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A City Too Busy to Hate?

ISSUE:  Winter 1997
Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta, By Ronald H. Bayor. North Carolina. $29.95.

The proud and vaunting invite sharp-edged scrutiny, and on that score, as on its demerits, Atlanta is fair game. Ronald Bayor ably measures its realities alongside its claims, its self-asserted “image.” The book has, moreover, other imports as well as its portrayal and dissection of the Southeast’s leading city: at least three.

One is a showing, as suggested by the title, that racial prejudice and policies enforcing it have shaped the city’s history, and still do. This is the book’s main theme, and occupies most of its pages. A second message is that Atlanta is not unique. Only a few pages at the book’s end are devoted to this, but readers who have gone that far should have little difficulty in connecting the documentation of Atlanta to other cities; race has “shaped” much of 20th-century America. The book’s third import is its depiction of how class factors have always existed close to racial ones, how they have risen steadily in importance, and how a succession of black mayors and civic leaders has elevated them. The rise of black leaders has, Bayor reports, brought little benefit to the black poor, or much if any disturbance to the white well-to-do.

Such, it seems to this reviewer, has been and is the American pattern, nationwide. For the United States, oligarchy has been destiny, it would seem.

Atlanta does, of course, have, as do other cities, its singularities. I recall my astonishment when I moved into New York from Atlanta in the late 1960’s, and there discovered the comparative political impotence of its businessmen, except for defense or promotion of their own interests. Atlanta had a “weak mayor” system, but that did not matter: Mayor William Hartsfield’s and after him Mayor Ivan Allen’s true parliament was the Chamber of Commerce, and through and with it they governed. New York City, on the other hand, had hardly any real governance, no command center; real estate, banking, and labor unions each protected its own, with occasional courtesies extended to East and West Side liberals and by the 1970’s an occasional seat at the table given blacks; beyond its own concerns, these principal powers had small influence on public policy.

Atlanta was different. For long, white political and business leaders had worked cooperatively for, among other ends considered to be in the common good, the exclusion of black advance; though generally—in a city that insisted on its difference from other Southern cultures—they had sought to pacify black residents. As pressures from the black community mounted, especially during the 1940’s and 1950’s and well into the 1960’s, the oligarchy yielded as it had to but always controlled the pace of change. Bayor, who is a professor of history at Georgia Tech, well describes how it did so. The location of roads, public housing, school buildings, and other deliberately planned barriers to integration and fair shares, were some of its methods.

By the time the Civil Rights Movement did win its victories, and blacks had entered into the ranks of public leadership, the pattern had been firmly set. The first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, however he may have initially caused unease in the business circles, put the matter succinctly: “Atlanta can’t prosper without city hall and business “in bed” together.” Bayor comments about his successor: “Andrew Young worked closely and well with Atlanta’s white business leaders, reestablishing an alliance between white and black elites. Young’s administration was marked by support for business oriented goals rather than support for the black poor.”

The Atlanta governing structure was firmly embedded. Gaining a “piece of the action,” which the city’s black elite seems to have accomplished, rather than reforming the structure to serve the less well-off, became, perhaps perforce, the thrust and goal of black politics. So if it be true that in Atlanta today and for a while to come no white person can be elected mayor, it is equally true that no black mayor will likely much diminish the wealth, actual and potential, of white Atlanta, and especially its top brackets.

Such is Bayor’s apparent interpretation, one that on the evidence seems correct. How this structure was built he tells in a series of chapters and sub-chapters, one topic at a time. If it becomes a bit monotonous encountering the same characters, showing their same selves, now on neighborhood planning, now on police hiring, now on mass transit, there are compensations. The sections are like vignettes, and if one wants to know how housing patterns developed over the decades, for example, the story is there in one place. Each portrayal shows the bonding of social areas to racial policy and, as time has gone on, to class. Take for one illustration health care, which is covered in a 20-page sub-chapter.

Before the 1920’s, what health care blacks got was on the whole, Bayor says, up to them. Several of their organizations worked for various causes, like sanitation or tuberculosis testing. Some “meager funding” came in the 1920’s from the Community Chest. From 1901—12, one black doctor and one nurse were employed for the schools; they were terminated in 1912 (though their more numerous counterparts in the white schools were not); one doctor was rehired in 1914, and in 1920 the local Urban League found funds to hire two school nurses. And so it went, with hardly a change through the next generation.

Hospital care was as bad or worse. Indigent black patients went to Grady Hospital, where they were rigidly segregated from whites; their black doctors could not attend them, once admitted: “You lost your patient at the front door,” said one. Not until 1962 did a black doctor receive staff privileges at Grady, and not until a federal court compelled in 1965 did Grady drop segregation of patients. Non-indigent black patients had nowhere to go, until the Hughes Spalding Pavilion of Grady was opened in 1952. “It was to be a self-supporting hospital, receiving county funds only if it went into debt.” It would be years after that before the Emory University Medical School, which under contract provided services for Grady, dropped racial bars for training, internships, and residencies.

That is a too brief and inadequate summary of Bayor’s story, but enough perhaps to reveal its fuller dimensions. I would hope and like to believe that no one in our present day could after reading this book argue ever again that our generation of whites has no old debts still to discharge to our black fellow citizens.

The book has its share of imperfections. Some are just annoying— such as adhering to that pernicious latter-day technique of having usually only one footnote per paragraph, so that a reader, curious as to the source of a datum or statement within some long paragraph, can only approximately find it; others are probably misleading—such as his summing up blacks’ opinion of Atlanta by citing Andrew Young’s remark that “neither he nor Martin Luther King, Jr. regarded Atlanta as particularly enlightened or moderate prior to the 1960s” which is meaningless without saying compared to what (Jackson? Charleston? Birmingham?).

Another is more basic. There are many ways of writing history. One—which I prefer—is for the historian to put herself or himself back into the time and to seek to understand it with no more knowledge than was then available. Another way, and it is Professor Bayor’s, is to be judgmental. One of the faults of such historiography is to give an impression of the historian’s moral superiority. Bayor does not always avoid seeming so. Being a racial, even a political, liberal was tough in the South, and men and women who did the best they could, or thought they could, are not to be looked down upon disparagingly from the heights of the 1990’s.

I lived and worked with problems Bayor has studied, and I do believe that his treatment is throughout accurate and fair—even if more judgmental than necessary. Atlanta in the totality of its society deserved the censure he imposes. A number of his accounts cite an old 1960 pamphlet, “A Second Look: The Negro Citizen in Atlanta,” which the late Carl Holman and I had done the work on, and he has made good use of the files not only of the Southern Regional Council, which I once led, but of those of its affiliated bodies, the Georgia and Greater Atlanta Councils on Human Relations. Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is the respect and attention it gives to the roles and work of private organizations, especially black led ones, such as that one which published “A Second Look,” or the historically important All Citizens Registration Committee, or the Georgia Teachers and Education Association, and a number of other local and national groups.

The criticisms Bayor makes of Atlanta are fair (and now let him next bring his sharp eye and scalpel northward to our other Southern gasconader, the state of North Carolina!) What he does not do, however, is interpret why Atlanta has had for so many people, black and white, its great appeal. Why, despite its perfidy, did black colleges take root there as nowhere else? Why did black capital grow there, as nowhere else except in my present locale of Durham, itself a sort of miniature of Atlanta? Why, if it is over-boastful, is it that way? The city may have failed over and over and everywhere you look—and yet Atlantans, black and white, still are loyal. “With its downtown, which is deserted at night; its concentrated housing; its uneven economic development;— segregated city neighborhoods;—Atlanta stands today as the product of decisions substantially based on long-term racial considerations.” And yet there are those who love her.

Although Bayor gives his concluding sections to the public schools, he makes no final comment, other than that they are pretty thoroughly resegregated. They had little chance to become otherwise; in fact “resegregated” is hardly the right term: in my own 1964 report to the Southern Regional Council I had noted that the number of Negro children attending all-Negro schools had gone from 27,291 in 1954 to 48,963 in 1961, the first year of desegregation, to 55,265 in the 1964—65 school year; in the meantime, only 1,140 were in schools with whites. Throughout the system white enrollment had stayed nearly static, but by 1973, less than a decade later, Bayor notes that blacks had become 81.5% of the system’s entire enrollment. He drops his study of the schools at that point, perhaps out of despair. It was the time of the so-called “Atlanta Compromise.” Local black leaders had bargained for administrative control of the schools by giving up the goal of pupil integration. That had become by then practically unattainable, though Bayor does not explicitly concede that. Nor at the time did, in what became a bitter controversy, many persons and some agencies within what still called itself the Civil Rights Movement. In 1973, a few highly respected national stalwarts convened a weekend conference at Airlie House, in Virginia, to seek common ground. It wasn’t there. I think I’ve never attended an angrier discussion. Bayor’s concluding remark is that the “compromise” put the “interests of middle class and lower-class blacks” into opposition. By stopping at 1973, a quarter century ago, he is probably implying that with the abandonment of the goal of integration the “shaping” was finished. He may be right. But that seems to beg the question of how any children’s welfare would have been served through the alternative: lots of busing to mix lots of black children with a dwindling handful of whites.

In Durham, this miniature Atlanta, the schools are not yet where Atlanta’s are. Those had been from the 1950’s to the 1970’s dominated by lawyers’ and courts’ decisions and actions and by a resistant school administration. One of Durham’s very few divergences from the bigger city is that it has been much less lawyer-led, much freer to set its own course. I happen to believe it has often gone wrong. But would more litigation have made it better? It might be of interest to scholars to watch comparative developments.

Another matter that might interest scholars is the old, old question of how and why events so often evade the reach and guidance of the ablest of people. If ever a city should have been able through brains and talents to overcome its problems it was Atlanta. In the crucial, decision-making period, the mid-40’s to late -60’s, the years when I knew it best, there was there an extraordinary assemblage of educators, journalists, public advocates, organizers, and preachers. Black and white. It was an intellectually charged, stimulating place to live and work. But history, whose forces Bayor so convincingly describes, was stronger. It overcame.

So we are left to ask, whither, and what next? Was the ascension of a black economic and political elite a sufficient victory? Is it a necessary stage toward fairer life’s chances for all?

Race and the power it exerts on social behavior lies at the core of our history, and our present. We continually have hunted for understanding. One-city studies have added greatly to what understanding we can claim to have of this essentially irrational force. There have been classics, such as St. Glair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis and Kenneth B. Clark’s Dark Ghetto. I think also of Constance Green’s, Washington, Capital City. Achievements like these constitute a rich tradition of enlightening scholarship. Bayor’s study of Atlanta is worthy of the tradition. We owe him gratitude and honor.


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