On this day in 1970, the August riot started and ran until May 13. The riot was initiated following news of the death of a Black teenager, 16-year old Charles Oatman—behind bars. Whenever you have a death behind bars, suspicions arise and in this case, those suspicions were correct
CHARLES OATMAN’S DEATH
On May 9, the just over 100 pound Oatman died in his Richmond County Jail cell. Once the body reached mortician Carrie Mays, she described the condition of Charles Oatman’s body as “beaten something awful.” His body also showed cigarette burns. This was the version of the teenager’s condition that reached the Black community.
Dr. Irvine Phinizy, Richmond County medical examiner looked at the body as well. While the authorities didn’t want the details released, Phinizy’s observations were similar to Mays noting the bruises, scrapes, and burns Charles Oatman received.
PROTESTS AND OFFICIAL STORIES
Demonstrations occurred the following day, focused on the Richmond County Jail. The Black community and the August police had a fragile relationship, so when Sheriff E.F. Atkins came out, he had to have a believable story—preferably the truth with officers held responsible.
The sheriff told them that Oatman died falling out of his bunk bed. As expected this story didn’t hold water as Oatman’s condition was common knowledge. Sheriff Atkins returned with a new story: Oatman’s cellmates killed him and were being charged. Between the first story and the second, the riot had grown from 200 to roughly 500
RIOT AND CLASHES
The city’s muscle came out as Captain Jim Beck and several armed cops routed the protesters. The group split up and some began looting and throwing objects at White and Chinese-owned stores. This escalated into attacks on White citizens and arson. Anger towards the city’s police department was turned violently on the city itself.
Black community leaders tried to calm the rioters, but by the end of the riot then governor Lester Maddox had 2,000 National Guardsmen to re-establish order. When May 13 came, six Black men were killed and 60 people injured. The six men all had shotgun blasts to the back and only two were said to have been looters. Property damage was estimated at $1 million for twenty buildings.
Two inmates were found guilty in the murder of Charles Oatman.