The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Politics of Race

The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Politics of Race

The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Politics of Race

The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Politics of Race


Bernard Headley examines the political and racial elements surrounding a catastrophic period in the history of one of the South's most progressive cities.

Between the summer of 1979 and the spring of 1981, a killer terrorized Atlanta. Some thirty black youths, twenty-eight males and two females, were reported missing, and the bodies of twenty-nine murder victims were eventually found in and around the city. Atlanta appeared often on the nightly news, burning what came to be known as the "Atlanta tragedy" into the national consciousness.

The fury and fear steadily intensified as the death toll mounted and rumor raged. But the arrest, trial, and conviction of Wayne B. Williams for the murder of two adult males whose names had appeared on the special police task force of Atlanta's missing and murdered brought an abrupt halt to this Atlanta story.

Examining the various law enforcement and legal details of the case, Headley does not seek to remake or refute the case against Williams; in fact, heends up believing most of the state's case against this young black man. His objective is to put the interweaving and often conflicting details in historical perspective and, from a sociological point of view, to chronologically recall a set of events that were inextricably tied to a larger American dynamic.


Between late 1980 and early 1982, Atlanta, Georgia, was the focus of much national and international attention. Being the center of attention was, of course, nothing new to Atlanta. The city always seemed bent on finding ways to mesmerize the nation with its spirited stubbornness, its exuberant triumphalism. A case in point was the determination with which Atlantans undertook the arduous chore of rebuilding their city after General William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union army set fire to it in 1864, as part of Sherman's merciless Union offensive to bring a seditious South to its knees. So daunting had seemed the task of a city literally having to rise from its ashes after the Civil War that a good part of the Atlanta story has been likened to the flight of the mythical phoenix.

More recent episodes in that story were more flamboyant. In 1990, under the command of its business elite, upstart Atlanta, city of Bubba, stealthily edged out arguably better situated, more "world-class" locales to host the Centennial Olympics in 1996. And back in 1961, after weeks of holding the nation in beguiling suspense, the city, again under the firm hand of an economic center regime, peacefully integrated its all-white public schools—a feat city fathers had managed to accomplish amidst widespread fears of anarchy, which racist hotheads, who were then quite numerous and rather well worked up over the whole doggone issue of Negro rights, had planned to massively carry out.

But Atlanta's being the center of attention between 1980 and 1982 scarcely had anything to do with a war. Nor with athletic competition. Nor with civil or racial unrest—not in the conventional sense, anyway. What brought Atlanta to the forefront this time around did, however, have everything to do with race—although not because of the usual struggle over racial rights. Issues of that sort had reached a kind of understood, if not altogether quiet, modus vivendi with the election in 1973 of the city's first black mayor and the appointment four years earlier of three blacks to the city's board of education.

Race, nonetheless, was the dominant theme in this latest saga. A string of mysterious slayings and disappearances of black city youngsters had once again brought Atlanta into the spotlight. All told, between summer 1979 and spring . . .

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