Abandonment of the Public Space

/Jeffrey Albertson; June 15, 2018.

The daily battle with metro Atlanta traffic is enough to try the patience of the most hardened commuter. For decades, the suburban counties have rejected referendums to expand MARTA and isolating themselves from mass modes of transportation instead of adopting a method of integration. As a result of that isolation, coupled with the readily available automobile (for some with means) and cheap gasoline prices, the idea of MARTA expansion was scrapped as early as 1970.

In this Briefly Stated review, I will discuss the integration of the Atlanta Transit System:

While a specific watershed moment may pose difficult to identify, the seminal event may be the abandonment of the Atlanta Transit System by whites following the decision in Browder v. Gayle (1956). The Browder decision deemed bus segregation in the City of Montgomery and greater Alabama unconstitutional:

“We hold that the statutes and ordinances requiring segregation of the white and colored races on the motor buses of a common carrier of passengers in the City of Montgomery and its police jurisdiction violate the due process and equal protection of the law clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”
U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama – 142 F. Supp. 707 (M.D. Ala. 1956) June 5, 1956.

As previously written, Atlanta earned the moniker of being the “City to Busy to Hate” because of racial progress made by a moderate power structure that favored incremental integration of the public space. After the Browder decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court, Mayor Hartsfield knew the issue would arise in Atlanta and keeping with the city’s public image, sought minimal confrontation. However, “emboldened by the previous ruling, Rev. William Holmes Borders and other ministers launched the Love, Law, and Liberation Movement to apply the decision in Atlanta and thus end segregated transportation [1].” In keeping with the Atlanta approach to race relations, ministers met with Mayor Hartsfield to discuss their plans in advance. The Triple-L movement purposed to stage a violation of state statues requiring segregation on motor carriers, creating a mechanism to pose a legal challenge to the foundation of Georgia’s Jim Crow architecture.

Favoring a moderate approach, Rev. Borders stated his intention to the Atlanta Transit System “until these buses are desegregated. If they take the bus to the barn, we’ll ride it to the barn and then get another. We’ll take every bus in Atlanta to the barn if necessary.” Although his rhetoric at the time may have seemed aggressive, the ministers favored a conservative approach and vowed not to sit in close proximity to any white females. On January 9, 1957, the ministers boarded a bus, paid their fare, and sat at their own pleasure—in direct violation of the requirement they sit to the rear of the bus.

Following a “ceremonial” arrest arranged by the mayor and Police Chief Herbert Jenkins, the minister were taken to jail in the nation’s “first integrated paddy wagon.” Following this incident, Borders took to fight segregation in court.

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 11.07.25 PM
Source: Jet Magazine (Jan. 22, 1959)

Instead of retaliating in violence, such as the ugliness of the Montgomery boycott, Atlanta’s segregationists struck back by boycotting the buses themselves. Although there were threats to bomb the Wheat Street Baptist Church, no such event happened. The director of the segregationist States’ Rights Council of Georgia encouraged white flight. “White people should refuse absolutely to be integrated on the city buses of Atlanta. In no event should white people remain seated when these NAACP agitators become disorderly and unruly in sitting by them [2].”

In the incremental integration, working-class whites now used private cars by a margin of two-to-one, effectively abandoning the bus. Meanwhile, blacks in neighboring tracts—sections that were likely to share bus routes with these whites areas—trended in precisely the opposite directions, choosing public transportation over private cars by a two-to-one margin. As integration continued to golf courses, parks, and swimming pools, the white flight from the public space accelerated.

[1] Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005), P. 112.
[2] Ibid, P. 115.

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