Our Georgia History

A State Divided

Georgia History 101
by Col. Samuel Taylor U.S.M.C. (Ret.)
exclusively for Our Georgia History

At the start of the 20th century Georgia maintained a strictly segregated society, only emboldened by the Supreme Court's 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that held that segregation was legal. Although blacks and sympathetic whites immediately began to chisel away at the ruling, African-Americans would have to wait 70 years for the equality that had been constitutionally guaranteed them since 1868.

Society was not only divided along black-white lines. There was a distinct male-female line as well, and to a lesser extent a wealthy-poor division that some historians portray as an urban-rural division. Whatever the distinctions, it would be the attempt to preserve this societal structure that would be the driving force in Georgia politics and social life until the election of Jimmy Carter as governor in 1971.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Georgia remained a majority rural, agricultural based society with relatively little wealth, almost all of which existed in the larger metropolitan areas. Cities like Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta and Macon were large, and Atlanta was the political powerhouse, but rural Georgia held a majority of the population, much political power, and agriculture (read cotton) was a driving force of the Georgia economy. Over the next 30 years, this would change dramatically.

Industrialization began to grow drawing uneducated farm workers both black and white into the cities. Technology and the general rise of America as an industrial nation contributed to this influx of rural families. In Georgia the abundance of natural fiber made millwork a common occupation for urban workers. Paper production, to fill the growing demands of our nation, also became a major employer. Railroad work continued to be a common occupation, as it had been since 1840. Blacks were frequently employed in a domestic capacity while whites virtually controlled the higher-paid "tradesmen" professions (carpenters, seamstress, blacksmith, etc.). For those with some education there was rapid expansion in the burgeoning telephone industry, medicine, and engineering profession.

Black communities throughout the state generally began around the nucleus of a church, and it was within the church that all people were truly created equally. To African-Americans, most of whom were less than a generation away from slavery and all were first-hand witnesses to the "separate but unequal" policies of segregation, churches offered a haven from the white world that controlled virtually all wealth. The church was one of the few things that Georgia's black population could consider their own.

Until the start of the 20th century blacks who acquired some amount of wealth did so by catering to white society. In 1905 a successful black barber in Atlanta, Alonzo Heardon, changed that with the formation of Atlanta Mutual Life. He relied on income from black customers to power the company, then reinvested this money back into the black community. This dramatic shift empowered the area known "Sweet Auburn."

Suddenly, violence began to flare. The 1906 Atlanta Race Riots are normally chosen to represent how the improving conditions in the black community affected whites, but simply because this event had the greatest loss of life. Throughout Georgia whites began to sense a loss of control. Former slaves, it seems, were beginning to acquire what whites most feared - economic power. And although the state of Georgia tried to put on a strong political show nationally, what its white citizens lacked the most was economic power.

The white political power structure pushed on with the institutionalization of the policies of segregation. Blacks could not swim in public pools, get served in white sections of restaurants, or use white waiting rooms in train depots. One of the major goals of white society was to assure that blacks were completely disenfranchised (deprived of voting rights). Robert Toombs had made it a goal after the Civil War, adding a poll tax to the Constitution of 1877. Now that blacks were gaining the ability to pay a poll tax it came time once again to ensure that blacks had no political power.

First the Democrats created a white-only primary. Since the state was pretty much under one-party rule, this effectively kept blacks from voting. Then, just to be certain that a contested race didn't attract black voters who might tip the scales to the Republican or third-party candidate, a literacy test was added. In 1906 Hoke Smith decided to run for governor. He made disenfranchisement of the blacks (and poor whites) a political campaign issue, promising to improve education for white children while teaching young black children how to "work in the fields." By the end of World War I the anti-black movement was so strong in Georgia that no one dare oppose it.

Technology did begin to change day-to-day life in Georgia. Electricity demand was growing rapidly and the larger cities began independent hydroelectric projects. In 1908 the state banned liquor distilling but not importation. The automobile began to become a common sight by 1910 (1915 in the north Georgia mountains). And, in 1915 the Ku Klux Klan was officially revived.

Now the way some people tell the story the Klan was resurrected thanks to a murder that occurred in Atlanta where a Jewish man, Leo Frank, may have killed 13-year old Mary Phagan, the daughter of a popular Marietta native (for more on this, please see Larry Worthy's Little Secrets - The murder of Mary Phagan and the death of Leo Frank). The story goes that the Knights of Mary Phagan, who lynched Frank near downtown Marietta, rekindled the new Klan. Actually, though, the elements that became the new Klan had never disbanded the "old Klan." From the late 1860's to 1915 there are stories of white-hooded men who enforced a kind of vigilante justice throughout the state. This justice, its seems, was almost always aimed a blacks or the whites who gave them a little too much help.

On Thanksgiving evening, 1915, a group of men headed by Alabama salesman and preacher William Simmons climbed Stone Mountain, read from a bible and burned a cross. Still, until 1920 the Klan struggled to gain members. Then, thanks in part to an article in the New York Sun, membership skyrocketed across the United States. This new Klan preached hatred not only against African-Americans but other ethnic and religious groups including Catholics and Jews. In Georgia, Atlanta and Athens were strongholds.

In 1920 the national census revealed a startling fact: more people lived in an urban setting (town greater than 2500 people) than in a rural setting. One major factor had been the rapid expansion of the American economy during World War I. Another was the expansion of technology. Now two factors were about to fuel additional growth of Georgia cities. First, a historic drought dried up the crops and the farm work that went along with them. Second was the invasion of the boll weevil. Spreading from west to east, this pest seriously damaged cotton production throughout the state. From a war-time high of more than 2 million bales, production fell to 588,000 bales in 1924. Suddenly the migration from farm to city that only years before had been a trickle became a flood. Not only were they leaving the farm, they were leaving the state.

The state began an extensive road building project, not only to make work for the influx of people, but to accommodate the new automobiles that demanded paved, graded highways for long distance travel. The Army "encouraged" the building of airports by municipalities including Macon and Atlanta, and the necessary supporting structures throughout the state. The state did not go willingly into many of these ventures. After the initial roadbuilding spurt the state killed additional funding. Library funding was also a victim of the Georgia's miserly government. Although cotton production began to increase after the boll weevil infestation, it was negated by falling cotten prices.

The Klan rose to its greatest power, claiming the governorship, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, numerous large city mayors, judges and school boards. On a national level the Klan tried to present a strong, unified presence with common goals and a common voice. The Georgia Klan, however, was highly factional, with individual units virtually uncontrollable by either the national or state organization. The result was that in spite of the large number of high-ranking political officials whom the Klan claimed as members, much of the Klan's political agenda remained just that -- an agenda.


Our Georgia History: History 101 index

Georgia's Indian Heritage
The Age of Exploration in Georgia
Colonial Georgia
The America Revolution in Georgia
Constitutional Georgia
Antebellum Georgia
Georgia and the Civil War
Reconstrution Georgia
Georgia's Gilded Age
A State Divided
Depression and War

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