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
This is an excellent, well researched book!