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A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906
At 12:00 AM, John Nelms, high sheriff of Fulton County, Georgia, paces down the blank corridors of the Atlanta jail, called the Tower, and follows the turnkey into a cell block known as Murderer's Row. They pause and the turnkey swings open a door, revealing a small twenty-five-year-old black man lying quietly on his cot.
Nelms mutters, "Let's go, Jim."
The prisoner glances at the sheriff with a sigh, and the small party makes its way to a darkened, cavernous room where several grim white men mill around a noose hanging above a trap door in the floor. Nelms and his prisoner step forward. The onlookers scan the condemned man's face as he eyes the rope. Sheriff and prisoner position themselves in the middle of the room, the noose but a few inches from their heads. The others arrange themselves in a circle, a sober gathering of Atlanta officials, newspaper reporters, priests, and Mr. George Moore.
One month earlier, Moore's wife ventured outside the couple's small home in Brookwood, a suburb a mile north of the city, walking along the train tracks to their garden a hundred yards away. As the fifty-five-year-old mother of four bent over to pull turnips for dinner, a man loomed behind her and brought his fist down upon her skull. She hit the dirt with a gasp, jerking around to face a vicious black man grasping at herthroat, choking her into senselessness, and proceeding to commit, as the newspapers put it, a "criminal assault" upon her person. Minutes later, her assailant having vanished, she stumbled back to her husband's store, pressing her torn clothing to her breast, falling into his arms with pitiable cries of violation.
The manhunt that followed was furious. Packs of bloodhounds leading shotgun-wielding posses crisscrossed the woods of northern Atlanta and patrolled Peachtree Road from Brookwood to Buckhead. Working from a description of the criminal given by the bedridden victim, police squads searched the suburbs and nearby towns, apprehending black men who matched Mrs. Moore's portrait and were unfamiliar or itinerant. A small company maintained a vigil outside the Moore home, monitoring news of arrests and awaiting an identification. The Atlanta Constitution printed daily updates on the search and displayed photographs of the Moore house, Mr. Moore's store, and the garden in which the violation had occurred. The Moore family and the governor of Georgia offered rewards for the capture of the brute, and Sheriff Nelms sent notices to county sheriffs around the state detailing the crime.
Suspects accumulated in the Tower holding cells, for Mrs. Moore refused to travel to the jail to make an identification. Her dignity and her nerves prevented it, her husband said. Nelms believed that taking a man out to Brookwood for a positive identification would only guarantee his death at the hands of a mob. Unless a respected white person came forward to provide an alibi, suspects remained behind bars, congregating with other nervous and sullen black men. With the papers crying out for an arraignment, Nelms appealed to the governor to provide greater security forces and compel Mrs. Moore to visit the Tower, but the governor replied that he had no jurisdiction in city police affairs. Finally, after a week of recovery, Mrs. Moore journeyed to the police station and began scrutinizing the detainees one by one. None of them proved to be her assailant.
On November 9, officers delivered Jim Walker, caught in Fairburn, to police headquarters and presented him to Sheriff Nelms. The sheriff examined the suspect and asked him where he was at the time of the assault. Walker answered his questions readily, but could provide no white witnesses on his behalf, leaving Mrs. Moore as the only person who could exonerate him. Nelms warned Walker that if he were taken to see the victim and were positively identified, he would surely die within minutes. Declaring his innocence, Walker asked to be transported to the Moore home immediately, and so Nelms dispatched the officers and their charge to Brookwood, certain of another mistaken arrest. A half-hour later, two policemen steered Walker past idling neighbors and crossed the Moore threshold. Entering the hallway at her husband's side, Mrs. Moore stared at Walker and shouted, "Let the white caps have him!" then fainted to the floor.
Hustling Walker outside, the officers faced a crowd of white men loitering in the road. A few of them yelled, "They got him!" The trio pushed its way forward, threatened and jostled by the locals, trying to reach the streetcar line before word of the identification brought more troublemakers to the scene. Harassed by the crowd but keeping their prisoner between them, the officers hastened to a nearby trolley stop. They threw Walker aboard a sitting car and poised to block the entrance, but the vigilantes stormed the trolley and grappled with the driver. As officers retreated with drawn nightsticks, Mr. Moore and his son shouted at the assailants to stop, pleading with them to let the law take its course. The mob hesitated. Officers seized a horse and threw Walker astride it, but a heavy rock brought him tumbling to the ground. Firing pistols in the air and shouting "Lynch him! Lynch him!" the vigilantes snatched Walker from the overwhelmed cops, pummeling the suspect and dragging him off the road to a makeshift gallows hastily erected in a gully beneath a tall tree. One man attached a noose to his neck, while another threw the rope over a limb and began tying it to the trunk.
Just then, an automobile skidded to a stop at the edge of the crowd and Sheriff Nelms and four armed patrolmen thrust their way through the spectators and removed the noose from Walker's neck. The mob closed ranks around them when Nelms turned to Moore and promised, "You'll be there at the hanging once the trial is finished."
Having confessed his guilt in court, Walker now stands ready to be executed. A day earlier, Reverend Henry Hugh Proctor recorded Walker's final statement (the condemned man can neither read nor write), which the Atlanta Constitution published in full. Part of it read, "Yes, I know I will be hanged on Friday. I knew well what was going to be done to me when I made up my mind to tell the truth in court. I did wrong and I've got to suffer for it." In the death chamber, with Proctor to one side of him and Nelms to the other, Walker is eased into position and stares solemnly into space while an officer cuffs his hands behind him. As the onlookers hush, Proctor reads a passage from the Gospel in which Christ on the Cross promises forgiveness to a repentant thief suffering next to him.
Nelms faces Walker and asks, "Do you have anything to say?"
"No, sir," he replies.
Nelms grasps the rope. A Georgia native and Confederate veteran in his mid-sixties, famed for having single-handedly cleared the north Georgia mountains of renegades in the 1880s, he summons all his authority and experience to deliver the conclusive pronouncement.
"Jim Walker, you are about to be executed for a great crime that you committed. It should be a lesson and warning to all the people of your race. You `Niggers' must understand that you cannot pollute our white women; that you cannot lay your black hands upon them. God made your race inferior to the white people. Our women are not for your kind. Every `Nigger' that assaults a white woman will meet the fate that is yours today." Dropping his voice, Nelms murmurs, "Goodbye, Jim."
Walker gazes impassively at the walls and mumbles, "Goodbye, sir."
Nelms cries out, "Take your last look upon the light!" jams the black hood over his eyes, tightens the rope around his neck, and carries out the sentence. The body drops and the rope straightens as the witnesses lean forward and stare silently at the quivering form. For seventeen minutes, Walker twitches and struggles to breath, the fall having dislocated but not broken his neck. Nelms waits patiently until a doctor pronounces Walker dead and orderlies gather the body and prepare it for the medical college. (Walker has no friends or family to claim him.) Mr. Moore tells the Constitution reporter, "I am glad his neck was not broken, for he ought to suffer some." The witnesses ask for pieces of the rope, but the noose is reserved for Mr. Moore.
10 January 1906, Columbus, Georgia
Politics is a biennial rite in the state of Georgia. Every other year, voters enfranchised by the Constitution and state law endure a season of campaign speeches and partisan editorials, pollsters, passing entourages, high and low politicking. Would-be governors, congressmen, councilmen, mayors, and sheriffs mount the stump, courting constituencies in village squares and railway stations, contacting local bosses and railroad cronies on the sly. In Columbus, and in a hundred other large and small towns across the state, every voter has an opinion, presses an issue, promotes a candidate. Atlanta figures like Evan Howell and Allen Candler dominate the Democratic Party, but with each county and township sending representatives to the state and federal capitols, and with Southerners ever watchful of their sovereignty—Reconstruction was an underhanded political scheme, they still believe—Georgia citizens approach elections with a raucous engagement.
Just before noon, Chief of Police Wiley Williams throws open the doors of the Columbus Opera House and five hundred registered voters, all white males, scramble across the lower floor and box seats with competing chants of "Howell! Howell!" and "Smith! Smith!" Through the stage entrance file three hundred invited guests who seat themselves before a rostrum on which Democratic Party officials, campaign workers, and newspaper reporters cluster. At the center of the stage is L. C. Slade, flanked by the two leading candidates for governor of Georgia, Clark Howell and Hoke Smith, who are squaring off for debate as they head toward the Democratic primary election to be held in August. This race, white-only since 1892, is the only significant contest in the gubernatorial election, the Republican Party having little support in the state. Asking that the boisterous audience allow each candidate to speak without interruption, Slade first introduces Howell, who strides to the podium amidst cheers of "Eat 'em up, Clark!"
Modest-faced, with serious eyes and trimmed moustache, Howell has nursed grand political ambitions ever since serving as Speaker of the Georgia House in 1890-91 and taking over the editorship of the Atlanta Constitution from his father in 1897. Protégé of New South champion Henry Grady, son of famed newspaperman, mayor, and would-be senator Evan Howell, Clark Howell represents the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, linked to Northern speculators, railroad corporations, and cotton traders.
The post at the Constitution has served Howell as a political platform, as it has for conservative Democrats since 1868, when it was founded to lead the fight against carpetbaggers and Reconstruction policies. In the 1880's, under Grady's direction, it became the most popular morning paper in the South, its offices a training ground for state Democratic leaders, its pages filled with international news, sports scores, social events, and the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris. (The paper's influence was so great that at the time of his death in 1889, when he was only thirty-nine years old, Grady was being groomed as Grover Cleveland's running mate.) The editorial page of the Constitution was a strong proponent of the New South program, a vision of the South freed from its plantation past. The New South forsook the agrarian antebellum world and reshaped Georgia into a center of industry and transportation, offering investors and industrialists a cheap labor force, liberal government regulations, and other business incentives.
As editor, Howell continued the corporate agenda, supporting the Spanish-American War because of the commercial benefits it provided the South, promoting railroad causes in the state legislature, and pushing for greater funding of the University of Georgia. With corporate support and traditional factions of the Democratic Party uniting behind him, Howell quickly became the frontrunner once he announced his candidacy in the spring of 1905.
His opponent, Hoke Smith, is nearly as eminent a figure as Howell, though he lacks Howell's lineage. Pugnacious and confident, Smith served as secretary of the interior under Grover Cleveland and for years has edited the rival newspaper, the Atlanta Journal, through which he has fought against child labor and for primary education.
The Journal started in 1883 as an afternoon paper and soon cut into the Constitution's domination of opinion. When the Old Kimball House, largest hotel in the South and center of convention meetings and political gatherings, caught fire later that year at four o'clock one morning, the Journal capitalized on the event. The edition of the Constitution had already been formatted and sent to the presses, but the Journal brought its employees in early and had them work all day to put out a regular edition covering the fire and, as hours passed, "Extra" editions detailing last-minute developments in the inferno. (At the time, an extra—a regular edition with an updated front page wrapped around it—was a novelty.) Sensing a demand for up-to-date information, the Journal editors sent extras out on trains all over the state and kept newsboys in the street peddling the papers all evening. Such tactics gave the Journal enduring influence over public opinion. It might have lacked the impressive staff of writers found at the Constitution (though it later employed Margaret Mitchell, Erskine Caldwell, and Vereen Bell), but the Journal commanded the afternoon market, and it offered readers an alternative to the Constitution and its alliance with conservative Democrats.
By 1906, the Journal has attached itself to another faction of the Democratic Party, the reform wing led by Hoke Smith, who was chief owner of the paper in the 1880's and who continues to maintain editorial influence upon it, though the managing editor is now James Gray. Against Howell and "the boys" (as Smith calls the party power brokers), Smith stands for reform and populism, targeting railroad magnates and Wall Street bigwigs as lobbyists and influence peddlers working to keep wages low and prices high. He addresses his ideas to Georgia farmers who witness annual increases in freight costs, to debtors who resent banks for charging high interest rates and threatening foreclosure for a single missed payment, to rural businessmen who see themselves competing with Wall Street conglomerates. Sensing the public's impatience with the conservative status quo, Smith has developed a campaign platform that includes higher taxes for railroads, a corrupt practices act, the criminalizing of lobbying, an elective railroad commission, and tighter scrutiny of voting practices.
In recent months, Howell has seen his lead diminish as Smith has toured the state denouncing him as a corporate insider and a tool of the railroads. In response, Howell has developed a platform with its own reformist aspects, such as an elective railroad commission, monitoring of railroad abuses (like the selective issuing of free passes), and extension of the cotton trade to help farmers. But these concessions have done little to remove the stigma of oligarchy from his profile. Smith assails Howell as an agent of the corporations and attacks the Constitution as the organ of money; and Howell's self-defenses are ineffectual. For himself Smith claims the banner of reform and flaunts a decisive endorsement to prove it, that of the celebrated Tom Watson, a man who, though a failed politician and small-town resident, embodies the Jeffersonian vision of agrarian politics. After leading a dramatic third-party challenge to the Democratic Party, he remains Georgia's most trusted voice on issues of labor and capital.
Excerpted from Negrophobia by Mark Bauerlein. Copyright © 2001 by Mark Bauerlein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.