The story of Atlanta’s struggle with segregation was centered on neither the crusade of civil rights activists nor the reactionary resistance of segregationists. Instead, that struggle centered on the moderate coalition of white politicians, elite businessmen, and African American leaders who dictated the pace of racial change. However, the perception of “close cooperation” did not mean that racism or racial politics did not exist within the city, it was just minimized in the goal of city-wide economic progress for the interested parties. By establishing a “community power structure,” the power brokers would keep both races at peace through “shared” economic prosperity (a). Regardless of the cooperation, segregation overshadowed everything. “Yet even if the blacks and whites of Atlanta found themselves focused on the racial lines between them, they managed to work across those lines, not simply for their own self-interests but for the common good of the city as well. Ultimately, the story of Atlanta’s moderate coalition signaled a departure from a traditional southern politics dominated by white supremacy and rural interests. It represented instead, a bold model that held that progress in race relations would create progress in economic growth, too.” (20).
I. Georgia and the “Rule of the Rustics”
For the first half of the twentieth century, Georgia was dominated by the politics of rural racism and disfranchisement of the black vote. In 1877, the Georgia assembly installed a cumulative poll tax, installing a de-facto barrier preventing freedmen and poor whites from voting. “By 1900 only one out of every 10 eligible blacks remained on the [voting] rolls” (21). In the same year, the Democratic Party of Georgia initiated a “white’s only primary,” effectively removing black voters from the political process altogether. By 1908, a grandfather clause, literacy tests, and property qualifications had been codified by constitutional amendment (b). As Georgia undermined black voters through disenfranchisement and discrimination, it likewise weakened urban voters through the “county unit system.” When the system was initiated, the distribution of unit votes roughly corresponded to that of that state’s population. The allotments were not tied to population shifts, but instead remained static. As populations increased in urban areas and lessened in rural ones, the county unit system thus ensured that smaller counties wielded wildly disproportionate political power. “In 1946, for instance, 14,092 votes from Atlanta’s Fulton County carried precisely that same weight as 132 votes from rural Chattahoochee County” (21).
Writing in Southern Politics in State and Nation (1946), V.O. Key, Jr. indicated that “antagonism between populous centers and rural counties extends far back in Georgia history” (117). Georgia’s agrarian crisis aroused a deeper and more lasting rural distrust of cities. The “county unit system,” which gave disproportionate weight to rural counties in state wide elections gave “great advantage to rabble rousers with a rustic appeal” (118). “Under the county-unit arrangement, the state’s 159 counties are arbitrarily divided into three categories, with the 8 most populous entitled to 6 unit votes apiece, the next 30 to 4 and the rest to 2. The result is that 121 small, rural counties determine the political destiny of the state.”
Following the American Civil War, the economy in the Georgia switched with extraordinary zeal to commercial and industrial development and largely neglected its agrarian past. The “New South” was concerned with the construction of railroads and the expansion on manufactures and not of the serious plight of rural farmers, who had been devastated by sharecropping and tenant farming. “For three postwar decades, the clamor for the resolution of the farmers’ grievances mounted, not steadily but in spurts that reflected economic cycles, until it dominated the national political debate” (Sundquist 1983, 107).
The national emergence of the Farmer’s Alliance (encapsulated as the Populist Party in Georgia) in 1892, sought to lessen the plight of subsistence farmers and argued that the political and economic systems were rigged to serve the interests of the rich. The Alliance demanded that the government expand the money supply by printing more money and coining more silver, offering a solution to those who could not acquire capital or could not pay their debts. As a result from attacking the gold standard, inflation would rise and so too would the price of cotton. In 1866, the cost for a pound of cotton was $0.40, but by 1894 cotton had devalued to less than .05¢ per pound.
On the national level, the gold-silver issue divided both Republicans and Democrats. However, the Populists found the two parties to be largely unresponsive during the 1892 Presidential election. Conversely, during the 1896 Presidential election, the Populists endorsed a fusion ticket with the Democratic Party and nominated William Jennings Bryan, known famously for his “Cross of Gold Speech.” In that speech, Bryan vowed to fight supporters of the gold standard, especially if they came to the open fields:
“If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
The Populists became enraged at Bryan’s running mate, Maine businessman Arthur Sewall and instead favored Georgian Tom Watson. “Bryan never formally accepted the nomination nor acknowledged Watson’s participation in the presidential campaign” (Sabato and Ernst 2007, 332).
The disenfranchisement of the black votes paired with the county unit system guaranteed that Georgia politics would dominated by rural racism for decades. Eugene Talmadge, became the embodiment of rustic rule and became wildly popular among poor whites in the country side. Talmadge bragged that the poor dirt farmer only had three friends: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, and Gene Talmadge. The mechanism of his popularity was the stress on white supremacy. The exhibited raw racism won “the wild man from Sugar Creek” election to governor three times and agriculture commissioner three more. Talmadge was not the first Georgia politician to exploit the county unit system, but he was the first to perfectly maximize the urban-rural cleavage within the state. He had been elected as the rustic’s friend, but soon showed a capacity for making other friends. According to Mayhew (1956):
“[Talmadge] had been elected as the farmer’s friend. But he soon showed a capacity for making other friends. He began to display the ambivalence—some call is playing both ends against the middle—which made him at once the champion of the forgotten man and the benefactor of the interests.” When he fought the New Deal, he clinched his hold on the respect of the business community. When he broke up a textile strike with troops, and later kept evicted workers in a “concentration camp,” that respect turned to deification. So corporation executives and tenant-farmers were political bedfellows in support of Talmadge. One gathers that it never occurred to the “wool hat boys” that Gene could not be faithful to them if he was con sorting with the crowd which was supposed to be grinding their faces. He was, in any case, a successful Jekyll and Hyde until the day of his death.”
Overall, Georgians came to accept the disparate “county unit system” and strictly enforced segregation as “just the way things” were going to be. In the words of Talmadge’s son, Herman (doubtless, his father’s heir apparent) stated these systems represented a “time-honored tradition dating back before the Christian era when people had similar tribe representation” (22).
During the 1940s, the first serious threat to “Talmadgism” emerged. In 1945, the Georgia legislative rewrote the state’s constitution and did away with the $3 poll tax. Although out of office at the time, Talmadge favored the repeal because it would mean poor-rural whites could now vote, when previously they could not afford it. The assumption at the time was that black voters had no interests in participating in elections, unless given a reason. Also, there was no concern for black voters involvement, since the Democratic Party maintained a “white-only primary.”
On April 3, 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Smith v. Allwright [321 U.S. 649] that the Texas statue permitting the Democratic Party in the state to have a “white-only primary” was unconstitutional. Associate Justice Reed, delivering the majority opinion, wrote: “The United States is a constitutional democracy. Its organic law grants to all citizens a right to participate in the choice of election officials without restriction by any state because of race. This grant to the people of the opportunity for choice is not be nullified by a state through casting its electoral process in a form which permits a private organization to practice racial discrimination in the election. Constitutional rights would be of little value if they could be thus indirectly denied.”
Hoping for the same outcome in Georgia, Rev. Primus King of Columbus, went to the Muscogee County Courthouse on July 4, 1944 to vote in the Democratic primary, but was turned away. Rev. King retained an attorney and filed suit against the Muscogee County Democratic Executive Committee. The Federal District Court in Macon “ruled that King had been denied his constitutional rights, and ordered a $100 verdict to the plaintiff.” In March 1946, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision and invalidated the exclusionary primary. Thus, in just one-year’s time, the poll tax and “white primary” were dismantled. In response to these events, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Atlanta Negro Voters League (ANVL) led registration drives statewide. By the summer of 1946, “more than 100,000 African Americans had registered, just in time to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial primary” (23). Doubtless, this significant shift in the political landscape did not come without consequence: “white-rustics” still controlled rural politics thorough the county unit system.
When Talmadge ran for governor in 1946, he kept the court ruling and the surge in voter registration at the center of his campaign. He told a Greensboro audience, “With the white primary out of the way negroes will vote in numbers and repeal our law requiring segregation in schools, hotels, and on trains—even those which prohibit intermarriage” (24). When asked about how to keep blacks away from the polls, Talmadge wrote on a piece of paper: “pistols.” Some Talmadge supporters took the suggestion literally, especially in Walton and Taylor counties. In Taylor County, a black World War II veteran who voted in the primary was dragged from his home and shot to death by four whites. In Walton County, hundreds of blacks had turned out to vote and segregationist soon became enraged; “The sight of that long line of n****** waiting to vote put the finishing touches on it,” remarked one white man (24). From that incident, four African Americans were murdered and one body had been shot 180 times. With his election to a fourth term, Talmadge demonstrated that the politics of rural racism and the county unit system, were still in full swing.
The Governor-Elect died in a cancer ward on December 21, 1946. The resulting crisis, called the Three Governors Controversy, ended with Herman Talmadge, the son of the deceased Governor-Elect, ultimately becoming the next governor by winning a special election two years later. The rustic rule would continue on until the county unit system was struck down by the Supreme Court in Gary v. Sanders in 1963 [372 U.S. 368].
II. Atlanta and the Politics of Progress: The Power Structures
While the rural politics of Georgia had been dominated by racism, the political scene in Atlanta moved in the total opposite direction; especially given the city was home to the two populations Talmadge railed against: African Americans and urban moderates. While state politics were dominated by the county unit system, these enemies of Talmadge created their own power arrangement: the ward system. Atlanta’s city government consisted of a weak mayor and a strong city council, whose members were elected by individual wards. As a product of the ward system, councilmen kept close ties with to the white working-class politics of the city. By 1930, the ward system was under assault, given a graft investigation in 1929 that led to the conviction of six councilmen. With the election of Mayor William Hartsfield in 1936, who pledged to be a strong mayor, the ward system crumbled. Hartsfield made promotion of the city of Atlanta his top priority, especially for air transportation. Never passing up an opportunity for self-promotion and theatrics, Hartsfield was on-board the first airmail flight between Atlanta and New York City—an early accomplishment he touted while an alderman. While serving as mayor during the first showing of Gone with the Wind, Hartsfield made sure he was at center stage at Loew’s Grand Theater, even with the film’s stars Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh in attendance.
As the strength of the ward system diminished, so too did the clout of the white working class in Atlanta. Instead of contending with ward politics and the entrenched patronage system, Hartsfield relied on a positive public image, some of which was reinforced by Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill, who as a promoter of the city was an ardent supporter of Hartsfield. The city’s powerful industrialists also favored the mayor, especially Robert Woodruff, who headed the Coca-Cola Company and was on the boards of General Electric, Southern Railway, and the Trust Company of Georgia. Over time, the two men became inseparable. As the mayor’s push for airline growth came to fruition, he used bottles of Coca-Cola to christen new airplanes. In complete juxtaposition of the rural rustic coalition, Hartsfield relied on a community power structure packed with businessmen of retail, utilities, railroads, and banking; however, instead of being rigid ideologues relying on demagoguery, they were political moderates. What resulted was an urban elite that was incredibly close-knit from the posh Northside. According to Ivan Allen, Jr.—a magnate of office supplies—the group was as dedicated “to the betterment of Atlanta as much as a Boy Scout troop is dedicated to fresh milk and clean air” (28).
Another group of accomplished professionals—composed of college professors, ministers, contractors, real estate men, insurance executives, and bankers—lived and worked together in the finer black neighborhoods of the city with a sense of community and common purpose similar to their white counterparts. The epicenter of the black community in Atlanta was Auburn Avenue. “Many knew the street as “Sweet Auburn” because, as one leader later explained, money was sweet. By 1945, the black owned businesses boasted a net worth of $30 million, contributed to in no small way by a former slave from rural Georgia and a Texas migrant with a 6th grade education. Alonzo Herndon spent his first seven years as a slave and remained oppressed until he moved to Atlanta. Herndon established an elegant chain of barbershops for an elite white clientele. Using those profits, he founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which is still in business today. At the time of his death, Herndon had an estate worth $1 million and a company worth $12 million that employed 1,500 people in nine states. Another important figure in the development of Sweet Auburn was Heman Perry, the son of a Texas grocer. Perry learned the insurance trade and founded Standard Life Insurance Company in 1913, after negotiating a deal whereby he would aid in protecting Herndon’s Atlanta Mutual from being taken over by white companies. In return, Herndon purchased a substantial block of stock in Perry’s life insurance company. In the years before the Great Depression, he founded the Citizens Trust Company, a bank, and service delivery ranging from laundry, pharmacy, engineering, and fuel. While Perry’s financial promise was lost, many of his employees went on to rebuild the lost business. Citizens Trust was resurrected so well that it became the first black owned bank in the Federal Reserve System. At the same time, more of Perry’s men founded the Mutual Federal Savings & Loan Association.
The main political power broker from Atlanta’s black community was John Wesley Dobbs, a Post Office Republican, postal workers, and honorary mayor of Sweet Auburn Avenue. Dobbs pushed Mayor Hartsfield to hire eight African American police officers, although they could only patrol black neighborhoods, not arrest whites, and lacked the legitimacy of white officers. Nonetheless, the hiring was a significant challenge to the city’s segregation. Dobbs’ grandson, Maynard Jackson, Jr., would become the city’s first black mayor in 1973. Perhaps Dobbs’ closest rival was Austin Walden, civil rights attorney, leader of Atlanta’s black Democrats, and president of the local NAACP chapter from 1924 to 1936 (29). While Dobbs and Walden were sometimes at odds, they did work together to register black voters and assert their votes as important in Atlanta politics. Dobbs and Walden also dominated the political dialogue of black Atlanta in the pages of the Atlanta Daily World, the south’s only daily black newspaper.
The black power structure in Atlanta also included the prominent Ebenezer and Wheat Street Baptist churches, headed by Revs. Martin Luther King, Sr and William Holmes Borders, respectively. At times King and Borders may have been rivals, but together they pushed their congregations out of complacency and toward a confrontation with white supremacy. They also closely linked their congregations with the financial industries on Auburn Avenue. “King, for instance, encouraged local insurance agents to become members of the congregation. As they made rounds for Atlanta Life, they could collect contributions for Ebenezer; in turn, they would find a host of new clients in the church” (30). In another example, Borders deposited his congregations contributions into Citizens Trust. The sight of God’s money being deposited into the bank, led his congregation to put their own money there, effectively reinforcing the business.
While Auburn Avenue was an important development for the black community in Atlanta, on the city’s west side, Atlanta University was an older hub. Founded in the aftermath of the Civil War, Atlanta University became the home of esteemed faculty such as John Hope and W.E.B. DuBois and notable alumni like Walter White and James Weldon Johnson. “Withdrawn from the world of white supremacy, the campus was, in Johnson’s memories, “a spot fresh and beautiful, a rest for the eyes from what surrounded it, a green island in a dull red sea” (30). By the 1940s, the original Atlanta University had merged with four black colleges—Morehouse, Spellman, Morris Brown, and Clark—and the Gammon Theological Seminary to form the Atlanta University Center.
As a result of Sweet Auburn and the Atlanta University Center, a new generation of black leaders emerged in Atlanta. They found financial and intellectual independence, as well as a great deal of pride. At churches on Wheat Street and Ebenezer, they heard ministers who encourage them to stand up for civil rights, and on the streets outside, they had political players like John Wesley Dobbs and Austin Walden, who could provide direction how to do that. Coupled all together with civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP (which was founded by W.E.B. DuBois in 1909), they abandoned personal rivalries and worked together for the betterment of the larger community. Together, they formed a formidable power structure of their own, which dealt closely with the more prominent power structure of white business owners.
III. Rise of the Moderate Coalition
The white primary in Georgia effectively barred black votes from participating in the state’s elections. That was ceteris paribus for the city of Atlanta. Black voters were, however, permitted to participate in special elections, such as bond referenda and the failed attempt to recall Mayor James L. Key in 1932. While lacking franchise, black voters organized into a bloc and hoped that voter registration would become a concerted community effort.
In the early 1930s, citizenship schools were established to educate blacks about politics and their right to vote. The schools were initially held at Atlanta University, then by the local NAACP, and at churches—corroboration that black leaders were working together. In 1935, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. lead a march to city hall as part of a campaign for voting rights. The following year, John Wesley Dobbs, in concert with other leaders, founded the Atlanta Civic and Political League. Among the other groups were: To Improve Conditions (TIC) Club established by activist Ruby Blackburn and The Hungry Club organized at the Butler Street YMCA under the leadership of Warren Cochrane. The groups sought to register 10,000 black voters, but they fell short of that goal. As Clarence Bacote, distinguished historian at Atlanta University and political activist, stated “We always thought that it was time for us to get blacks prepared for the ballot because we never knew when the Supreme Court might overturn the white primary” (32). In early 1940, the coalition asked Mayor Hartsfield for more streetlights in their neighborhood, to wit the mayor replied “Come back and see me when you have 10,000 votes” (32). The elimination of the white primary in Texas by the Supreme Court in 1944 marked a watershed moment in Georgia politics.
When Congressman Robert Ramspeck unexpectedly resigned from office, the black coalition had their first real opportunity to freely exercise newly gained suffrage. Instead of appointing a successor from the Democratic Party, then Gov. Ellis Arnall called for a special election in 1946. Since the special election was conducted under state guidelines, it was not protected by the white primary. “Recognizing the rare opportunity, the NAACP, the Atlanta Civic and Political League, the Atlanta Daily World, and local churches and social organizations joined together to launch a massive registration campaign” (32). When the polls closed on election day, the black bloc overwhelmingly supported Helen Douglas Mankin, a Fulton County representative in the Georgia General Assembly. The bloc favored Mankin because she was the only candidate of 17 others, who engaged the black coalition in dialogue. The national press stressed the role of black voters: Newsweek headlined its coverage “Georgia’s Black Ballots,” while Time was even more direct with a photo of Mankin and the caption “The Negro vote did it” (33). Mankin claimed her seat from the 5th District on February 12, 1946. In the midterm election held later that year, she lost in the Democratic Party primary, largely due to the county unit system and voting machine issues.
Motivated by their role in the election of Mankin and the elimination of the white primary, black leaders established a bipartisan All Citizens Registration Committee to strengthen their presence at the polls. The registration committee was an all out community effort to register voters. For example, political rivals Dobbs and Walden put aside political rancor, activists Grace Towns Hamilton and Robert Thompson continued their drive with the Urban League, Citizens Trust and Atlanta Life provided funding, the Daily World gave it constant coverage, and colleges and churches continued their previous efforts. “By the end of the two-month drive, the committee had more than tripled the number of blacks registered in the city, to a grand total of 21,244. Less than a year before, blacks had been essentially shut out of Atlanta’s politics. Suddenly, the composed more than a quarter of it’s electorate” (33). As a result, Atlanta’s black community now had the power to demand services from the city.
In the 1949 mayoral race, William Hartsfield and Fulton County Commissioner Charlie Brown squared off, each seeking to win the black vote. The voters sided with Hartsfield, mostly because of the concessions he had made for black police officers and future promises for a black fire station, parks, and public projects. Hartsfield won the mayoral primary by a margin of just 50.1 percent.
IV. The Coalition in Action
In the post war political calculus of Atlanta politics, Hartsfield found himself walking a tightrope between black Atlantans and the affluent whites. While Hartsfield may have been as adamant of a segregationist as any other southern white of the era, he was a political realist and was forced to put personal prejudices aside to secure the black vote. For example, in 1944 he had contacted Congressman Martin Dies, head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate the NAACP. After the creation of the black coalition in Atlanta, his tone changed. By 1951, the NAACP held its convention in Atlanta and Hartsfield presided over the opening ceremony as warmly as any industry function. While affluent whites of the business coalition, were not open to integration of schools and expansion of civil rights, personal racism was less important than public prestige. The stability of the city and the success of their businesses would irreparably be harmed by racial extremism. By 1950, continued black migration into the city and white flight from the city, threatened the balance of the coalition. To balance out the growth of the black coalition, Hartsfield annexed the city of Bulkhead and suburbs to the south, immediately adding 82 square miles and nearly 100,000 people. “As white coalition members had expected, Atlanta’s black population dropped from 41 percent of the total population to just 33 percent, literally overnight” (38).
After the annexation plan, John Wesley Dobbs approached Hartsfield about integrating the fire department, but he resisted given that firefighters had to live and sleep together. Doing so, it was reasoned, would complicate racial matters. In protest, Dobbs resigned from the Atlanta Negro Voters League and supported Brown instead. To quell the possible fracture in the coalition, Hartsfield and his campaign manager Helen Bullard, called a meeting of black leaders to discuss grievances. Importantly, Hamilton urged the mayor to speak frankly. “He should stress that his enemies were denouncing him as the “Negro representative,” when he was simply trying to be mayor of all the people” (39). The sore spots that should be brought up and discussed were that there would be “no Negro fireman, more Negro policeman, better schools and parks for the Negroes, appointment of Negroes to planning boards, and the elimination of police brutality” (39). Because of the meeting, the coalition continued to support Hartsfield and retained its control of Atlanta. When Dr. Rufus Clement, president of Atlanta University, ran for a position on the board of education segregationists on the city’s Democratic Executive Committee contacted the House Un-American Activities Committee hoping to find dirt. When that group tried to spread Clement’s past involvement in left-leaning group, they found the city’s white elite aligned against them. As an added blow to segregationists on the committee, court rulings forced the admittance of black candidates for its seats. “By all accounts, the 1953 elections represented the triumph of coalition politics. Not only had Atlanta returned its moderate mayor to city hall; it had also elected its first black officials since Reconstruction” (40).
In 1955, Hartsfield coined a new name for the city of Atlanta as a “city too busy to hate.” Amid the positive press coverage from the previous elections, the phrase stuck. As the mayor explained:
“We strive to undo the damage the Southern demagogue does to the South. We strive to make an opposite impression from that created by the loud-mouthed clowns. Our aim in life is to make no business, no industry, no educational or social organization ashamed of the dateline ‘Atlanta’” (40).
“The notion of Atlanta has the “city too busy to hate” was invented and sustained by a moderate coalition born not out of chance but through careful calculation. For their part, white politicians and corporate leaders were just as segregationist in their thinking as other whites of the city” (41). However, business interests and revenue were most important. Appearing to be sympathetic or in-step with progressive politics was in their business interests. Together, the coalition of black and white voters staved off segregationist sentiments of working-class and middle-class whites. Their movement, however, would not go without steam. While Atlanta may have been “too busy to hate,” the segregationist would soon create a new narrative of beleaguered rights. In turn, that movement of white resistance in Atlanta would ultimately unglue the coalition of Hartsfield.
(a) A community power structure, as conceived in Floyd Hunter’s 1953 Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers, is a group of key leaders acting together to affect what gets done and how it gets done. However, the nature of the relationship among the individual power actors can vary from one community to another. In Hunter’s evaluation of Atlanta, no one individual headed the power structure—instead, different people took the lead depending on the issue. In Hunter’s words, “…I doubt seriously that power forms a single pyramid with any nicety in a community the size of Atlanta. There are pyramids of power in this community which seem more important to the present discussion than a pyramid.”
(b) Ostensibly this legislation was intended to reform the region’s corrupt politics by marginalizing black voters, but in practice poor whites were often stripped of the vote as well, thereby ridding the region of even the vestiges of radical racism and making southern states more attractive to northern investors.
Key, V.O. 1949. Southern Politics in State and Nature. New York: Knopf.
*Unless cited in-text, notice of page numbers in the above text is reference to:
Kruse, Kevin. 2005. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton: Princeton University.
Sabato, Larry, and Howard Ernst. 2007. Encyclopedia of American Political Parties and Elections. New York: Checkmark.
Sundquist, James. 1983. Dynamics of the Party System. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.