Georgia and Atlanta--the megacity whose metropolitan area spreads out over the red clay hills of 20 of Georgia's 159 counties--have been one of the great boom areas of America over the last dozen years and have been the site as well of one of the great political transformations of the first decade of the 21st century. From 1990 to 2004, Georgia's population grew by 36%, the sixth highest rate of population growth among states, the highest east of Colorado, and the highest rate of growth for Georgia since the 1870s, when Atlanta rose literally from the ashes of the Civil War and Henry Grady's New South sprang into being. Atlanta and Georgia have been in many ways, for many years, the center of the South, at least since General William Tecumseh Sherman marched here in 1864. This is where John Stith Pemberton invented Coca-Cola, where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind, where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, and where most of the civil rights organizations that changed America were headquartered. But in growth and flamboyance, Georgia for decades was outdazzled by other parts of the South--by Texas with its oil wells and high-tech industries, by Florida with Miami Beach and Disney World, even by North Carolina with its Research Triangle and college basketball champions.
Since 1990, however, Georgia has grown faster than any of them. The 2000 Census recorded it as the tenth-largest state--the first time it has been in the top 10 since the Census of 1850--and the 2004 Census estimates placed it ninth, ahead of New Jersey. Most of this growth has come in the booming Atlanta metropolitan area, not in the core city, but amid the hills of suburban counties for almost 100 miles around. Atlanta, long a regional capital, has become a world city, a status suitably memorialized when it hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics, and re-emphasized every day as travelers all over the world watch the news from the CNN Broadcast Center.
Neither Atlanta's rise to world eminence nor its role as the capital of the South was inevitable. This was only a small, though well located, railroad crossroads when it was burned by Sherman's troops on their "march to the sea." Richmond, Charleston and New Orleans all had stronger claims to being the central focus of the South a century ago. But in the 20th century two figures imprinted Atlanta on the national imagination. One was Margaret Mitchell, whose 1936 novel Gone with the Wind inspired the 1939 movie. The other was Martin Luther King Jr., reared in Atlanta and based there during most of his career, as a leader and ultimately the national symbol of the civil rights revolution that changed the South and the nation. Linking the two was Atlanta's business community, notably Robert Woodruff, who headed Coca-Cola from 1932-60 and made Coke a worldwide enterprise. Perhaps aware that a world company could not indefinitely be associated with racial segregation, Woodruff and William Hartsfield, mayor from 1937-61, cooperated with blacks and promoted Atlanta as "the city too busy to hate." Hartsfield's successor, Ivan Allen, elected in 1961 and 1965, supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as Peachtree Center and the first atriumed Hyatt Regency were going up in downtown Atlanta.
This new Atlanta was growing up amid a mostly rural, deeply segregationist Georgia that as late as 1960 cast the second-highest Democratic percentage of any state for president: Hatred of Sherman was still strong. Political contests typically matched Atlanta-supported moderates against rural-supported segregationists, and the latter invariably won: Georgia's electoral votes were cast for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George Wallace in 1968. Then came change in the person of Jimmy Carter, a one-term state senator who was elected governor in 1970 with a rural base as well as conspicuous black support. On taking office he proclaimed a reconciliation of the races and installed a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Capitol. Carter thus became one of the first politicians from the rural South to celebrate and honor the civil rights revolution and in the process set himself on the road to being elected president in 1976.
Since then, Georgia and Atlanta have seen an in-migration of black Americans. The state's population was 29% black in 2000, the highest figure since 1950; the state has more blacks than any other state except New York and Texas, and will surpass them soon if present trends continue. The presence of nine historically black colleges, of large numbers of prominent black public officials and businessmen, the growth of middle- and upper-income predominantly black suburban neighborhoods in DeKalb County and, more recently, Cobb County--all have made metro Atlanta in some sense the capital of black America. Arguably, Georgia has developed what Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler described in their book on race in the Army, All We Can Be, an Anglo-African culture, a merger of traditions that were long associated intimately in private life but rigidly and even violently separated in public. Georgia has four black Democratic congressmen, two from non-black majority districts, and Andrew Young won in a white-majority district as long ago as 1972; black Democrats Thurbert Baker and Michael Thurmond have been elected attorney general and labor commissioner statewide; in 2004 Georgia elected its first black Republican state representative since Reconstruction, and blacks came in second in the contests for the Republican nomination for the Senate and the 8th District House seat. Georgia also has been attracting immigrants: Its Hispanic population rose from 109,000 to 435,000 in the 1990s, and three Latino legislators were elected in 2002; both parties were actively targeting Latinos in 2004.
Demographic change and economic change in Georgia have been followed by political change, to the point that this once heavily Democratic state now seems to be solidly Republican. In retrospect, this change seems to have been a long time coming. It was delayed by the presence of politically skillful Southern and Georgia Democrats with rural bases--George Wallace, who carried the state in 1968; Jimmy Carter, who sent it in a different direction in 1970, and carried it solidly in 1976 and 1980; Carter's successors as governor, each of whom served for eight years, George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris and Zell Miller; by Bill Clinton, who carried the state 43.5%-42.9% in 1992 and lost it by only 47%-46% in 1996. Then, in 2000, a sign of change: George W. Bush carried Georgia by a solid 55%-43% margin. Bush carried metro Atlanta (which cast 53% of the state's votes) by 52%-45% and the rest of Georgia, historically Democratic, by a resounding 57%-41%. Sherman was a thing of the past.
Going into the 2002 elections, Democrats seemed well positioned. Roy Barnes, an activist governor with strong ties to Atlanta's business community, raised $19 million for his campaign and was mentioned as a possible vice presidential or even presidential candidate. Senator Max Cleland was well known as a veteran who had lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. The Democratic legislature, led by 28-year Speaker Tom Murphy passed complex redistricting plans designed to give Democrats a majority of the state's 13 House seats (up from 11 thanks to 1990s growth) and to lock in Democratic majorities in the legislature.
Arrayed against this juggernaut was Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and later a campaign consultant, who was elected Republican state chairman in May 2001. Reed believed that the state was demographically Republican, and becoming more so: Republican national tickets went from 43% in 1992 to 47% in 1996 and 55% in 2000. He knew he could not match Barnes in dollars, so he created an on-the-ground organization that ultimately deployed 3,000 volunteers and 500 paid workers to knock on 150,000 doors in 600 precincts. He ran registration drives in fast-growing heavily Republican counties in metro Atlanta. This was a prototype of the Bush-Cheney 2004 volunteer effort that produced votes in rural and exurban areas Democrats never thought were there. Former state Senator Sonny Perdue beat Barnes 51%-46%; Congressman Saxby Chambliss beat Cleland 53%-46%. Turnout rose robustly in central Atlanta and in black counties, but it rose even more in the fast-growing suburbs: Demographic growth translated into votes. In the week after the election, four state senators switched parties and gave Republicans control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.
This was a political revolution of a sort that seldom occurs in a state. The politically ambitious could ponder the careers of Barnes and Perdue. Both started in politics as canny young legislators with ambitions to be governor. Barnes chose to remain a Democrat and was elected governor, then couldn't hold the office. Now Perdue, by winning against a well-financed incumbent, has shown that it is easier to win as a Republican.
The trend continued in 2004. Zell Miller, with no further political ambitions, also showed the way. Frustrated with Senate Democrats' obstructionism, he wrote a book, A National Party No More ("the modern South and rural America are as foreign to our Democratic leaders as some place in Asia or Africa"), endorsed George W. Bush and gave a rip-roaring speech at the Republican National Convention. Georgia Democrats reviled him, but he spoke in the authentic accents of Andrew Jackson and delivered the same message Georgia voters would two months later. Georgia was not a target state this time, but turnout rose 28% anyway, and Bush beat John Kerry 58%-41%. Republican Johnny Isakson beat Democrat Denise Majette in the Senate race by an almost identical 58%-40%. Bush won 56% in metro Atlanta, up from 52% in 2000, and he won 60% in the rest of the state, up from 57% in 2000. Kerry won among blacks, who cast 25% of the votes, by 88%-12%; most Kerry voters were black. But Bush won among whites, who cast 70% of the votes, by 76%-23%. Turnout was up sharply from 2000 in fast-growing counties in metro Atlanta--up 67% in Paulding, 65% in Henry, 59% in Forsyth and Newton, 45% in Walton, 41% in Cherokee, 38% in Carroll and Spalding, 37% in Douglas and 25% in Fayette. Bush carried these counties by 200,000 votes, 72%-27%. Republicans increased their majority in the state Senate to 34-22 and transformed the state House from a 102-77 Democratic majority to a 99-80-1 Republican majority. Said outgoing Speaker Terry Coleman, a conservative Democrat from south Georgia, "The Democratic party, as it has been traditionally, has problems in Georgia unless we get back to the sensible center."
Georgia's Republican party has problems as well, problems of governance. Metro Atlanta Republicans tend to want low taxes, but also generous spending on roads and limits on sprawling growth--you can see new subdivisions from the Kennesaw Mountain battlefield. Rural Georgia Republicans tend to be inspired by cultural and often religious conservatism, and are hungry for public works projects in areas that have seen far less growth than metro Atlanta. Governor Sonny Perdue seems to have defused one controversy, over the state flag. Barnes in 2001 persuaded the legislature to get rid of the Confederate battle flag, adopted as the state flag in 1956, for his own blue background design. Perdue in 2003 promoted a new red, white and blue flag, designed by among others Jimmy Carter. In the 2002 campaign he had promised a referendum on the flag; he persuaded the legislature to call one for the March 2004 presidential primary, but the legislators allowed voters to chose only the 2001 or 2003 designs; the 2003 model won 73%-27%. Perhaps Georgia is ready to move on.