Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism
Kevin M. Kruse
Princeton University Press, $35 (cloth)
Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South
Matthew D. Lassiter
Princeton University Press, $35 (cloth)
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination in jobs, education, and public accommodations. Originally sent to Congress by President Kennedy, the bill had faced determined resistance from segregationists in Congress, and liberals in the Senate had needed nearly three months to break a filibuster. It was a great political triumph for Johnson, who had expended significant time and political capital on its passage. But even as he signed it into law, Johnson was not in a mood to celebrate. A canny Texas political operator, he understood the electoral risks of racial politics. On the evening of the signing, he told Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Johnson had reason to be concerned. Shortly after the Senate vote on June 19, the Republican Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who had opposed the Civil Rights Act on states-rights grounds, went hunting for electoral votes in the Deep South. Johnson trounced Goldwater in the 1964 election, but Goldwater managed to win five states in the Deep South, four of which had not voted Republican since Reconstruction. In the years that followed, the Republican Party gained steadily in the region. By 2004, the 11 states of the former Confederacy sent 18 Republicans and only four Democrats to the United States Senate. Southern delegations to the House of Representatives also tilt toward the Republicans, and President George W. Bush swept the region’s electoral votes in 2000 and 2004. In retrospect, Johnson appears to have been prescient.
Yet Johnson’s remark is too simple. In recent years, as historians have taken another look at the American South during the postwar era, a more complicated picture has emerged with a greater emphasis on demographic transformation and a less exclusive focus on race as the engine of the South’s political realignment. In the second half of the 20th century, the South underwent a period of massive economic development, fueled by federal defense spending and infrastructure investments. Southern metropolitan regions grew as migrants to the South sought jobs in the city and homes in new suburbs. New elites emerged in these cities and suburbs and created new institutions, including a more competitive two-party political system that replaced the one-party structure of racial domination described by V.O. Key in his classic Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949). By viewing the change in Southern politics as a simple matter of partisan realignment over race, you can miss this broader regional social and economic transformation.
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Two new works of American history try to unpack the interconnected stories of economic development, civil rights, and political realignment. In White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Kevin M. Kruse argues that race and demographic change were intertwined well before the Civil Rights Act, at least in the New South’s most important city. White Flight debunks Atlanta’s popular image as the home of a new consensus on race—a city, as its boosters liked to claim, “too busy to hate.” It describes instead a city divided on issues of race and class, often flirting with open conflict over housing, schools, and public accommodations. Throughout the postwar era, black Atlantans pushed against the legal and economic restrictions of Jim Crow Georgia, especially real-estate practices that restricted the growing black community to a few overcrowded neighborhoods. In response, white establishments organized for a fight. Georgia Power, for example, armed its bus drivers, who used lethal force on a few black passengers who resisted giving up their seats. A majority of whites supported such efforts, opposed integration of nearly any kind, and supported political candidates who promised a massive resistance to desegregation. The result was a combustible mixture of frustrations, resentments, and discrimination.
What separated Atlanta from, say, Birmingham was not a broad consensus on racial politics but canny leadership from a handful of politicians committed to keeping the peace and an unlikely alliance between wealthy businessmen and black voters. African-Americans in rural Georgia faced effective restrictions on voting until the mid-1960s, but black African-Americans in Atlanta had secured the franchise a couple of decades earlier. (The sham literacy tests and retaliatory violence used to curtail voting in the countryside did not work so well in the crowded city.) After the courts struck down Georgia’s all-white primary system in 1946, black Atlantans organized politically through churches and other institutions. They began to vote strategically as a “black bloc” in local elections for candidates willing to make deals. In the 1940s and 1950s, they supported Mayor William Hartsfield, a white politician who quietly courted black support throughout his long political career. A business-friendly Democrat, Hartsfield boasted that he never made an important decision without checking with Robert Woodruff, the president of the Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Company. Though personally he supported segregation, in practice Hartsfield was happy to work with black leaders on issues of mutual interest. “I knew the Negroes were going to vote,” he explained later on. “And I decided they might as well vote for me.”
The Hartsfield coalition was no model of political stability. Even token efforts to serve Atlanta’s black community faced white opposition. The backlash was particularly intense in neighborhoods to the west of downtown Atlanta, where white homeowners felt threatened by a growing black community just a few blocks away. In neighborhoods such as Mozley Park and West End, whites organized to “defend” their neighborhoods against black families. White youth organized a neo-fascist gang called the Columbians, complete with white uniforms and a lightning-bolt insignia. Ku Klux Klan activity increased. Meanwhile, more “respectable” elements formed the West End Cooperative Corporation to pressure real-estate agents to exclude African-American buyers. In an advertisement, the group called on fellow citizens to “HELP STOP Negro Encroachment into White Areas, Unscrupulous White and Negro Real Estate Agents from Exploiting Negro Home Buyers, Spreading Communism.”
Worried about his political future in a divided city, Hartsfield sought new allies. He found them in the leafy suburb of Buckhead, just north of Atlanta’s city limits. In 1950, Hartsfield proposed a “Plan of Improvement” that annexed these exclusive, white suburbs into Atlanta. The move preserved a roughly two-to-one white voting majority in the city, which had been eroding due to white flight and black migration into the city. In addition, residents of Buckhead were precisely the sort of businessmen and professionals who already supported Hartsfield. These new Atlantans were less concerned than West End homeowners that desegregation would hit them personally: their isolated neighborhoods, schools, golf courses, and clubs could remain segregated by class or by private-membership criteria. Massive white resistance, on the other hand, was a threat to relationships with Northern businesses and the federal government. Atlanta’s black leadership supported the annexation, too. Although the urban expansion diluted black voting power, it expanded the city’s tax base and made it less likely that white Atlanta would dump Hartsfield and unite behind an arch-segregationist.
With these neighborhoods incorporated, the moderate coalition held on, but only until the 1960s, when the city finally desegregated its public schools. Then thousands of white Atlantans voted with their feet. Some left the city for nearby Cobb and Gwinnett Counties; some sent their children to private schools, including “segregation academies” that sprung up to serve this new market. Young civil rights leaders, frustrated by the slow pace of integration, grew disillusioned with moderate black and white leadership and stepped up sit-ins and demonstrations at downtown restaurants and department stores—including some businesses owned by longtime Hartsfield allies. In 1965, after he had left office, Hartsfield sought to again improve the electoral math in Atlanta proper by campaigning for another annexation gambit, this time targeting the Fulton County suburb of Sandy Springs. But residents of Sandy Springs blocked the measure. Town spokesmen promised to “build up a city separate from Atlanta and your Negroes and forbid any Negroes to buy, or own or live within our limits. You have forced this on us and we will fight to the finish.”
According to Kruse, white resistance in places like Sandy Springs marked the birth of a new sort of conservatism. In the old politics of white supremacy, white Southerners battled for control of public institutions—they insisted on a “sense of ownership on public spaces,” such as parks, restaurants, department stores, public transportation, and schools. During the 1960s Southern conservatives—having lost the legal war over segregation—abandoned public spaces rather than share them with blacks. The center of white life moved from urban neighborhoods to suburbs, from public transportation to private cars, from public parks to backyards. In the process, white conservatives articulated a new world view, which emphasized privacy, security, and lower taxes instead of overt racism. Kruse argues that “modern conservatism”—the public philosophy of the current Republican Party—is a product of this experience. “Upon closer examination,” he concludes, “much of the modern suburban conservative agenda—the secessionist stance toward cities, the individualistic outlook, the fervent faith in free enterprise, and the hostility to the federal government—was, in fact, first articulated and advanced in the resistance of southern whites to desegregation.”
While this is plausible and insightful as a concept, Kruse does not spend much time in White Flight showing how this world view was expressed in practice. Though we learn a great deal about Mozley Park and Buckhead, there is little detail on Cobb County or other suburbs where this set of ideas apparently took root. There is also little on the Republican Party, the institution that ultimately crystallized metropolitan Atlanta’s new conservatism. Kruse mentions several Republican politicians who became active by the 1970s—U.S. Rep. Ben Blackburn, gubernatorial candidate Howard “Bo” Callaway, and former-Emory student (and future national Republican leader) Newt Gingrich. But he does not describe their ideas or political rhetoric in much detail. For example, in his discussion of Georgia’s 1966 gubernatorial election, Kruse quotes an aide to the segregationist candidate, Lester Maddox, about his Republican opponent. Callaway, the aide suggested, “represented old Southern Democrat ideals,” but “presented these views in a vocabulary of couched euphemisms and respectable synonyms.” Kruse does not say how (or even if) Callaway represented a new suburban sensibility on privacy or taxes—or if he simply meant to capitalize on Democratic divisions over Maddox. In the end White Flight does not follow modern conservatism much past the city line.
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In The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, Matthew D. Lassiter picks up the story of change in the South in 1964 and takes it through the 1970s. Venturing a little further out into the strip malls and subdivisions of the New South, he focuses on the politics of school integration in several metropolitan regions. Like Kruse, Lassiter argues that residents of these suburbs shifted over time from advocating overt racism based on total segregation to defending de facto inequalities based on residential patterns. But Lassiter argues that this process was the crucible not only of tax revolts and suburban secession but also of a creative, genuinely moderate politics. He primarily examines suburban parents who formed open-schools movements in Georgia and North Carolina. In Georgia, these parents took on a segregationist state government that threatened to shut down or privatize public education rather than allow even token integration. In Charlotte, white parents continued to supported public education after the courts ordered the school system to bus students between the city and its surrounding suburbs. According to Lassiter, these groups “revitalized the center” on race and class and helped to steer modern Southern cities away from self-destructive racial conflict.
To be sure, this open-schools movement did not constitute a sudden flowering of racial egalitarianism. Some parents acted based on quiet calculations about how far the civil-rights revolution was likely to go and who was most likely to be affected by it. In the Atlanta area, affluent homeowners knew that even if segregation fell, their neighborhood schools would remain predominately white. As a result, they formulated a strategy of accommodation intended to prevent two worse outcomes: the total collapse of public education and court-ordered busing. As Lassiter points out, this often meant reorganizing exclusive practices around class instead of race. For example, token integration could be achieved without jeopardizing all the superior resources available to most white children.
In Charlotte, a different dynamic prevailed. The issue there was not merely enduring de jure segregation of public schools but a more ambitious attempt to achieve genuine racial balance. After several years of political compromises and partial integration of schools, a 1969 district court ruling, upheld two years later by the Supreme Court in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education, found that students could be bused across school-district lines to forcibly complete the integration process. Although the decision was not completely accepted by white parents, the program was relatively successful. Far fewer parents than expected sent their children to private schools or picked up and moved. By the end of the 1970s, many Charlotte-area residents expressed pride in the degree of racial integration they had managed to achieve.
Lassiter suggests that comparing Atlanta and Charlotte can tell us something about the politics of schooling. He writes that court-ordered busing “produced an ambivalent legacy contingent upon the metropolitan scope of the integration remedy. Class-sensitive policies that included the suburbs resulted in relatively stable levels of school desegregation in a number of southern metropolises, while inequitable formulas that concentrated the burdens on working-class neighborhoods inflamed reactionary populism and accelerated white flight.” Lassiter goes on to connect school integration to the broader question of Southern political realignment. In its emphasis on the limits of desegregation, the perceived inequities of federal intervention, and the need to preserve law and order, the politics of Southern moderation were not the traditional politics of segregation. Instead, they resembled the views being expressed around the same time by disillusioned Democrats in the North and West, who were reacting against high crime rates and other urban problems. This, Lassiter argues, was politics that Richard Nixon variously associated with the “forgotten Americans,” “silent majority,” or “new American majority,” if arrived at from a different direction.
Lassiter describes two distinct challenges to Democratic rule in the South during the postwar era. A right-wing, segregationist challenge emerged in the Deep South (South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi) in the third-party presidential campaigns of Strom Thurmond (1948) and George Wallace (1968), as well as Barry Goldwater’s Republican campaign in 1964. At the same time, moderate Republicans successfully challenged the Democrats in the Upper South (Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee) and Florida. Republican gains in the Upper South had often come among voters who approved of the GOP positions on economics and defense, not race. As a result, Republican efforts in the Deep South to “hunt where the ducks are,” as Goldwater said, often alienated the party’s new suburban allies. Goldwater may have won 70 percent of the vote in Mississippi, but in the process he lost Virginia and Florida, which had both gone Republican in the previous three elections.
According to Lassiter, Richard Nixon’s famous “Southern Strategy” was also a political disaster. In The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), the Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips argued that the GOP should make a direct play for George Wallace voters. Nixon pursued this strategy most aggressively in the 1970 midterm elections. He campaigned heavily in the Deep South while backing away from moderate Republicans, such as Virginia gubernatorial candidate Linwood Holton, who had made a point to send his daughter to an integrated public school. The strategy backfired. Republicans lost a dozen seats in Congress, while key governorships went to progressive Southern Democrats, such as Jimmy Carter in Georgia. Lassiter writes that Phillips was not a sage political strategist but a “false prophet of reactionary populism,” and that Republican success in subsequent elections was due not to racial demagoguery so much as to a retreat to racial moderation. That allowed suburbanites in the South to join their counterparts in the rest of the country in center-right politics based on low taxes and small government, and to affiliate with the Republican Party.
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In many ways, Kruse and Lassiter are characterizing some of the same events in different ways. Both argue that Jim Crow gave way in the 1960s to less overt structures to promote white privilege, organized around ideas of privacy and meritocracy instead of outright white supremacy. But each draws different conclusions from this shift. Kruse argues that we cannot understand the conservative politics of suburbanization without understanding the battles over civil rights in the South. As he puts it, the “politics of race and racism did inspire policies that now seem to have little to do with race.” Lassiter, on the other hand, contends that Southern politics was not all that different from politics elsewhere. After all, suburban secessionism was hardly new in the 1960s, when Sandy Springs and other Atlanta suburbs resisted incorporation. Northerners had been fighting similar battles since at least the 1870s, when Brookline, Massachusetts, spurned Boston’s annexation plans because of concerns about taxes and public infrastructure. Did the heated, racist rhetoric coming from Sandy Springs leaders represent the true reason for their rejection of Atlanta? Or did the majority of residents quietly make an economic calculation?
These questions matter beyond these particular case studies of the metropolitan South. Historians and political scientists in recent years have increasingly stressed matters of space and place in the development of postwar conservatism and the national success of the Republican Party. For example, in an influential study of postwar grassroots conservatism in Orange County, California, the historian Lisa McGirr showed how a powerful New Right emerged out of what appeared to be local, seemingly suburban, issues: whether an ACLU member and outspoken opponent of McCarthyism should sit on the local school board, and whether state-wide fair-housing legislation threatened property rights. In Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (2001), McGirr questioned the “racial backlash” theory of political realignment—the notion that Republican gains nationally were driven by white disillusionment with the Democrats’ embrace of civil rights. For all the headlines that “angry white ethnics” and “Reagan Democrats” received in the 1970s and 1980s, the real game took place in outer suburbs, where conservatives were turning a new social environment to their lasting political advantage.
McGirr also suggested that a remarkably similar sort of suburban conservatism could be discovered across the booming Sun Belt of the 1960s. She mentioned Scottsdale, Arizona, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Cobb County, Georgia, as three places where conservative activism closely resembled that of Orange County. What once may have seemed odd—that a county in Georgia, then in the midst of a painful state-wide struggle over racial integration, would replicate the politics of a wealthy enclave in Southern California—has since been widely accepted. Historians like Lassiter talk as much about the Sun Belt as they do the South. And political scientists have found voter-information and congressional-behavior data that back up this synthesis. In The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Postwar South (2006), for example, the political scientists Byron E. Shafer and Richard Johnston provide substantial evidence that economic growth and demographic change doomed the old Southern regimes described by V.O. Key in the 1940s. Their fall made possible new Southern Republican voting majorities, defined largely by economic and social class, that resemble voting patterns elsewhere in the United States far more than they replicate the old South. (Key predicted as much: he wrote in 1949 that “the growth of cities contains the seeds of political change for the South.”)
And yet the South does still appear exceptional—not in the undemocratic, single-party sense that once defined it so much as in its strong contemporary conservatism. (Note, again, those 18 of 22 Senate seats and the consecutive sweeps of the Electoral College.) The “modern conservatism” that emerged from the convulsions of the 1960s seems to have worked better in the South than it did elsewhere, even in the Sun Belt. How should we explain this? Do Southern whites have a greater appetite for appeals, racial in origin but now fully coded, than their counterparts elsewhere? Or was something else at work? Perhaps the collapse of the old regime in Southern politics left behind a political landscape that was particularly conducive to a new conservatism. The conservative Democratic machines of the mid-20th century prevented organized labor and other liberal institutions from gaining a substantial foothold in the South. And the weak Republican Parties of the Deep South may have been a blessing to conservatives when they mobilized to nominate Goldwater in 1964; these virtually new parties were unburdened by the “Main Street” or “Rockefeller” Republicans who moderated the caucus elsewhere and thus could be turned into relatively pure expressions of conservative principles. But that is mostly conjecture. Future studies of Southern politics will have to figure out how the world views described by Kruse and Lassiter played out in electoral politics and public policy.
Lyndon Johnson was probably right to fret about the political consequences of civil rights. And even he, who knew more about the intricacies of Southern politics than any 20th-century president, could not have known how complicated the future would be.
Jefferson Decker, a former managing editor of Boston Review, is writing his doctoral dissertation about the conservative legal movement.