Kruse (2005) “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.


**This posting reflects only the Introduction. Reference: Kruse Presentation November 28, 2005.

In stories spun by its supporters, Atlanta had—according to Mayor William Hartsfield—become “the city too busy to hate.” It would seem that Atlanta, from the perspective of countless admirers, from the press, and from the President of the United States, was the modern example of races living together. While other parts of the South spent the postwar decades resisting desegregation by “massive resistance,” Atlanta faced challenges from the Civil Right Movement with maturity and moderation. As Kruse mentions, “This was, to be sure, not an empty boast” since economic progress and racial progressivism were coupled together (3). “By the end of the 1950s, these supporters could point with pride to a litany of sites that the city had desegregated, from public spaces like the buses, airport, libraries, and golf courses to countless private neighborhoods in between” (3).

However, between December 1962 and January 1963, then Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. made a significant blunder in ordering the construction of a wooden barricade between two southwest Atlanta roads to discourage Black citizens from purchasing homes in an all-white middle-class subdivision of brick ranch houses and loblolly pines called Peyton Forest. When Dr. Clinton Warner, a Morehouse Graduate, bought a house there, white homeowners asked the mayor to erect barriers on Peyton Road and nearby Harlan Road to prevent further “intrusion.” The Board of Aldermen approved the legislation on December 17, and Mayor Allen quickly signed it. The next morning, city maintenance crews, consisting mostly of Black workers, erected wooden barriers saying “Road Closed.” The barriers “were simply wooden beams which had been painted black and white, bolted to steel I-beams, and sunk into the pavement” (3). As all Atlantans at the time understood, the barrier stood at the precise fault line between Black and White sections of the city. Over the previous two decades, Black Atlantans moved away from the crowded inner city and purchased more homes in neighborhoods to the west; during the same period, White Atlantans to the south of the city had grown increasingly alarmed as those areas went “colored.” The barricades constructed at the direction of the mayor, were intended to keep the areas separated and at peace, but the effects were contrary to that objective. While Civil Rights activists protested around the barricade and boycotted area businesses, two lawsuits were filed in local courts. Local White residents embraced the “Atlanta Wall” as their salvation. Residents of Peyton Forest wrapped the barricade in Christmas paper and added a sign proclaiming, “Thank the Lord!”

A powerful White homeowners association (called the Southwest Citizens Association) reasoned that the barricade was “simply a response to the vicious, block-busting tactics used by Negro relators.” A member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Citizen group mentioned that several residents pledged to “sell and get out” if something concrete was not done to “stabilize the situation” of intrusion. The member went on to say that “…all we want to do is keep our homes.” An Officer with Southwest Citizen pointed out that “not just Peyton Forest but all of white Atlanta was endangered by Black expansion. If the Whites could just win once…they would have some hope for holding out. I think the whole city of Atlanta is as stake” (4). Two weeks later, alarmist press coverage reported that Black relators were attempting to purchase three homes in the nearby Lynhurst neighborhood. The sales represented a flank-attack on the all white neighborhood. As tensions between white residents and black relators increased, late one Friday night, the “Peyton Wall” was sawn into parts, I-beams pulled from the ground and tossed into a nearby creek. The next day, residents hastily assembled the scraps along with nearby brush and trees, into a new barricade reinforced by heavy stones. That night, the improvised barricade was set on fire. The mayor ordered the barricades to be rebuilt on the Monday of the new week. This time however, a small group of Ku Klux Klan members stood guard at the barricade on Monday and Tuesday nights. In all of the spectacle of the “Peyton Wall,” local courts ruled against the roadblock and forced the mayor to have it removed. Yet, the damage was done:

              “But as the barricades were destroyed, so was whites’ confidence in the neighborhood, In less than a month, most of the homes in Peyton Forest—including that of Virgil Copeland, the head of the homeowners’ resistance movement—were listed for sale with black real-estate agents. ‘When the barricades came down, everything collapsed. It’s all over out there for us.’ Indeed, by the end of July 1963 all but fifteen white families had sold their homes to black buyers and abandoned the neighborhood. They were not simply fleeing Peyton Forest, Copeland pointed out, but the city itself. ‘We are trying to find some area outside the city limits where we can buy homes and get away from the problem’ of desegregation. ‘Everybody I know is definitely leaving the city of Atlanta.’” (5).

Between 1960 and 1980, nearly half of Atlanta’s 300,000 white residents abandoned the city. Because of their confrontation with the Civil Rights movement, white southern conservatives were forced to abandon their traditional, populist, and often starkly racist demagoguery and instead craft a new conservatism predicated on a language of rights, freedoms, and individualism. This modern conservatism proved to be both subtler and stronger than the politics that preceded it and helped southern conservatives dominate the Republican Party and, through national politics as well. White Flight, in the end, was more than a physical relocation. It was a political revolution (6).

The existing narratives (and studies) on the segregationist opposition to the Civil Rights movement reflect too much on certain top-level politicians, close studies of white supremacist groups, or historical accounts of communities that found themselves as central stages. Kruse argues that southern political opposition to the Civil Rights movement was not a monolithic all-or-nothing approach, such as that of Alabama Governor George Wallace, who proclaimed “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” However, segregationists were innovative in strategies and tactics used to confront the Civil Rights movement. There was never a fixed entity, but rather a constant fluid relationship in which blacks and whites constantly adjusted to meet changing circumstances (7). In other words, the southern system of “massive resistance” advocating racial discrimination and segregation was the result of constant change. “While national politicians waged a reactionary struggle in the courts and Congress to preserve the old system of de jure segregation, those at the local level were discovering a number of ways in which they could preserve and, indeed, perfect the realities of racial segregation outside the realm of law and politics” (8). The conventional narrative argues that “massive resistance” from the segregationist movement failed in light of the Brown (1954) decision and the Civil and Voting Rights Acts (1964, 1965), but those fail to account for the mass migration of white from cities to the suburbs. Doubtless, that mass migration proved to be most successful segregationist response to the moral demands of the Civil Rights movement and the legal authority of the courts. “Although the suburbs were just as segregated as the city—and, truthfully, often more so—white residents succeeded in convincing the courts, the nation, and even themselves that this phenomenon represented de facto segregation, something that stemmed not from the race-conscience actions of residents but instead from less offensive issues like class stratification and postwar sprawl” (8). The world of white suburbia looked little like that world of white supremacy, but these worlds did have much in common; especially, a remarkably similar level of racial, social, and political homogeneity to shared ideologies advocating individual rights over communal responsibilities, privatization over public welfare, and “free enterprise” over everything else. The withdrawal to the suburbs proved that “massive resistance” lived on, even after its alleged death.

Segregationists have been interpreted as a group using their reactionary leaders as a standard as simply just opponents to the Civil Rights movement. They did stand against the right of blacks to vote, assemble, protest, speak, and own property, but did not think of themselves in terms of what they opposed. Instead, they identified themselves in terms of what they were fighting for, such as the “right” to select their own neighbors, their employees, their children’s classmates, the right to do what they pleased with their private property and personal businesses, and perhaps most importantly “the right to remain free from what they saw as dangerous encroachments by the federal government” (9). In their mind, they were defending individual freedom and it was the civil rights activists who were aligned with the powerful central state and demanded increased government regulation of local affairs, and waged a sustained assault on the individual economic, social, and political prerogatives of others. To white southerners, desegregation was not to end the system of racial oppression in the South, but to install a new system that oppressed them instead. That is to say, that white southerners supported segregation as a defense of their own liberties, rather than a denial of others’ (9). Using this construct, there is a link between “massive resistance” and modern conservatism. Although the “New Right” has attempted to reject this notion, their explanation is from the top-down explanation. In other words, the modern representatives of the “New Right” have become experts at using racially coded language (language warning) that is not overtly racist, but strongly appeals with white voters. Traditional conservative elements, such as hostility towards the federal government and faith in free enterprise underwent fundamental transformations to include new conservative causes such as tuition vouchers, the tax revolt and the privatization of public services. The conventional scholarship contends these changes came about in the 1970s and 1980s, but Kruse argues that those trends were already apparent before the rise of the suburbs, in cities such as Atlanta, as early as the 1950s. Previous studies have started after the suburbs were fully created and thus, failed to take into account the complete outcome on race and class in the formation of this new conservative ideology. Inside the homogenous setting of a suburb, with no other colors in sight and no other classes in contention, such claims that conservatives are “color-blind” seem plausible.

From the period of time between the 1948 Dixiecrat Rebellion to the rise of Goldwater Republicans in 1964, the South underwent a turbulent political transformation. While traditional conservatism focuses on hostility towards the federal government and near complete delegation to free enterprise; in the south, causes such as tuition vouchers, tax revolts, and privatization of public services became the locus for evolved segregationists. While the accepted scholarship argues that these issues came to the forefront in the 1970s & 1980s, Kruse argues these trends were already prevalent in the 1950s Atlanta. Perhaps resulting from the larger African American population in Atlanta seeking a faster paced residential change than in comparatively sized northern cities. In northern cities, biracial unions “served as an early impetus for desegregation not simply on the shop floor but throughout the city” (13). But as hard times fell on northern cities, the consequences of economic decline and deindustrialization—massive layoffs, plant closings, and industrial relocation to the suburbs–not only fueled white flight, but also served to splinter the unions and, in the process, the entire liberal-labor political alliance. However, the South being far less industrialized and having only scant unionization, focused on desegregation in the postwar period. In the 1950s & 1960s, school desegregation had a tremendous influence in reshaping cities and the course of white resistance. “Desegregation of neighborhood schools impacted surrounding neighborhoods, thus convincing white residents to sell their homes and leading community institutions to pull up roots” (13).

The axiom that Atlanta is the “city too busy to hate” may appear as the exception to the segregationist order: a city that presented a moderate image and contributed much to the Civil Rights Movement. Especially given that Atlanta has been the home (at one time or another) of key African American leaders, civil rights agencies, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and the “black economic district Auburn Avenue.” Combining these individuals and institutions together galvanized the notion that the city of Atlanta was the center of African American strength in the South. In spite of this strength, the Ku Klux Klan located its national headquarters on Peachtree Street in the 1920s & 1930s and “anointed” Atlanta as it’s “holy city.” The accepted narrative and perception is that Atlanta is a grand-compromise in the midst of a segregated South. The city became dominated by the paradigm that a moderate “coalition of businessmen and boosterish politicians” enforced the centrality of a “community power structure.” Regardless of the perception, African Americans were never more than junior partners.

Kruse indicates the focus of this study is on whites who found themselves outside the mainstream of the moderate coalition and eventually fled to the northern suburbs. For working-class whites the confrontations began in the 1940s & 1950s, following residential desegregation. For middle-class whites, that confrontation came in the later 1950s, as desegregation spread beyond neighborhoods into public spaces (parks, transit lines, and schools). Perhaps the downhill of the moderate coalition came in the early 1960s, when civil rights activists targeted the businesses and personal lives of upper class whites. Under direct attack was the commitment from upper class whites to integration measures, especially given the segregated world in which they resided. Doubtless, an evident hypocrisy.

Kruse, Kevin. 2005. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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