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The Atlanta Way

Repression, mediation, and division of Black resistance from 1906 to the 2020 George Floyd Uprising.

The Atlanta Way: A Biracial Regime

The Atlanta Way refers to a mid-20th-century strategy of urban governance that stresses cooperation between Black and white political and business elites. Floyd Hunter first shed light on the structure of governance in Atlanta in the mid-20th century by documenting and analyzing the process of formal and informal negotiations among the city’s most influential decision-makers.4 Hunter reveals that white politicians who needed the support of Black voters in the 1940s and early 1950s included Black community leaders, who had been banned from formal planning spaces, in governance only through informal negotiations.5Scholarship calls attention to the efficacy of this strategy in the mid-20th century in accomplishing desegregation without the intensity of white violence occurring elsewhere in the country. Kevin Kruse explains that desegregation was orchestrated through careful negotiations between white politicians and officials, namely Mayor William B. Hartsfield, who saw overt white supremacy as bad for business, and Black community leaders, particularly ministers.6 Wishing to avoid white backlash, Black leaders emphasized incremental progress and urged Black residents to practice restraint to ease whites into integration. At the same time, white politicians stressed the potential for economic progress accompanying desegregation.7 This approach to desegregation, along with an intentional campaign by city politicians to attract capital investment, resulted in an image of Atlanta as the “city too busy to hate,” first coined by Mayor Hartsfield in 1959.8

Clarence Stone and Larry Keating both argue that the domination of city politics by white, wealthy business leaders from the 1940s through the 1970s depended on support from Black political and community leaders, laying the foundation for ongoing biracial coalitional politics.9 As Atlanta’s demographics shifted during decades of white flight, the formal domination of white politicians gave way in the 1970s to the ascendancy of Black politicians in key offices. This included the election of the first Black mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson. This adaptation allowed for the “Black Mecca” imaginary to proliferate among Black inhabitants and outsiders. Keating explores the continuation of coalitional politics in this period. Initially, Mayor Jackson attempted to govern with the support of a new coalition, including Black residents of multiple classes and urban liberal whites. However, as white businesses became increasingly hostile to him, he shifted strategies to remake the prior biracial coalition of white business interests and middle-class Black community leaders.10 Stone, writing in 1989, refers to this coalition as an urban “regime” of Black and white civic leaders, business elites, and politicians cooperating to create favorable conditions for capital investment in the city, while stressing steady progress towards racial equality through economic development.11