WHITE FLIGHT: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism - a Review


WHITE FLIGHT: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Kevin M Kruse’s 2005 book seems very timely today.    We often see racism,  after the reign of Donald Trump and the George Floyd killing, without a historical framework.  Kruse explains post- World War II Atlanta with multiple examples of its complex path.   Atlanta seemingly became a “poster child” for a Southern city desegregating, while working class and lower middle-class white people resisted the coalition effort seeking “reasonable” change.   Kruse carefully explains how the Republican Party of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon began the mainstream “conservative” movement which continues through today.   Racism is central, of course, but there is much more to the story.

Atlanta had a relatively united middle-class core of Black leadership in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s.  Leading ministers, lawyers, (“realtists” – not allowed to be called) real estate brokers, and others of influence, regularly worked and socialized together.

Blacks, unlike in most of the South, were allowed to vote.  They grew rapidly to over 30%, and eventually 40% of the potential voters.  William Hartsfield, Sr., the long-time mayor, built a coalition of Black and upper-middle class/wealthy white voters.  Both the Black and white leadership believed that they were successfully manipulating the other.

Black central Atlanta neighborhoods became much too small for growing numbers of Black residents.  Lower-middle class and working class white homeowners bitterly resisted Black buyers increasingly moving into their neighborhoods.  They felt “entitled” to “their” parks, golf courses, schools, and neighborhood churches.  Older white people, wishing to move, frequently found that Black buyers would pay more for their houses, than white potential owners.

Bricks, bombs and arson attempts, as well as large groups of screaming people often confronted the new Black owners.   Recently formed neighborhood groups tried (sometimes successfully) to “buy back” individual houses.  Whites felt that they had “earned” the right to their “own” schools, parks and nearby churches.  

Mayor Hartsfield and his fellow white leaders pushed compromise boundaries where Blacks could live, temporarily slowing, but not stopping, the re-segregation of Atlanta neighborhoods.

In 1960 radicalized students from Atlanta’s historically Black colleges began protesting commercial segregation at local restaurants and stores.   “Black Power” began to challenge the older generation’s acceptance of moderate, slow efforts towards change.  Rich’s Department Stores, the large local chain, became the target of increasing non-violent sit-ins, resulting in increasing arrests.  

Much to the surprise of most, a call for Black charge card owners to return their cards, was highly successful.  There was strong resentment of the filthy Black restaurant and restrooms in the sub-basement.   Blacks were forbidden from trying on clothing, as whites resisted trying on clothes that might have had (brief) Black “intimate” contact.   Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrest, and subsequent transfer to another jurisdiction for jailing, due to being on probation for another sit-in conviction, was noteworthy.

The move to integrate public schools was extremely token.  When Black students were accepted in high schools (grade schools and junior high schools came later), they were consistently harassed in multiple ways. Teachers and principals consistently supporting student harassment and didn’t help when individual students protested.   The few white students that might have supported the (generally female) students, avoided contact, out of fear of retribution.   White students (and staff), unlike Black students, were allowed (after initial resistance) to transfer out of schools that were integrated.  When one elementary school was integrated, after a Friday’s attendance of 450 (white only) students, on Monday, there were only 7 white students and the (white) principal (no teachers) left at the school.

During the push towards federal civil rights legislation, organized white resistance to public accommodations in hotels, restaurants and other commercial business grew significantly.   The movements stressed: “individual rights”, avoiding “communism”, support of capitalism, a distrust of the Federal Government, as wells as much talk of the  ultimate anathema, white girls being accosted, or in relationships with Black boys.  As the fears of “Black Power” grew, the white resistance got more and more support from middle class and wealthy white people.

While mainstream religious church authorities talked about the importance of the desegregation, their hypocrisy was often exposed, as they refused to admit Black students.   Martin Luther King, 3rd, was refused admission to one school, obviously because he was Black.   The (Catholic) Archdiocese was a noted exception, accepting Black students.

In 1963, large Atlanta hotels, largely refused to take in Black delegates to an NAACP national conference in Atlanta, including refusing to honor previously made reservations.  Ivan Allen, who succeeded Hartsfield as mayor, testified several times before Congress of the necessity of Civil Rights legislation to mandate public accommodations.   Hotel owners and most restaurants then accepted Black customers.    Lester Maddox, later Georgia’s governor, was a noted exception, with his Pickrick Restaurant.

White families increasingly left Atlanta, helping greatly expand suburban Atlanta.   In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the first Republican winning Georgia’s electoral votes in over a century.   Lyndon Johnson was prophetic in saying that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would cost the Democratic Party the South.

Kruse makes a convincing argument that Goldwater in 1964 and more significantly Richard Nixon in 1968 began shaping an increasing change in Republican Party politics, moving from a diverse party, to one of “conservatism”.  It primarily became a white peoples’ party.  It reflected the core values of suburban white people.  They wanted no responsibility for supporting urban (e.g. Black) concerns, helping sustain and build tacit, but significant racism.  Examples of this include Barry Goldwater explaining his upcoming “no” vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act being because he believed that “public accommodations” should not be required of businesses,  Richard Nixon’s (and Donald Trump’s) calls for “law and order”,  the “Willie Horton” commercials,  and Donald Trump’s insistence that Barack Obama was born in Africa.   

Other core values of “conservatism” such as a strong belief in individualism, opposition to Federal Government programs and control, a strong support of unregulated capitalism, and similar were prevalent in suburban Atlanta in the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as in the Republican Party as it increasingly became dominated by conservative leadership.  Kruse makes clear that this is no coincidence.

This is an excellent, well researched book!




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