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300 Attend Funeral For Man Whose Shooting Death Sparked Racial Violence

October 6, 1985

ASHBURN, Ga. (AP) _ Ashburn’s black community gathered amid tight security and refrains of hymns Sunday to bury a black man whose shooting death by police touched off a violent demonstration and several days of racial tension.

State patrol officers lined the funeral route and stood outside the new Mount Olive Baptist Church, where nearly 300 people attended services for Robert L. Wright.

About 30 extra law enforcement officers waited at the Turner County Sheriff’s Department in case trouble developed, but the southern Georgia town of 4,500 people, about evenly split between whites and blacks, was calm.

The Rev. Fred Taylor of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference told mourners the ″ultimate question″ the black community in Ashburn faces is how to ″prevent or lessen the chance of the same thing happening again.″

Taylor, bearing a message from SCLC President Joseph Lowery, said, ″It is very tragic. We live in a world where people resolve human conflict with the barrel of a gun.″

Wright, 22, was killed by a white city police officer a week ago after he bolted from a probation revocation hearing at the Turner County courthouse. Sheriff Lamar Whiddon and Ashburn police officer Scotty Ireland chased Wright into an alley, where he was shot in the back.

Whiddon said he directed Ireland to fire because he considered Wright dangerous, even though he was not armed.

His death touched off an hour-long demonstration by 300 to 500 mostly young blacks, some of whom hurled rocks and bottles through shop windows and vandalized two stores. Racial tension was high for several days after that.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called a community meeting Tuesday night at which black leaders urged calm. And NAACP regional Director Earl Shinhoster met Wednesday with Gov. Joe Frank Harris’ chief executive officer, Tom Perdue, to discuss problems in the town.

Wright’s death also prompted state authorities to send patrol officers into the community to prevent further violence.

Earl Shinhoster, regional director of the NAACP, on Sunday said Ashburn blacks are ″still very tense and very concerned″ about the death of Wright. But he said the community ″intends to wait for justice.″

Shinhoster said the NAACP would seek a meeting with Harris to request creation of a statewide human relations commission.

He said such a commission is needed because ″police brutality and abuse of black citizens is near epidemic proportions″ in middle and south Georgia.

Wright had been held in the county jail since Sept. 2 on an armed robbery charge. He previously had been convicted of burglary, and authorities were trying to revoke his probation when he raced from the courtroom.

At Sunday’s service, the Rev. James Hill used the eulogy to address the community’s young people, urging them to ″overcome the world by leaning and depending on Jesus.″

″We may do things wrong and the police will come and arrest us but Jesus gives us a grace that can never be arrested,″ Hill said.

As relatives and friends sobbed loudly, Hill said, ″Don’t let your choice become worldly things because the Bible says these things will soon pass away.″

Whiddon and Tony Gailey, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, said Ashburn was calm throughout the weekend.

Gailey said authorities were encouraged that an annual festival celebrating Ashburn’s history was held Saturday without incident.

″I was very pleased with the way that went,″ Gailey said. ″Everybody, black and white, seemed to have a good time and there was no sign that anything had happened earlier in the week.″

Local officials had feared a possible confrontation when the Ku Klux Klan announced it planned to send robed members into Ashburn on Saturday to distribute leaflets. But a judge halted the plans, and instead about 20 unrobed Klansmen gave literature Saturday afternoon to people they encountered in white neighborhoods.

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