Civil Wrongs

In a painstaking study of 1960s Atlanta, Kevin Kruse takes suburban whites to task

Cheryl Carlin

At college 15 years ago, Kevin Kruse delved into the civil rights movement and came away with the feeling that something was missing. "Most civil rights histories seemed to focus on only two kinds of whites—the crusading liberals and the knee-jerk Klan racists," says Kruse, 35, an associate professor of history at Princeton University. "Most white Southerners were always left out of the narrative, apparently beamed off the planet somehow. What were they doing? Where did they go?"

He decided to find out. For his doctoral dissertation at Cornell, he headed in 1998 for Atlanta, one of the key cities in that historic movement, to dig through archives and oral histories at Emory University and the Atlanta Historical Society. Interviewing some of the surviving players from the movement, Kruse quickly found it necessary, in his words, "to establish some Southern cred." They inquired about his background; he pointed out that he was a child of the South himself, having been raised in Nashville from the age of 7 and earning his bachelor's degree in history at the University of North Carolina. (He received his PhD in history in 2000.)

Kruse's research ultimately led him to some provocative conclusions. In his 2005 book, White Flight, he argued that urban whites ultimately thwarted desegregation not by opposing it but by escaping it—that they essentially ceded contested turf (neighborhoods, schools, parks, pools) and trekked to greener pastures. "All the issues out there sound so good—lower taxes, privatization of government services, neighborhood schools," says Kruse. "But you can't just buy into the popular ‘Leave It to Beaver' mythology. There is a back story."

Kruse's "back story"—that the rise of postwar suburbia, particularly in Sunbelt cities, was fed in part by racial antagonism—might be rejected by many suburbanites, but academics laud him for breaking new ground. Historian Dan Carter, who teaches at the University of South Carolina and has written extensively about the civil rights era, told reporter Denise Barricklow of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin that Kruse's account is "one of the most important contributions yet made to our understanding of the growth of Sunbelt suburbia and the triumph of the anti-government, anti-tax, conservative agenda."

Though the phenomenon—Kruse calls it "the politics of suburban secession"—was replicated nationwide, he chose to spotlight Atlanta because the white reaction to integration there illustrates "the links between massive resistance and modern conservatism." The city may well have prided itself on having become the "city too busy to hate" (in the words of the late mayor William Hartsfield), but Kruse found the reality to be more complicated.

The city's leaders "did try to work out peace between the races, and they do deserve credit for tackling that," Kruse says. But "there has also been a lot of PR hype." Between 1960 and 1980, he discovered, more than half of all white Atlantans left the city. (Today, two of Atlanta's suburban counties, Cobb and Gwinnett, are each more populous than Atlanta proper.)

To explain this exodus, Kruse used city planning bureau records to retrace the white movement out of neighborhoods block by block. And drawing on newspaper clippings and other documents, he sought to tell his story through the people who lived it—the average folks omitted from most movement histories—because he wanted to understand their thoughts and motivations. He found, for example, that middle-class whites rarely exhibited overt racial animosity; instead they embraced slogans such as "Save our Children" or "Freedom of Association." Their language, he writes, "accentuated middle-class ideals of family, individual rights, equal opportunity and upward mobility through hard work." One of Kruse's better known interview subjects—former Georgia governor Lester Maddox, who as a restaurant owner became notorious for selling ax handles in a campaign to keep his establishment segregated in the early 1960s (he died at age 87 in 2003), told the young historian that he hoped he was "not going to make it all about race."

And indeed, Kruse's emphasis on that fraught subject dismayed some reviewers of his book. "Race alone has never entirely explained the hostility to government activism" among the Southern whites who moved to suburbia, political analyst Ron Brownstein wrote in the American Prospect. Kruse argues, however, that the weight of his evidence convinced him that the other articulated desires—for lower taxes, for less government involvement—were all exacerbated by racial tensions.

Now he senses a shift in the making. "The older suburbs—the inner ring nearest the cities—are growing far more diverse because of immigration," he says. "Mexicans, [other] Latin Americans and Cambodians are moving to the suburbs of Atlanta. And look at the Washington, D.C. suburbs now—[there are] people, it seems, from every nation on earth."

Dick Polman is a national political columnist and blogger for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.