A State Divided
Georgia History 101
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
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
The America Revolution in Georgia
Georgia and the Civil War
Georgia's Gilded Age
A State Divided
Depression and War