Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, 2005

In recent works by M.D. Lassiter, Bruce Schulman, Becky Nicolaides, and Robert Self, each suggests the creation and proliferation of taxpayers and homeowners identities developed in the rising Sunbelt which in turn spread the ideology of “homeownership” and freedom of association across the nation. However, Kevin Kruse argues that post-war Atlanta initiated such formations as more affluent whites fled the city for suburban areas, “while this scholarship [referring to the authors already mentioned] generally assumed that such conservative trends emerged from an established suburban Sunbelt in the late 1970s and 1980s, this book argues, to the contrary, that those tends were already apparent before the rise of the suburbs, inside cities such as Atlanta, as early as the 1950s.” (11) In addition, working class whites attempted to create “white communities” whose integrity would be violated by movement of African Americans into them. Kruse explores such imaginary community formation but also notes that white resistance to integration did not exist monolithically, rather, class interests intervened, “This study however, argues that white resistance to desegregation was never as immobile or monolithic as its practitioners and chroniclers would have us believe … in recent works on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century South, several historians have argued that the system of racial segregation was never a fixed entity, but rather a fluid relationship in which blacks and whites constantly adjusted to meet changing circumstances.“ (7) Working and lower middle class whites could not flee to suburban areas, so the various “coalitions” established across racial lines that allegedly made Atlanta the “city that was too busy to hate”, favored black and white elites. In fact, nearly all whites Kruse points out opposed integration, but proximity to its developments and the financial ability to escape, deeply affected how and when whites resisted or fled.

Notably Kruse also remains attentive to how Atlanta’s segregationists and others from the South connected with the conservative movement that arose so strongly in the century’s final decades. Though focused on this relationship, Kruse reorients the focus from Sunbelt politicians to those efforts at the grass roots level by white segregationists. According to Kruse, the traditional narrative concerning the rising influence of the New Right fails to explore the period between the Dixiecrats of 1948 and Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. Instead, Kruse argues this period represents one of the South’s “most turbulent and transformative eras” (10). For Kruse, too many histories fail to consider such histories in the proper context, “when the conservative politics of he Sunbelt is correctly situated in the crucible of urban politics, surrounded by different races, multiple classes, and competing social interests, it can be seen in a rather different light.” (11)

White Flight clearly demonstrates that Atlanta’s slogan, “the city to busy to hate”, remains a misnomer. Rather, what Atlanta established from the mid-1940s on mixed segregation with partnership. Both the white and black communities featured an established network of elites. Though the white community did not enthusiastically embrace a partnership with Atlanta’s black elites, many viewed disruptions over desegregation as economically damaging and hoped to avoid such issues for Atlanta. Unlike in northern cities, Atlanta’s black population had long been established and remained a significant part of the metropolitan area’s demographics (yes by the post war period many blacks had moved to northern cities but these populations were newer and less established, moreover Atlanta’s post war struggles related more to desegregation struggles than deindustrialization which plagued the North). Both contributed to the political and economic power of Atlanta’s blacks. The “coalition” illustrated a powerful hold over municipal politics from its inception through the 1950s, however, at the same time, segregationists slowly built up their own defenses and innovations, leading to a weakening of the political alliance by the 1960s, writes Kruse, “As city leaders pressed ahead with the politics of progress, these disaffected working class and middle class whites gathered together in a politics of retrenchment. As Hartfield and his allies bragged about the “city too busy to hate,” these whites began to speak a new language of their own, one centered on their beleaguered rights. In the end, their revolt would not only create a separate movement of white resistance in Atlanta but would also irreparably fragment the coalition against which they railed.” (41)

For local Atlanta white communities, the language of community, community protection, and freedom of association became buzzwords for resistance. Initial resistance focused on constructing an “established white community” then using the language of community protection to prevent integration. However, these constructed communities often lacked the kind of social capital, institutions and connections that normally define such. As result, the encroachment of black homeowners into white areas met with predictable responses. Those closest to the transition sold their homes turning a profit as blacks often paid higher prices than whites. This of course drew the rage of fellow white homeowners who lived further away from area of transition who viewed the actions of whites selling their homes as traitorous. Such developments exhibited the role class played in fracturing opposition to racial succession, “The working class whites who lived in transition areas assumed that they and their neighbors shared not only the common traits of race and class but also common interests in preserving segregation in their neighborhood and the status quo in local politics. During the course of residential desegregation, however, they discovered that their supposed common ground on these issues and identities was ultimately less important for them and their neighbors than each one’s self interest.” (80). However, as Kruse notes, “the reality of individuality, these whites quickly realized, would always trump the rhetoric of community. And so, during the course of residential desegregation, as more and more working class white Atlantans made this discovery, they thought of themselves less and less as participants in a larger society … these working class whites now started to think of themselves as individuals, set apart from and, indeed, set against the rest of Atlanta.” (81)

The shift toward a more individualistic ideal mirrored changes in old segregationist rhetoric. The ugliness and hostility of previous resistance faded in favor of a middle class respectability that rarely mentioned race directly, though it constantly lay beneath the surface as local groups such as Help Our Public Education (HOPE) or Metropolitan Association for Segregation Education (MASE) formed to respond to the degrees of difference arising among whites resistant to integration. HOPE enjoyed the support of the Atlanta establishment and to some extent represented the views of municipal government on school desegregation, “in terms of tactics, HOPE followed the ‘local option’ approach favored by many in Atlanta once “massive resistance” lost all legal standing (HOPE represented upper income whites who probably held many of the same racist views of hardcore segregationists but their financial status meant they probably wouldn’t live in communities in which schools desegregated, or many had the ability to send their children to private school which in Atlanta became a common maneuver as by the 1970s and 80s, some neighborhoods despite being overwhelmingly white featured public school populations that were nearly exclusively black). In fact, for many HOPE became “the unofficial voice of official Atlanta on the topic of open schools. The Hartsfield coalition and its allies in the press portrayed HOPE as the voice of the respectable middle class and dismissed segregationists as uncultured rabble rousers.” (138)

Conversely, MASE represented a more militant strain of this middle class orientation that politely rejected black requests for inclusion. Draped in respectability, their leadership “spoke softly, with reserve and intelligence and in a language that accentuated middle class ideals of family, individual rights, equal opportunity, and upward mobility through hard work.” (140) The division between HOPE and MASE illustrated the fractured nature of middle class identities. [quote of importance regarding middle class and segregationists, “Meanwhile, segregationists responded by charging that only those in the “silk stocking crowd” were pushing policies of integration, which, if they came to pass, would never affect them. Indeed, throughout the late 1950s, working class and middle class whites who lived on the city’s still shifting racial fronts repeatedly stressed that if school desegregation came, it would certainly come in their neighborhoods]. In the end, the ‘local option’ dominated and allowed for token integration but failed to result in widespread integration, “Thus, in practice, token integration was often just a new form of segregation. Black students sat by themselves in classes and the cafeteria. Students attacked them in the halls, teachers ignored or insulted them in the classrooms, and school officials excluded them from school activities, both on and off campus. For white liberals, the treatment of the transfer students dashed their faith in Atlanta’s progress.” (160)

“Freedom of association” emerges as another conceived right held by metropolitan Atlanta’s white homeowners. Kruse quotes one homeowner’s succinct description of this “personal liberty”, “This freedom is the right to associate with whom one pleases and the right not to associate with whom one pleases.” (161) Unfortunately for individuals promoting this idea, local court rulings struck down such legal theories, yet it remained a principle tenet among segregationists, “’Freedom of association stood as a deep seated and far reaching concept in segregationist ideology. The idea found its full expression during the debate over school desegregation, but it had stood as an implicit rationale for white resistance and whit flight during earlier stages of segregationist defiance, as in the struggle over transitional neighborhoods.” (163) Court Rulings banned racially motivated transfers, thus, if segregationist whites hoped to utilize the public school system their local neighborhood took on increased importance. White upper and middle class families turned to private schools which served as reconstruction of the segregated public system. Much like the city’s municipal image of economically oriented racial compromise, many private schools publicly presented themselves as race neutral but in reality practiced racially exclusive policies. Despite public statements promoting integration, white elites built a privatized white world in the hopes of remaining isolated from the city’s black population but the pressures of the civil rights movement led to the opening of what many whites considered “private spaces.”

White Flight’s examination of conceptions of public and private spaces among whites proves to be one of its sharpest insights. Sit ins and other protests violated segregationist conceptions of space, freedom of association had been defeated in the city’s public schools but small business owners hoped to maintain its status in what they considered a private sphere. Direct action by younger civil rights protesters upset the city’s established racial coalition, forcing many older moderate blacks into conflict with their younger counterparts. The abdication of public space as illustrated through Kruse’s exploration of Atlanta school desegregation infuriated working class whites; they viewed their upper class counterparts decisions as a fundamental betrayal. When the civil rights movement began its efforts to desegregate eating establishments, hotels, and other “private” spaces, white elites now exhibited segregationist ideology that contradicted their stances on school desegregation. Federal intervention to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act ended segregation but simultaneously “etched the worldview of segregationists ever more firmly onto the political landscape.” (233) The Goldwater insurgency and the Civil Rights Act “brought into the Georgia Republican Party a rather different constituency, one that opposed both the goals of the civil rights movement and the means the federal government used to reach them.” (232)

Spatially, whites abandoned the city at remarkable rates with 60,000 leaving by the end of the 1960s, and over 100,000 over the course of the following decade. Maynard Jackson emerged as Atlanta’s first black mayor as the city’s population trended increasingly toward its African American population (by the 1980’s two thirds of Atlanta’s residents were black.) Though Atlanta’s white business community never warmed to Jackson, he did craft a new political coalition, “ultimately, however, the old white elite and new black political power forged yet another Atlanta compromise. Instead of choosing between “full partnership” or “separatist,” they chose both. In the more occasional realm of politics and economics, the two groups would continue to work closely; but in their day to day life, the races would remain as separate as they had been during the Jim Crow era – if not more so. Segregation in and around Atlanta worsened as Kruse points to evidence that the city illustrated higher levels in 1970s than exhibited in the 1940s. Whites moved to the suburbs then the exurbs when the black upper and middle classes sought the same promises of suburban life as their white counterparts. Kruse notes however, that though not all suburbs were populated by “affluent whites”, “the suburbs to which such whites fled largely were.” (244) Exclusionary zoning, real estate steering, and discriminatory lending practices enabled many suburban areas to remain fundamentally segregated. White homeowner resistance to the extension of Atlanta’s public transit line MARTA illustrates the continuing dynamic of separatism that bedevils the city’s metropolitan region. White Flight connects such developments more broadly, “The resistance to MARTA —- and the low income blacks whom white suburbanites associated with it – was merely part of a larger trend of suburban resistance to metropolitan wide solutions to urban problems in the early 1970s. When the federal government attempted to place public housing in such areas, it encountered even stiffer resistance because of the presence of the national government, which many in the suburbs had moved out of the city to “escape”.

Still, Kruse carefully notes that the migration from the city to Atlanta’s metropolitan area converged with the migration of whites from other regions who also settled in these suburbs. Yet, these populations united over an ideology that “transformed the segregationist rhetoric in the post war era had led southern conservatives to reject the traditional appeals to populism and racism and instead embrace a new, middle class rhetoric of rights and responsibilities. The change in language had made many segregationist politics much more palatable to whites inside the city, and it remained attractive to those in the suburbs.” (245) Nixon’s “southern strategy” appealed to exactly this population not the South’s more rural areas. Nixon promised white suburbanites that their communities could remain white.

The power of suburban America over the past 30 years appears undeniable. Equally important are the foundations that the ideology of conservative suburbia rests upon. Though no longer racial on the face of it, what Kruse labels “post succession suburbs” normalized a discourse of government, born from its segregationists underpinnings, that privileged the “now familiar themes of isolation, individualism, and privatization to unprecedented levels.” (259) The 21st century opened with the power of suburban white flight politics and “suburban secession”. According to Kruse, Atlanta contributed to this development, crafting the very ideology that the Sunbelt came to represent.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License