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CITIES BY THE BOOK: ATLANTA // Movers and shakers


The Invention of an International City, 1946-1996

By Frederick Allen

Longstreet Press, $20


By Ronald H. Bayor

University of North Carolina Press, $29.95

Reviewed by Tom Chaffin

Historically, books about Atlanta have tended to be as steeped in boosterism as their subject. Serious urban historiography _ traditionally preoccupied with older cities such as New York and Boston _ has rarely strayed below the Mason-Dixon line. In recent years, however, a growing number of talented historians have given us a more focused view of Atlanta's past.

Atlanta Rising by Frederick Allen sharpens that portrait.

Much of Atlanta Rising chronicles the white patrician individuals and institutions who _ along with the black leaders with whom they forged a political modus vivendi _ largely ran Atlanta for three decades. With Coca Cola chief Robert Woodrfuff at its head, Atlanta's A-List of those years also included mayors William B. Hartsfield and Ivan Allen; Richard Rich of Rich's department store; African-American leaders A. T. Walden, "Daddy" King and William Holmes Borders; the King & Spalding law firm, the C & S and Trust Co. banks; and rival developers John Portman and Tom Cousins. Since the early 1970s, of course, that list has been altered by many factors: the rise of a more vigorous and expanded black political leadership, corporate mergers, and increased economic competition from outside investors _ not to mention the grim reaper.

The core of Atlanta Rising focuses on the Hartsfield years, from 1937 to 1961. In assaying that era, Allen argues that it wasn't the presence of elites that made Atlanta unique _ all cities had elites _ so much as the context in which those elites exerted their powers.

It was, Allen writes, the "missing ingredients" that made Atlanta different. For starters, beyond Coca-Cola's Candlers and Woodruffs, the city had no great private fortunes. Atlanta's rich tended to be millionaires, not billionaires. Their money came from finance, commerce and transportation rather than oil, steel, automobiles or other colossal industries. Atlanta also lacked strong labor unions, organized crime, an assertive Catholic church, and vocal immigrant factions. As a consequence, "Atlanta's political machine consisted of the personal clout of Hartsfield, who operated without a genuine patronage system. The mayor and his businessmen friends exercised power largely in a vacuum. Atlanta could be dismissed as a city led by its Chamber of Commerce . . . but what other source of leadership was there?"

Allen convincingly argues that modern Atlanta has, for the most part, been blessed with enlightened civic leaders, black and white, who could usually be counted on to put aside hidebound attitudes and do the right thing _ if only out of pragmatic self-interest.

Hartsfield, for example, embraced the standard white racism of his day, but the mayor was never a "hater," Bayor writes. If anything, he had even less tolerance for the "raggedy" whites of the Ku Klux Klan than he did for the civil rights "missionaries and agitators" he occasionally lambasted.

Raggedy types, after all, offended the "better element" of Atlanta's white community in whose behalf Hartsfield, an affable if irascible autodidact, governed. More to the point, raggedy types made the city less attractive to northern investors.

Allen draws his narrative from archival research, interviews, and from his own considerable knowledge as a former reporter and political columnist for the Atlanta Constitution. The author of Secret Formula, a history of the Coca-Cola company, he brings an astute insider's perspective to Atlanta Rising. But while Allen ably situates Atlanta within Georgia and U.S. political life, his chronicle often seems estranged from the city's earlier history. Though the post-World War II years are his quarry, a greater awareness of the pre-1946 city would have given the narrative deeper resonance.

Many of what Atlanta Rising presents as fresh departures by Atlanta's leaders during the post-World War II years were, historically speaking, business as usual for the city. Long before Hartsfield and his various successors, from Ivan Allen to Bill Campbell, came to City Hall, earlier leaders had established the city's perennial themes: the ceaseless drumming for new investors through advertising, lobbying and public spectacles; the quest for ever wider city boundaries; and the promotion of Atlanta as a place of moderate (for time and place) racial views and as a regional hub for transportation, commerce, government, and finance.

Even the city's obsession with self-image enjoys a long pedigree. Just, for instance, as Hartsfield detested the potentially embarrassing Klan, so Atlanta's commercial elite, as far back as 1850, sought to banish seedy types judged bad for the city's reputation.

Mostly, however, Atlanta Rising is solid from-the-top-down, urban political history. Allen tells a rich story lucidly and succinctly, and without compromising its complexity.

Ronald Bayor's Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta offers a narrower view of Atlanta's past. As Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement's most visible battles of the '50s and '60s, hundreds of others fought less celebrated skirmishes, often for strictly local goals _ anything from access to a particular hospital to more parks in black neighborhoods _ in countless cities and towns across the South. Bayor, a professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology, chronicles much of Atlanta's share of this sub rosa layer of the civil rights epic.

Following the lead of other Southern state and local governments, turn-of-the century Atlanta methodically set out to, legally and extralegally, disenfranchise and segregate its black citizens _ often by circumventing federal laws. Drawing on interviews with participants and written archives, Bayor recounts how a succession of determined and resourceful black Atlantans worked against, and often around, the matrix of Jim Crow strictures that vexed their daily lives.

As Bayor points out, even after laws in 1892 and 1908 stripped black Atlantans of their vote in party primaries and general elections, they still exercised political leverage by voting in referenda on bonds, recalls, taxes and other special issues. That leverage was increased after 1917, when the newly organized Atlanta chapter of the NAACP launched a black voter registration drive. In exchange for delivering black support on bond issues, the NAACP exacted promises that a portion of whatever funds were raised would be earmarked for improving conditions in the African-American community. It was precisely such a brokered vote, Bayor recounts, that led, in 1924, to the opening of Atlanta's first black public high school.

Of course, as the book's title indicates, Bayor has grander ambitions than merely chronicling Atlanta's civil rights movement, and he displays an impressive grasp of how white citizens used public policy to segregate and subordinate black Atlantans in everything from health care and education to residential patterns and the placement of roads, from elections and employment to parks, police and fire services. For white Atlantans, this is a shameful legacy, and one for which the city still pays a price. At segregated Grady Hospital, for example, black physicians were forbidden to enter even wards reserved for black patients. And when an ambulance call came in, the first question asked was the patient's race. If a black ambulance was not available (they numbered few), one designated for whites would not be sent.

Unfortunately, too often Bayor's narrative gives black-white relations a primacy that leaves little room for recognition of how other factors shaped the city, including class, politics, economics, geography, even other ethnic tensions. Such tunnel vision inevitably reduces white leaders to stick-figure villains. Not that black leaders are rendered any more vividly: In presenting them, the author quotes far too many canned position papers and press statements. After a while, their numbing sameness causes the narrative to drag.

In Race and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Atlanta, Bayor retrieves an important strand of Atlanta's history, but in the end the place he describes feels more like a sociologist's abstraction than a living, breathing city.

Tom Chaffin is a historian at Emory University. His book Fatal Glory: Narciso Lopez and the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba will be published in the fall by the University Press of Virginia.