Georgia Visions: A Continuing Drama in at Least Six Acts, Part 2 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 10)

[NOTE:  This is the concluding part of a post derived from a talk I presented, on two occasions, to foreign students visiting my school, on the history of the state of Georgia. For Part I, go here.]

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Henry Grady (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Henry Grady’s Vision

The defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War was traumatic for Georgia and the other southern states, and the period of Reconstruction that followed the war was considered a humiliation by most southern whites.  Military rule was imposed on the former Confederate states for varying periods of time (nearly six years in Georgia); and a series of amendments to the Federal Constitution abolished slavery, defined freed persons as citizens, and protected African Americans in the exercise of their civil rights.

During these years, several energetic young southerners developed a program, the “New South Creed,”  intended to give the region’s humiliated whites grounds for hope.  Perhaps the most effective prophet of a “New South” was a Georgian, Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution.  The “New South” idea supported by Grady and others included  diversification of agriculture, to break the pre-Civil War “tyranny of cotton”; industrialization of the South, using outside capital but avoiding outside control; sectional reconciliation; and participation of African Americans in southern life on a “separate but equal,” or racially segregated (“Jim Crow”), basis.

By 1900, northerners and southerners were convinced that a “New South” had indeed arrived, but they were wrong.  The largely agricultural South entered the 20th century in the same position it had occupied earlier, an economic “colony” of the industrial North.

There had been some progress in crop diversification, but not much.  Economic conditions in the post-Civil War South led to the creation of systems like crop lien, tenant farming, sharecropping, and convict leasing, all of which bound both blacks and whites in a vicious cycle of indebtedness for nearly a century, with cotton still the main crop. Industry came to the South, but so too did outside control.  Moreover, the industries that arrived were extractive ones, producing only raw materials or involving just the early stages of manufacturing, with the finishing processes being done outside the region.

About the only aspect of Grady’s “New South” vision that worked well was his desire for sectional reconciliation and racial segregation.  For nearly another century, African Americans in Georgia and other southern states lived a life that was rigidly separated from, but decidedly unequal to, that of whites.  This segregation was approved by the United States Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which would be the law of the land for the next 58 years (until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954).  A prominent spokesman for Southern blacks, Booker T. Washington, even used a speech in Atlanta in 1895 to acquiesce in “Jim Crow” social segregation in return for access to economic opportunity for African Americans.  And so, with segregation essentially taken off the table, the North and the South found much to admire in each other, joined hands, and marched into the sunshine of a reunited nation–for a time.

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Tom Watson (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Tom Watson’s Vision

Even as Henry Grady’s dream of a “New South” took hold in the minds of Georgians and other southerners, a competing vision was being developed by another Georgian, Thomas E. Watson.  Watson believed that the conservative Democrats who controlled Georgia after Reconstruction were only using Grady’s “New South” rhetoric to enrich themselves and to keep other Georgians mired in poverty.  Watson envisioned a Georgia peopled by simple, rural folk. His view, while anti-urban and anti-capitalist, was bi-racial, at least at first.  He became the leading spokesman for the forces of agricultural protest that eventually produced the Populist Party, whose vice-presidential candidate Watson became in 1896.

Gradually, however, because of a series of political defeats and the frustrations of thwarted ambition, Watson’s vision became distorted in bizarre and dangerous ways.  He turned against African Americans, Catholics, and Jews.  As powerful and appealing a speaker as Watson could be, his prejudices produced dire results.  He touched off a race riot in Atlanta in 1906 and urged the lynching of Jewish factory owner Leo Frank in 1915 for the alleged rape and murder of the “little factory girl,” Mary Phagan.  And Watson’s ideas, if not Watson himself, played a part in the revival of the virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain, also in 1915.

Tom Watson’s racial, religious, and ethnic prejudices helped shape—and warp—Georgia politics for the next half century, and his defense of rural Georgians against “corrupt” capitalists and the sinful city was engrafted onto the state’s political system in 1908, with the adoption of the “county unit system” for electing the governor.  Under this system, the eight most populous counties each had six unit votes; the next thirty largest counties had four votes each; the 121 smallest counties each received two votes; and the candidate receiving a plurality of popular votes got all of the unit votes in each county.

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Governor Jimmy Carter (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

The “Sunbelt” Vision

During the first half of the 20th century, no single vision imparted any sense of unity to Georgia and the South.  It was a time of transition, when Grady’s creed for a “New South” and Watson’s vision of a rural paradise competed for dominance.  What finally emerged, thanks to the boll weevil, the Great Depression, World War II, the modern civil rights movement, and the energy crisis of the mid-1970s was a vision of Georgia as part of the so-called “Sun Belt,” a perception rather close to Grady’s “New South” but without the racial segregation.

After World War I, agriculture in Georgia continued slowly to diversify and manufacturing to develop.  In the early 1920s, the arrival of the boll weevil spelled disaster for Georgia’s cotton production.  By the mid-1920s, for the first time in the state’s history, industry produced manufactured goods worth more than the products of Georgia agriculture. By the time the rest of the nation began to suffer from the Great Depression in the 1930s, conditions already existed in Georgia and other southern states that led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to label the South as “the nation’s #1 economic problem.”  FDR’s New Deal proposals had as one goal reversal of the South’s economic problems, but the real turning point came during and after World War II.

The period between the world wars also saw the beginnings of the challenge to the system of racial segregation that dominated the social system in Georgia and the South.  Then, in March 1946, a federal court in New Orleans declared unconstitutional Georgia’s “white primary,” which had effectively disfranchised the state’s African American voters during Democratic primary elections that chose candidates for the state’s dominant political party.  Electoral reform would continue when later courts broke the rural domination of state politics by outlawing the county unit system and by requiring that election districts be drawn based on the principle of “one man, one vote.”

Even before World War II, federal courts had begun to attack segregation in education.  The climactic case was the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision mandating the integration of public schools.  This, plus the raft of civil rights laws of the 1960s and early 1970s, brought black Georgians, and their brothers and sisters elsewhere, into the mainstream of American life for the first time.

The vision proclaimed so movingly in August 1963 by one of the greatest Georgians, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I Have a Dream” speech, slowly came to have the shadowy shape, and at least some of the substance, of reality, when, for example, Maynard Jackson was elected the first African American mayor of Atlanta in 1973.  And, two years earlier, in 1971, newly-elected Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, one of the racially moderate “New South Governors” of the era, could proclaim that “the time for racial discrimination is over.”

By the late 1970s, it seemed clear to many observers that Georgia was part of a “New South,” this one called the “Sun Belt,” the southern and southwestern rim of the United States, where racial peace and economic prosperity seemed to go hand in hand.  Yet, as was the case with the other “visions” we’ve examined, the “Sun Belt” vision also reveals a gap between perception and reality.

For example, studies consistently showed that the prosperity of the “Sun Belt” was unevenly distributed.  In 1985, for instance, only three of Georgia’s 159 counties had per capita incomes above the national average, and only eight others were above the state average.  Much of this “prosperity” was urban-based.  As one Georgia professor put it, “Without Atlanta, Georgia is poorer than Mississippi.”  This has given rise to the phenomenon of the “Two Georgias,” with the state divided economically between the Greater Atlanta region and everyplace else.  Capturing the Olympics for Atlanta in 1996 also had a tremendous impact, for better or worse, on the Greater Atlanta area, but it’s hard to see how the rest of the state benefited.

The Sunbelt (Wikipedia)

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The visions we’ve examined have one thing in common:  They describe aspirations rather than reality.  In other words, they encompass what those who held to them hoped to achieve, not necessarily what they accomplished.  Of them all, only the  “Sun Belt vision” seems realistic enough actually to be achieved.  But will it be?  Even after all these years, the jury’s still out.


Numan V. Bartley, The New South, 1945-1980 (1995).

Kenneth Coleman, general editor, A History of Georgia (2nd ed., 1991).

______________, The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763-1789 (1958).

Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (1970).

George B. Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945 (1967)

C.Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951).

________________, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938).


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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)






About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in American History, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Georgia History, Henry Grady, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Martin Luther King, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Sun Belt, Teaching, Tom Watson, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Georgia Visions: A Continuing Drama in at Least Six Acts, Part 2 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 10)

  1. Glen Browder says:

    This is a very good presentation for outsiders trying to understand the hard history of Georgia and the South. As one of your academic friends (political science) and as one of our region’s political leaders during the latter part of the 20th century (elected state and national office), I worked to get elected and achieve progress in this part of the country, which proved to be a difficult but rewarding endeavor. So I can attest to the collective validity of your historical observations in these presentations. Your audience is lucky to have such succinct and insightful analysis.

  2. Thanks, Glen–coming from you, that means a lot. And I did enjoy the assignment, as you probably guessed. One thing about my “prep school” teaching career: it was seldom boring!

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