Special Assignment: James Brown helps Augusta get back on the good foot after race riots

By: Chris Thomas Email
By: Chris Thomas Email

News 12 at 11 o'clock, May 11, 2010

AUGUSTA---Hundreds of people were arrested in the Augusta race riots. They were protesting the beating death of a 16 year old mentally challenged inmate in the Richmond County jail. The local lawyer responsible for representing those folks talked only to 12.

"There were people in the community who wanted a riot," declared former Augusta city council member Grady Abrams. "Who were waiting on a riot."

The Augusta race riot claimed 6 lives.

"I knew it was going to happen," said Abrams.

Businesses were set on fire.

"To think about my city on fire and the people who were killed," said Augusta lawyer Bill Coleman. "It was shocking."

Looters came from all over...including South Carolina.

"They came from Aiken County to Augusta to get a T.V. set," remembers Coleman.

Hundreds of people were jailed after the riots. They needed legal representation. That is where Bill Coleman stepped in.

"The first thing that struck me," said Coleman. "No one who was arrested for looting or whatever was embarrassed or felt awkward about it."

James Brown returned home to find the city still smoldering.

"He actually walked the streets to calm people down," said Coleman. "He also had a radio station, and he went on the air."

"Saying those things that will make people think before you jump and do something stupid," noted Brown's famous "cape man" Danny Ray.

He was there when Brown declared, "Someone has to talk to the kids."

"This is crazy. Where are you going to go now," recalled Danny Ray about James Brown's message. "You go out there and get killed what have you gained?"

"James brown was instrumental," said Abrams. "People would listen to James Brown."

Abrams spends much of his time painting scenes from those days.

"Yes," noted Abrams. "Especially the group called The Committee of Ten."

The committee was formed to try and bring life back to the city.

"People that these groups thought they were helping by having a riot," said Abrams. "They [actually] hurt those people."

"I said Lord don't let them destroy my place," cried Carrie Oatman.

She had legitimate concerns. 51 fires were reported in a 6 hour period. The community changed forever.

"They've never been able to recover. The stigma is still there," said Abrams. "Businesses left that never came back."

For example, Laney Walker has since been labeled a "slum"area. The city has started a $37 million redevelopment project, but that spans the next 50 years. The effects of the riot may be felt almost a century later.

"Well one thing it did accomplish," said Abrams. "People started listening because they didn't want their city torn up."

Neighborhood work programs were created, and the county started the Human Relations Commission to field community complaints. It was closed in 2008

"It's a shame," said city administrator Fred Russell. "I'm sorry."

The city hoped to save $1 million by slashing the program.

"I'm sorry that they are leaving," said Russell. "But there are tough decisions that we have to make, and that's why we are here to make them."

Abrams worries there is still a lack of basic things that led to the race riots.

"Basic services like why have raw sewage running through a community," questioned Abrams. "Why have garbage that won't be picked up? Why have streets that aren't paved? When it rains you got to go in potholes in the black community."

"I wouldn't want to see another riot come through Augusta like that," cried Carrie. "Would you?"

There is a way for you to voice your concerns about your community. You can contact Augusta Cares at 706-821-2300.

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