Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Atlanta's Shame": W.E.B. Du Bois and Carrie Williams Clifford Respond to the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

"Atlanta's Shame": W.E.B. Du Bois and Carrie Williams Clifford Respond to the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906

Article excerpt

"South of the North, yet north of the South, lies the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future. I have seen her in the morning, when the first flush of day had half-roused her; she lay gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia; then the blue smoke began to cuff from her chimneys, the tinkle of bell and scream of whistle broke the silence, the rattle and roar of busy life slowly gathered and swelled, until the seething whirl of the city seemed a strange thing in a sleepy land."

"Atlanta, Queen of the cotton kingdom; Atlanta Gateway to the Land of the Sun; Atlanta, the new Lachesis, spinner of web and woof for the world. So the city crowned her hundred hills with factories, and store her shops with cunning handiwork, and stretched long iron ways to greet the busy Mercury in his coming. And the Nation talked of her striving."

--W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (63, 64)


The title of this essay refers to the race riot that began in Atlanta on September 22, 1906. I first noted the phrase in reference to the Atlanta riot in Howard University Professor Kelly Miller's open letter to journalist John Temple Graves and then in the title of Carrie William Clifford's poem that appeared in the Voice of the Negro on October 13, 1906 (Miller 60; Clifford 492). This idea of the riot as shameful underscores the anxiety that many Atlantans experienced in the aftermath of the violence. The riot uncovered racial prejudices that existed beneath the veneer of what was perceived as a genteel southern city. The image of a violent mob proceeding through the city's streets had been publicized nationally. Despite attempts to hide such racial enmity, the Atlanta riot revealed the underlying racial tensions of what was reputedly the most progressive city in the South. Most of the public figures writing about the Atlanta riots reckon with this notion of shame, implying that there is a psychological cost that must be paid by the city where such violence occurs. Consequently, published riot narratives during this period are particularly significant in light of Atlanta's struggle to maintain the appearance of respectability following this barbarous riot.

Before the riot, Atlanta had been heralded as a southern city of peaceful interracial progress. The riot revealed that this bond had its limits, and it caused some to doubt whether the city had ever been progressive at all. The attack on innocents specifically caused many middle-class black leaders to feel vulnerable because the violence temporarily disrupted a "national fantasy" that blacks held about their status as citizens in the city. This national fantasy had indicated that as blacks ascended in class status, they would gain increasing social acceptance. Yet, as Lauren Berlant argues, such national fantasies are always fraught with contradictions, ambiguities, and discontinuities (21). Narratives addressing the Atlanta riot reveal the struggle to respond to such complexities.

If national identity is constructed within certain dominant narratives, then these riot narratives are constantly at play with received national narratives. One national narrative that had gained dominance during this period was the narrative of progress. Narratives that depicted Atlanta as the most progressive city in the South were particularly important during riotous times. By "progressive," I mean to suggest a two-pronged definition. On the one hand, I am referring to the period of social reform between 1890 and 1920. The purpose of this movement was to propose reform measures that would adequately deal with society's ills. In Who Were the Progressives? Glenda Gilmore suggests that there were three catalysts for Progressive reformers: industrialization, urbanization, and the influx of immigrants (5-6). These reformers attempted to impose "moral" order on a society that had been disoriented by these radical changes. …

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