White Flight

Kevin Kruse. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 




     In White Flight, Kruse argues that whites’ moving away from the city to the suburbs of Atlanta was a political response brought on by the civil rights movement. He states that while it was widely believed that white flight was essentially “a literal movement of the white population,” however, “it represented a much more important transformation in the political ideology of those involved” (6). Ultimately, white flight began as physical relocation and flourished into a political revolution
      White Flight explores suburban county population growth from the late 1940s to the 1960s. By the time the 1970s rolled around, the suburban counties of Cobb, Fulton, and Gwinnett boomed in population and median income; each of these three counties had well over 90 percent of whites making up the total population. He examines the flight of white Atlantans from the 1940s through the 1960s in three stages to expose political patterns of white resistance to the civil rights movement. Kruse argues that patterns of white resistance were successful as white Atlantans called for ideological emphasis on individual rights and liberties, privatization, and small government.
The first stage of white flight takes place from the late 1940s to the early 1950s. In this era, working class whites felt that their public spaces such as neighborhoods, pools, and parks were being invaded by African Americans. Initially, working class whites used intimidation and organized violence against blacks before realizing the significance of presenting positive public images. Kruse explains, that “in time, they would learn to put aside the brown shirts of the Columbians and the white sheets of the Klan and instead present themselves as simple homeowners and concerned citizens” (44). White citizens went from preserving the integrity of their communities to emphasize the individual rights and liberties to live with whomever they wanted to. The presence of black homeowners resulted in white citizens selling their houses en masse before their property values plunged.     
The second stage of white flight takes place from the mid-to-late 1950s. During this period, mid class whites joined in the battle over public school desegregation. The fundamental ideology of segregationists was “freedom of association.” For example, Sandra Melkild, a high school student, put in a request to transfer from a high school that was on the way to being integrated to a high school that would remain all-white. The concept of freedom of association was not so much about denying African Americans their rights as it was preserving their own right to decide who their children should and even could interact with in public spaces. Sandra’s father, William stated that, [t]his freedom is the right to associate with whom one pleases and the right not to associate with whom one pleases” (161). This freedom of association did not prevent integration from happening and white citizens also fled from public schools to private ones.
The third stage of white flight takes place during the early 1960s. At this time, white upper class citizens were safely settled in their all white neighborhoods, country clubs, and private schools while middle class whites were faced with their public spaces being integrated. White upper class citizens and their private spaces were targeted with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Atlanta elites found themselves faced with federal interventions and sit-ins which “represented the ultimate threat to both segregation and private property” (195). This struggle against integration shifted early efforts of individual rights and liberties towards highly organized and powerful conservative ideology. 

The recent scholarship on the white response, resistance, and backlash towards the civil rights movement tend to focus on specific regions in the United States. Lisa McGirr studies the conservative movement in Orange County, California in the 1960s. McGirr argues that conservatism was not a singular result of the civil rights movement instead conservatism was always a part of white America. Jefferson Cowie studies the working class man’s shift from liberal icon in the beginning of the 1970s to conservative icon by the end of the 1970s. For Cowie this decade demonstrates how working class whites were overwhelmed with the changes the civil rights movement brought on that they eventually shifted to conservative ideology. Matthew Lassiter builds on Kruse’s work through an examination of court-ordered busing and housing segregation in Atlanta and Charlotte. Lassiter argues that resistance to integration led to conservative ideologies. Ronald Formisano shifts the movement to 1970s Boston where white citizens led violent racist attacks against busing. Thomas Sugrue examines white flight to the suburbs in Detroit. The white citizens of Detroit and Atlanta all felt that black presence in their neighborhoods would cause property values to decrease. Kevin Kruse’s work fits in with these historians who examine white resistance to the movement on a regional level during the long civil right movement.      

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