lights early, as did all our neighbors. No one removed his clothes or thought of sleep. Apprehension was tangible. We could almost touch its cold and clammy surface. Toward midnight the unnatural quiet was broken by a roar that grew steadily in volume. Even today I grow tense in remembering it.

Father told Mother to take my sisters, the youngest of them only six, to the rear of the house, which offered more protection from stones and bullets. My brother George was away, so Father and I, the only males in the house, took our places at the front windows of the parlor. The windows opened on a porch along the front side of the house, which in turn gave onto a narrow lawn that sloped down to the street and a picket fence. There was a crash as Negroes smashed the street lamp at the corner of Houston and Piedmont Avenue down the street. In a very few minutes the vanguard of the mob, some of them bearing torches, appeared. A voice which we recognized as that of the son of the grocer with whom we had traded for many years yelled, “That’s where that nigger mail carrier lives! Let’s burn it down! It’s too nice for a nigger to live in!” In the eerie light Father turned his drawn face toward me. In a voice as quiet as though he were asking me to pass him the sugar at the breakfast table, he said, “Son, don’t shoot until the first man puts his foot on the lawn and then—don’t you miss!”

The mob moved toward the lawn. I tried to aim my gun, wondering what it would feel like to kill a man. Suddenly there was a volley of shots. The mob hesitated, stopped. Some friends of my father’s had barricaded themselves in a two-story brick building just below our house. It was they who had fired. Some of the mobsmen, still bloodthirsty, shouted, “Let’s go get the nigger.” Others, afraid now for their safety, held back. Our friends, noting the hesitation, fired another volley. The mob broke and retreated up Houston Street.

In the quiet that followed I put my gun aside and tried to relax. But a tension different from anything I had ever known possessed me. I was gripped by the knowledge of my identity, and in the depths of my soul I was vaguely aware that I was glad of it. I was sick with loathing for the hatred which had flared before me that night and come so close to making me a killer; but I was glad I was not one of those who hated; I was glad I was not one of those made sick and murderous by pride.

The Coalition to Remember the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot believes that:

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. Coalition sponsored activities meant to restore the memory and move toward reconciliation include: an exhibit at the MLK Historic Site gallery, curriculum material about the riot in area schools, artistic expressions and a community-centered symposium sponsored by local colleges and universities.

Suggested Reading

Mark Bauerlein, Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906  (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001).

Charles Crowe, "Racial Massacre in Atlanta, September 22, 1906," Journal of Negro History 54 (April 1969).

Allison Dorsey, To Build Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004).

David F. Godshalk, Veiled Visions: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

Gregory Mixon, The Atlanta Riot: Race, Class, and Violence in a New South City (Southern Dissent)  (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005).

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