oatman_CRT

Charles Oatman, a Black teenager who died in police custody in Augusta, Georgia on May 9, 1970.

During a recent dive into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, I discovered the story of the 1970 Augusta riot. The site alleged that it was the “largest urban uprising” in the Deep South during the civil rights movement.

Despite being born and raised in Augusta, I had never known that this major rebellion occurred in my hometown. Not wanting to rely on Wikipedia alone, I began my own research.

The story of the 1970 Augusta riot is, tragically, similar to more well-known riots. On May 9, 1970, Charles Oatman, a Black teenager, died while in police custody. Questions surrounding his death circled as an autopsy revealed his body was covered with cigarette burns and a deep gash to the back of his head. Sheriff E.R. “Foots” Atkins responded by opening an investigation into his death, only to close it less than 24 hours later.

Two days after his death, District Attorney William Barton charged two other juvenile delinquents for Oatman’s death. Unsatisfied due to suspected negligence by the police, Augusta’s Black community began to protest in front of the Augusta Municipal Building. Met with shotgun-wielding officers, their frustrations grew into violence.

According to the 1970 Augusta Riot Observance committee, 2,000-3,000 people ransacked white and Chinese-American-owned businesses, causing $1 million in property damage. With the endorsement of segregationist Governor Lester Maddox and shoot-to-kill orders from the captain, police suppressed the riot using violence, ultimately killing six people with shots to the back and wounding at least 60 more civilians.

Following the riot, all-white juries convicted the juveniles charged with Oatman’s death and at least a hundred Black people who participated in the riot.

Only two officers were brought to trial for excessive force but were acquitted by majority-white juries. No white official was ever held accountable for any wrongdoing. The local newspaper Augusta Chronicle released skewed accounts of the event, according to the observance committee.

Until only a few months ago, I had never heard of the riot. Twelve years of education in the local community and not once was the rebellion mentioned in any history class. There was never a memorial day or moment of silence to remember the tragedy of Charles Oatman. It has been omitted from history books and remains unmentioned in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

This is just one example of historical negationism, the minimizing of causes and events throughout history. Along with much of American history, the 1970 Augusta riot has been denied its remembrance.

Parents of students are up in arms across the country about their kids’ education, but not about historical negationism. They’re speaking out against the alleged indoctrination of their children -- they’re enraged over critical race theory.

What is critical race theory?

While critical race theory may have a daunting name, the concept refers to the “practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy,” according to the American Bar Association. The theory recognizes a “racial caste system” which keeps people of color at the bottom through institutionalized racism, not just interpersonal bigotry.

The academic practice is not being taught in primary schools but remains an upper-level concept taught in undergraduate and graduate programs. At the University of Georgia, Jurisprudence 3821, or Race and the Law, an upper-level course for pre-law undergraduates, would be the most likely class to cover the concept.

However, public school boards across the country have been bombarded to ban critical race theory. Right wing pundits have employed Red Scare-style fear-mongering against CRT, labeling it as “simple, unadulterated Marxism.”

While CRT does examine the material condition of people of color throughout history, pundits boldly throw the word “Marx” and “socialism” out without context in an attempt to discredit the theory. Ironically, Gov. Maddox suggested the Augusta riot was a “Communist conspiracy” at the time.

In Virginia last month, one school board meeting even turned violent as people debated the use of CRT in the classroom, and two people were arrested.

Critical race theory is not being taught at these schools. It is just being conflated with any diversity and inclusion efforts, but “Ban Inclusive School Clubs” and “Stop Diversity Training for Teachers” do not have the same ring to them.

Conservative organizations have demonized the study in an effort to push states to pass critical race theory bans. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, accredited multiple problems as consequences of teaching CRT. The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, diversity training in the military and Hollywood’s efforts to diversify casting are all just a handful of the grievances they point to as offshoots of CRT.

According to the organization, the theory is “destructive and rejects fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based.” Therefore, they hope that states will ban the teaching in primary and secondary education.

While the teaching of critical race theory in primary schools may be imaginary, the harm created by states passing teaching bans is real. Five of the six states that have passed bans do not mention critical race theory by name, according to the Brookings Institute.

Instead, the legislation bans discussions about whether or not the United States may be inherently racist. Furthermore, the bans may bar any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination and oppression.

Of course, policing the inside of classrooms will be near impossible, but teachers across the country may begin to self-censor out of fear of complaints or worse. The already skewed version of history taught in high schools will become even more whitewashed. The 1970 Augusta riot is already absent from history books. Many more significant historical events surrounding civil rights will continue being left out of the classroom as a result of these broad bans.

Instead of censoring student speech and thought, state legislatures and school boards should expand school curricula to confront systemic racism, not ignore and attempt to hide it. In order to create a more tolerant and understanding generation, schools must include the dark parts of history so that students can acknowledge these wrongs and learn from our forebears’ mistakes.