The Atlanta story

April 15, 2011

Nearly 30 people, most of them children, found dead in the same city between the summer of 1979 and the spring of 1981--less than two years. But the authorities put little effort into the investigation, and the mainstream media barely noticed. Why? Because the victims were poor and Black. The killings of Black children in Atlanta only got attention after mothers of the victims and community members organized to demand action.

Ahmed Shawki and Retha Hill wrote this report from the city that was becoming known as the capital of the "new South." It appeared in the July 1981 edition of Socialist Worker.

TWO YEARS ago this month, on July 28, 1979, the body of 14-year-old Edward Smith, was found on Niskey Lake Drive in southwest Atlanta. He had been shot. Half an hour later, the body of another 14-year-old boy, Alfred Evans, was found 50 yards away.

These two children head the list of 28 murdered and one missing in Atlanta's Black community.

Two children, each 14, found dead within 50 yards of each other on the same day, on the same stretch of road--a cause of concern? A big news story? Yes, but in Atlanta, no one seemed to care. Not in the Atlanta Constitution, which ran a brief item on page 18A about the bodies of two Black males being found. Not the wire services--none picked up the story. No cause for alarm for the Atlanta police or the city administration.

After all, the kids were Black and poor.

But by May 1980, when six children had disappeared or been murdered, three mothers thought they saw a pattern--in the killings and in the lack of interest shown by the authorities. Camille Belle, Willie Mae Mathis and Venus Taylor decided to form a committee--later to become the Committee to Stop the Children's Murders (STOP). They went to the police department and the mayor's office, and called on the Justice Department to investigate the cases. They were shunned.

Wayne Williams maintains his innocence in the Atlanta killings
Wayne Williams maintains his innocence in the Atlanta killings

In the months of May and June, five more children went missing. The parents stepped up their efforts and began leafleting the community. In July, they demanded the formation of a special task force. Still, there was foot-dragging.

The head of a new task force was appointed in August. His qualifications: nil. His effort: he called on psychic Dorothy Allyson to solve the murders.

The toll kept mounting. By December, 16 children were murdered or missing. The explosion at an Atlanta day care center, killing four, attracted national attention. Through the parents' efforts, reporters were forced to ask, "What missing and murdered children?"

Today, the toll is 28. Why so much stalling, so much foot-dragging? Because the kids were poor, Black, ordinary children. And because all those in authority put their own interests first.

The investigative bodies involved wanted to cover themselves and divert attention from their lack of success. The city administration and business community was worried about the city's reputation--how would the killings affect convention business and investments? The federal government belatedly said it was concerned, but did nothing. Where was the national outcry for 80,000 Atlanta children held hostage.

IN ATLANTA, the victim was blamed. A curfew was imposed for children 15 years old and younger--but all the children had disappeared during the day. The children were made out to be "streetwise," possibly homosexual, reported Time--or hustlers who brought it on themselves.

As Camille Bell put it: "Well, if you can't keep it quiet that these kids are dead, then let's tell the world that it's their fault that they're dead."

It was nonsense. Jeffrey Mathis sang in a school choir at church and in school. He was in the 5th grade. He was a boy scout and a member of the boys club. Yusef Bell played trumpet and drums, stood at the top of his fifth grade class, belonged to the Boys Scouts and Boys Clubs.

And if the kids weren't responsible, the parents were. Special FBI agent Michael Twibell announced in April 1981 that "some of those kids were killed by their parents" because they were "nuisances." The parents' organization was accused of fraud and exploiting the children's murders.

Today, authorities are smug because they have arrested and charged Wayne Williams for the murder of Nathaniel Cater, the 28th victim. Williams, a 23-year-old freelance photographer and promoter, has been a suspect for two months. The evidence against him rests on fiber evidence--fibers and dog hairs found on Cater showed "no significant microscopic difference" to those found in Williams' bedroom and his dog, testified a lab expert.

But Williams is only charged with one of the murders, leaving 27 unsolved. It is rumored that he will be charged with as many as 13--but that still leaves 14 unaccounted--and the evidence against him is heavily circumstantial.

Much, of course, is made of the fact that Williams is Black. Therefore, we are told, there is no question of racism.

But this settles nothing. All the murdered are Black youths and young adults. This system thrives on violence against Black people--including within Black communities themselves. There is no question that if the victims had been white and well off, an investigation would have taken off immediately.

The Atlanta story is about racism and which class you're from--and the need to change the whole system on which this society is based.

In Atlanta, ordinary people began trying to change things. The parents' organization, the support committees, the self-defense groups that emerged--and were so vehemently denounced.

Their efforts may well be the most important part of the Atlanta tragedy. For racism and violence will continue as long as a double system of justice exists.The Atlanta story is an indictment of American capitalism.

THE CASHIER at the drugstore where we bought cigarettes and batteries looked up and smiled at my two companions. "Oh yeah?" he said. "I used to live in Cleveland." Then came the snicker and the knowing glance.

Everyone we met that day was from Cleveland. They all peered at us with a mocking look that seemed to say, "Pity you have to go back."

They now live in Atlanta--Georgia's capital and largest city, the "New York of the South" and one of America's most glamorous towns. As the regional center of finance, transportation and trade, and the center of the service sector of the entire Georgia economy, Atlanta is as close to a 1981 version of the American Dream city as is allowable in today's economy.

Speaking of dreams, Atlanta at first glance brings to mind the city that Martin Luther King had in mind when he envisioned a day when freedom and opportunity would ring from the red hills of Georgia to the Lookout Mountains of Tennessee. With a Black mayor, the largest Black middle class of any city in America, more than 2,000 Black-owned businesses and not less than 10 Black millionaires in the city alone, it's no wonder that poll after poll shows Atlanta to be one of the best homes for Black Americans.

Atlanta is 66 percent Black. It is the home of many of the oldest Afro-American colleges and seemed to prove that Black capitalism can and does work.

But then came the murders--and with them, the critical eyes of the nation. And more importantly, the eyes of Blacks in the rest of the country who wanted so much for Atlanta to work. Those eyes saw the sorrow of 28 families and discovered that there are many bruises on this Georgia peach.

Atlanta is no dream. It is a city in the sunbelt with northern snowbelt problems. More than 20 percent of the city's Black population lives below the poverty line. Black unemployment is high. Though relatively low compared with the rest of the country, it still doubles that of white Atlantans. About 40 percent of Black-owned businesses fail, despite a large number of startups.

It is estimated that 10,000 whites leave the city each month, taking with them a huge part of the tax base. Politicians have turned to annexing neighboring counties to improve the city's immediate economy. Black school enrollment is 80 percent, and desegregation seems no longer possible. Black leaders exchanged immediate school integration for top-level administrative jobs six years ago. The city's poor, like the residents of the Techwood projects, are being rooted out of the downtown area so new businesses can move in.

Behind the glass towers on the south side of town, there is a place that looks very much like Cleveland--and all of the old cities in the north. Black people live there. Old buildings sit abandoned and burned out. Old men sit on worn out chairs and lead tired lives in an old system called capitalism.

Atlanta is no real dream, but one deferred. Like the cities of the East and Midwest at the turn of the century, Atlanta is flourishing at the expense of its poor. The 117,000 who have migrated to the Georgia capital have found many of the same problems that they fled--like high crime and a displaced workforce. And they are discovering new difficulties such as lower wages and nonunion shops.

The problem with Atlanta is capitalism. Business interests control the city. And the job of the politicians, whether Black or white, is to make sure that the city runs smoothly.

That's why the deaths of the first 10 children were ignored by the Black mayor and the white corporate bosses. They did not wish to create a bad business climate by protesting the deaths of poor Black children. Yet a few years ago, when a white doctor was murdered in downtown Atlanta, there was a furor and a white panic. Front page news. The mayor, Maynard Jackson, created a special crime unit.

Update: Wayne Williams was accused of committing a majority of the Atlanta murders, but was only convicted in two cases. He has continued to maintain his innocence.

In 2005, journalists reported that Ku Klux Klan member Charles T. Sanders, an initial suspect in the investigation, had praised the murders in secretly recorded conversations.

Also in 2005, the sheriff of DeKalb County, Ga., reopened the cases of five children who were killed there, stating that he doubted Williams was responsible for their murders--but the reinvestigation came to an end when the sheriff resigned a year later. None of the other murders, which happened in Fulton County, Ga., have been reinvestigated.

In 2007, lawyers for Williams won DNA testing of the dog hairs that were used in the case against him. Forensic experts say the tests did not conclusively prove that Williams' dog was the source of the hairs presented as evidence by prosecutors.

First published in the July 1981 edition of Socialist Worker.

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