Before European contact, Native American cultures are divided into four time periods: Paleo, Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian. The Mississippian culture, lasting from 800 to 1500 AD, developed urban societies, distinguished by their construction of truncated pyramid mounds, or platform mounds, as well as their hierarchical chiefdoms, intensive village-based horticulture and ornate copper, shell and mica paraphernalia adorned with a series of motifs known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. The largest Mound Builder villages in present-day Georgia were Kolomoki in Early County, Etowah in Bartow, and Ocmulgee in Macon.
At the time of European colonization of the Americas, Cherokee and Creek Indians lived in what is now Georgia. The Cherokee, an Appalachian tribe of Iroquoian origins, spread southward along the Ridge and Valley Appalachians, occupying lands reaching to the upper Chattahoochee, which formed the southern boundary of their lands, stretching all the way to the Ohio River. The Creek or Muscogee were a loose confederation of tribes descended from the mound builders, divided between the Lower Creeks along the Ocmulgee, Flint and the lower Chattahoochee rivers, and the more remote Upper Creeks along the Coosa and Alabama rivers.
Though it is unknown exactly who was the first European to sight Georgia, it is possible that Juan Ponce de Leon sailed along the coast during his exploration of Florida. In 1526, Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón attempted to establish a colony there, possibly near St. Catherines Island.
Another colonial settlement, called Charlesfort, made by the French under Jean Ribault, was realized when French Huguenots settled an area in the Port Royal Sound area of present-day South Carolina. Within a year the colony failed. Most of the colonists followed René Goulaine de Laudonnière south and founded a new outpost called Fort Caroline in present-day Florida.
Over the next few decades, a number of Spanish explorers from Florida visited the inland region. The local mound builder culture, described by Hernando de Soto in 1540, had completely disappeared by 1560.
English fur traders from the Province of Carolina first encountered the Lower Creeks in 1690. The English established a fort at Ocmulgee, and traded iron tools, guns, cloth, and rum for deerskins and slaves captured in tribal raids.
The conflict between Spain and Great Britain over control of Georgia began in earnest in about 1670, when the British colony of South Carolina was founded just north of the missionary provinces of Guale and Mocama, part of Spanish Florida. Guale and Mocama, today part of Georgia, lay between Carolina’s capital, Charles Town, and Spanish Florida’s capital, St. Augustine. They were subjected to repeated military invasions by both sides.
The mission system was permanently destroyed by 1704, after which the coast of future Georgia was occupied by British-allied Yamasee Indians until they were decimated in the Yamasee War of 1715-1717. The surviving Yamasee fled to Florida, leaving the coast of Georgia thoroughly depopulated, opening the possibility of a new British colony. A few defeated Yamasee remained and later became known as the Yamacraw.
Massive British settlement began in the early 1730s with James Oglethorpe, an Englishman in the British parliament, who promoted the idea that the area be used to settle the worthy poor of England, to provide an alternative to the overcrowded debtors’ prisons. Oglethorpe and other British philanthropists secured a royal charter as the Trustees of the colony of Georgia on June 9, 1732. The colony was not founded exclusively by or for debtors or convicts, although the misconception of Georgia having been founded as a debtor or penal colony persists due to the large number of British convicts sentenced to transportation to Georgia. With the motto, “Not for ourselves, but for others,” the Trustees selected colonists for Georgia. On February 12, 1733, the first settlers landed in Anne at what was to become the city of Savannah. In 1742 invaded by Spanish forces during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Oglethorpe mobilised local forces and defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Bloody Marsh. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which ended the war, confirmed the British position in Georgia.
Governor Wright wrote in 1766 that Georgia had
“No manufactures of the least consequence: a trifling quantity of coarse homespun cloth, woollen and cotton mixed; amongst the poorer sort of people, for their own use, a few cotton and yarn stockings; shoes for our negroes; and some occasional blacksmith’s work. But all our supplies of silk, linens, woollens, shoes, stockings, nails, locks, hinges, and tools of every sort… are all imported from and through Great Britain.”
From 1735 to 1750, the trustees of Georgia, unique among Britain’s American colonies, prohibited African slavery as a matter of public policy. However, as the growing wealth of the slave-based plantation economy in neighboring South Carolina demonstrated, slaves were more profitable than other forms of labor available to colonists. Improving economic conditions in Europe led to fewer whites being willing to immigrate as indentured servants. In addition, many of the whites suffered high mortality rates from the climate and diseases of the Low Country.
In 1749, the state overturned its ban on slavery. From 1750 to 1775, planters so rapidly imported slaves that the enslaved population grew from less than 500 to approximately 18,000. The Africans had the knowledge and material techniques to build the elaborate earthworks of dams, banks, and irrigation systems throughout the Low Country that supported rice and indigo cultivation. Later sugar cane was added as a crop. Georgia planters imported slaves chiefly from rice-growing regions of present-day Sierra Leone, the Gambia and Angola. These Africans were experienced in rice culture and brought their techniques to the colony, where they were instrumental in the success of the commodity production.
In 1752 Georgia became a royal colony.
Planters from South Carolina, wealthier than the original settlers of Georgia, migrated south and soon dominated the colony. They replicated the customs and institutions of the South Carolina Low Country. Planters had higher rates of absenteeism from their large coastal plantations. They often took their families to the mountains during the summer, the “sick season”, when the Low Country had high rates of disease.
The pacing and development of large plantations made the Georgia coast society more like that of the West Indies than of Virginia. There was a higher proportion of African-born slaves, and Africans who came from closely related regions. The slaves of the ‘Rice Coast’ of South Carolina and Georgia developed the unique Gullah or Geechee culture (the latter term more common in Georgia), in which important parts of West African linguistic, religious and cultural heritage were preserved. This culture developed throughout the Low Country and Sea Islands, where enslaved African Americans later worked at cotton plantations. African-American influence was strong on foodways and music that became integral parts of southern culture.
Georgia was largely untouched by war during much of Britain’s involvement in the Seven Years War – as the colony was located a long distance from Canada and the French-allied Indians. However, in 1762 Georgia was believed to be under threat from a potential Spanish invasion from Florida, although this did not occur by the time peace was signed at the 1763 Treaty of Paris. During this period the Cherokee Rebellion began.
In the 1760s, the decade before the American Revolution, Britain threatened Georgia’s 18,000 white colonists with some 10,000 hostile Indians nearby. Royal governor James Wright was popular. But Georgians read the same political tracts as Bostonians, and developed their own concept of their rights and republican ideals. These were violated by British actions, such as imposing a stamp tax, which Georgians denounced in 1765. More fearsome was the British punishment of Boston after the Boston Tea Party. Many colonists feared they would be next… and they were.
In August 1774 at a general meeting in Savannah, the people proclaimed, “Protection and allegiance are reciprocal, and under the British Constitution correlative terms; … the Constitution admits of no taxation without representation.” Georgia had few grievances of its own but ideologically supported the patriot cause and expelled the British.
Angered by the news of the battle of Concord, on the eleventh of May 1775, the patriots stormed the royal magazine at Savannah and carried off its ammunition. The customary celebration of the King’s birthday on June 4 was turned into a wild demonstration against the King; a liberty pole was erected. Within a month the patriots completely defied royal authority and set up their own government. In June and July, assemblies at Savannah chose a Council of Safety and a Provincial Congress to take control of the government and cooperate with the other colonies. They started raising troops and prepared for war. “In short my lord,” wrote Wright to Lord Dartmouth on September 16, 1775, “the whole Executive Power is Assumed by them, and the King’s Governor remains little Else than Nominally so.”
In February 1776, Wright fled to a British warship and the patriots controlled all of Georgia. The new Congress adopted “Rules and Regulations” on April 15, 1776, which can be considered the Constitution of 1776. (There never was a Georgia declaration of independence.) Georgia was no longer a colony; it was a state with a weak chief executive, the “President and Commander-in-Chief,” who was elected by the Congress for a term of only six months. Archibald Bulloch, President of the two previous Congresses, was elected first President. He bent his efforts to mobilizing and training the militia. The Constitution of 1777 put power in the hands of the elected House of Assembly, which chose the governor; there was no senate and the franchise was open to nearly all white men.
The new state’s exposed seaboard position made it a tempting target for the British Navy. Savannah was captured by British and Loyalist forces in 1778, along with some of its hinterland. Enslaved Africans and African Americans chose their independence by escaping to British lines, where they were promised freedom. More than one-third of Georgia’s slaves, nearly 5,000 people, escaped during the Revolution.
The patriots moved to Augusta. At the Siege of Savannah in 1779, American and French troops (the latter including a company of free blacks from Haiti) fought unsuccessfully to retake the city. During the final years of the American Revolution, Georgia had a functioning Loyalist colonial government along the coast. Together with New York City, it was the last Loyalist bastion.
An early historian reported:
“For forty-two long months had she been a prey to rapine, oppression, fratricidal strife, and poverty. Fear, unrest, the brand, the sword, the tomahawk, had been her portion. In the abstraction [removal] of negro slaves, by the burning of dwellings, in the obliteration of plantations, by the destruction of agricultural implements, and by theft of domestic animals and personal effects, it is estimated that at least one half of the available property of the inhabitants had, during this period, been completely swept away. Real estate had depreciated in value. Agriculture was at a stand-still, and there was no money with which to repair these losses and inaugurate a new era of prosperity. The lamentation of widows and orphans, too, were heard in the land. These not only bemoaned their dead, but cried aloud for food. Amid the general depression there was, nevertheless, a deal of gladness in the hearts of the people, a radiant joy, an inspiring hope. Independence had been won.”
Georgia ratified the U.S. Constitution on January 2, 1788.
The original eight counties of Georgia were Burke, Camden, Chatham, Effingham, Glynn, Liberty, Richmond and Wilkes. Before these counties were created in 1777, Georgia had been divided into local government units called parishes.
In 1787, the Treaty of Beaufort established the eastern boundary of Georgia as the Savannah River, to Tugalo Lake. Twelve to fourteen miles of land (inhabited at the time by the Cherokee Nation) separate the lake from the southern boundary of North Carolina. South Carolina SAceded its claim to this land (extending all the way to the Pacific Ocean) to the federal government.
Georgia maintained a claim on western land from 31° N to 35° N, the southern part of which overlapped with the Mississippi Territory created from part of Spanish Florida in 1798. Georgia ceded its claims in 1802, fixing its present western boundary. In 1804, the federal government added the cession to the Mississippi Territory.
The Treaty of 1816 fixed the present-day boundary between Georgia and South Carolina at the Chattooga River, proceeding northwest from the lake.
In 1794, Eli Whitney, a Massachusetts-born artisan residing in Savannah, patented the cotton gin, mechanizing cotton production. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in the mechanized spinning and weaving of cloth in the world’s first factories in the north of England. Fueled by the soaring demands of British textile manufacturers, King Cotton quickly came to dominate Georgia and the other southern states. Although Congress banned the slave trade in 1808, Georgia’s slave population continued to grow with the importation of slaves from the plantations of the South Carolina Low Country and Chesapeake Tidewater, increasing from 149,656 in 1820 to 280,944 in 1840. A small population of free blacks developed, mostly working as artisans. The Georgia legislature unanimously passed a resolution in 1842 declaring that free blacks were not U.S. citizens.
Slaves worked the fields in large cotton plantations, and the economy of the state became dependent on the institution of slavery. Requiring little cultivation and easy to transport, cotton proved ideally suited to the inland frontier. The lower Piedmont or ‘Black Belt’ counties – comprising the middle third of the state and initially named for the regions distinctively dark and fertile soil – became the site of the largest and most productive cotton plantations.
In 1829, gold was discovered in the north Georgia mountains, resulting in the Georgia Gold Rush, the first gold rush in U.S. history. A Federal mint was established in Dahlonega, Georgia and continued to operate until 1861. An influx of white settlers pressured the U.S. government to take the land away from the Cherokee Indians. They owned land, operated their own government with a written constitution, and did not recognize the authority of the state of Georgia.
The dispute culminated in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, under which all eastern tribes were sent west to Indian reservations in present-day Oklahoma. In Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court in 1832 ruled that states were not permitted to redraw the boundaries of Indian lands, but President Andrew Jackson and the state of Georgia ignored the ruling. In 1838, his successor, Martin van Buren dispatched federal troops to round up the Cherokee and deport them west of the Mississippi. This forced relocation, known as the Trail of Tears led to the death of over 4,000 Cherokees.
Growth continued in the Black Belt region. By 1860, the slave population in the Black Belt was three times greater than that of the coastal counties, where rice remained the principal crop. The upper Piedmont was settled mainly by white yeoman farmers of Scots-Irish descent. While there were also many smaller cotton plantations, the proportion of slaves was lower in north Georgia than in the coastal and Black Belt counties, but it still ranged up to 25% of the population. In 1860 in the state as a whole, enslaved African Americans comprised 44% of the population of slightly more than one million.
The proportion of slaves in Georgia was quite big since the cotton is most efficiently grown on large plantations with many slaves rather than on small family farms. The Sokoloff/Engerman (SE) hypothesis predicts that cotton producers with large slave plantations will have a restrictive franchise which has a wealth or literacy requirement for voting. That’s a factor to induce Georgia into Civil War as Southern party to keep their elite rights.
On January 18, 1861 Georgia seceded from the Union, keeping the name “State of Georgia” and joining the newly formed Confederacy in February. During the war, Georgia sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to battle, mostly to the armies in Virginia. The state switched from cotton to food production, but severe transportation difficulties because of underdeveloped roads and railroads restrictedmovement of supplies. Thinking the state safe from invasion, the Confederates built small munitions factories. For similar reasons, In 1864, the Confederate government relocated Union prisoners of war kept in and around the Confederate capital of Richmond to the town of Andersonville, in remote southwest Georgia. It proved a death camp because of severe lack of supplies, food, water, and medicine. In the 15 months the Andersonville prison camp existed, 45,000 Union soldiers were held here; at least 13,000 died from disease, malnutrition, starvation, or exposure. At its height, the death rate reached over 100 persons per day. After the war, the camp’s commanding officer, Swiss-born Capt. Henry Wirz, became the only officer of the American Civil War to be tried and executed as a war criminal.
The first major battle in Georgia was a Confederate victory at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863—it was the last major Confederate victory in the west. In 1864, William T. Sherman’s armies invaded Georgia as part of the Atlanta Campaign. Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston fought a series of delaying battles, the largest being the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, as he tried to delay as long as possible by retreating toward Atlanta. Johnston’s replacement, Gen. John Bell Hood attempted several unsuccessful counterattacks at the Battle of Peachtree Creek and the Battle of Atlanta, but Sherman captured the city on September 2, 1864.
After burning Atlanta to the ground, Sherman embarked on his March to the Sea on November 15, en route to Milledgeville, the state capital, which he reached on November 23, and the port city of Savannah, which he entered on December 22. His army destroyed a swath of land about 60 miles across in this campaign, less than 10% of the state. Once Sherman’s army passed through, the Confederates regained control. The March is a major part of the state’s folk history. The crisis was the setting for Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind and the subsequent 1939 film. One of the last land battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Columbus, was fought on the Georgia-Alabama border.
At the beginning of the Reconstruction, Georgia had over 460,000 freedmen. Slaves had been 44% of the state’s population in 1860.
In January 1865, William T. Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15 authorizing federal authorities to confiscate abandoned plantations in the Sea Islands and redistribute land in smaller plots to former slaves, so that they might get a stake in life. Later that year after succeeding Lincoln in the presidency, Andrew Johnson revoked the order and returned the plantations to their former owners.
After the Civil War, many blacks moved from rural areas to Atlanta to take part in rebuilding the city and railroads, have freedom from the plantation counties, and to set up their own communities. Others migrated away from plantations to towns and worked to reunite their families.
Andrew Johnson’s decision to restore the former Confederate states to the Union without requirements for change to reflect the outcome of the war was criticized by Radical Republicans in Congress. In March 1867, they passed the First Reconstruction Act to place the South under temporary military occupation to help manage the transition to citizenship of freedmen. Along with Alabama and Florida, Georgia was included in the Third Military District, under the command of General John Pope.
To try to ensure the election of loyal governments, Radical Republicans passed an act requiring ex-Confederates to take an ironclad oath of loyalty or be prevented from voting or holding office for a few years. They were replaced in southern legislatures by a coalition of newly enfranchised freedmen, Northerners (who were called carpetbaggers), and Southerners who were for the Union, also disparagingly called scalawags. The latter were mostly former Whigs who had opposed secession.
In January 1868, Charles Jenkins, Georgia’s first governor elected after the end of the war, refused to authorize state funds for a racially integrated state constitutional convention. Pope’s successor General George Meade dissolved Jenkins’ government and replaced it with a military governor to ensure the constitutional convention was held representing all citizens.
This action outraged many white conservatives, already opposed to the Republican administration. Some were already engaged in organized political terrorism and others joined such insurgent paramilitary groups. The Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, visited Atlanta several times in 1868 to help organize the Klan in Georgia. Political violence increased in the state against freedmen and their allies. The Freedmen’s Bureau agents reported 336 cases of murder or assault with intent to kill perpetrated against freedmen across the state from January 1 through November 15 of 1868.
In July 1868, the newly elected General Assembly ratified the Fourteenth Amendment; a Republican governor, Rufus Bullock, was inaugurated, and Georgia was readmitted to the Union. The state’s Democrats, including former Confederate leaders Robert Toombs and Howell Cobb, convened in Atlanta to denounce Reconstruction. Theirs was described as the largest mass rally of whites held in Georgia. In September, white Republicans joined with the Democrats in expelling the thirty-two black legislators from the General Assembly. A week later in the southwest Georgia town of Camilla, white residents attacked a black Republican rally and killed twelve men.
In 1868, Georgia became the first state in the South to implement the convict lease system. It made money by leasing out the overwhelmingly black prison population to work for private businesses and citizens. The work force was unprotected and did not receive any income. Railroad companies, mines, turpentine distilleries and other manufacturers, in essence, used unpaid convict labor to hasten industrialization. While the entities employing convicts were legally obliged to provide humane treatment, widespread reports that leased convicts were being overworked, brutally whipped, and killed were completely ignored. Georgia’s incipient capitalists reaped huge profits from this system. The greatest beneficiary was Joseph E. Brown, whose railroads, coal mines and iron works were all dependent on convict labor.
As whites tried to reestablish social and political dominance in a changed labor market in the midst of a severe agricultural depression, militia and lynch-mob violence directed against freedmen and their allies rose in Georgia and other Confederate states. It was continuation of the Civil War by other means.
These developments led many to call for return of Georgia to military rule, to ensure protection of citizens. Georgia was one of only two ex-Confederate states to vote against Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election of 1868. In March 1869 the state legislature defeated ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment.
The same month the U.S. Congress again barred Georgia’s representatives from their seats because of election fraud and inequities. This caused the re-imposition of military rule in December 1869. In January 1870, Gen. Alfred H. Terry, the final commanding general of the Third District, purged the General Assembly’s of ex-Confederates. He replaced them with the Republican runners-up and reinstated the expelled black legislators. This created a large Republican majority in the legislature.
In February 1870 the newly constituted legislature ratified the Fifteenth Amendment and chose new Senators to send to Washington. On July 15, Georgia became the last former Confederate state readmitted into the Union. The Democrats subsequently won commanding majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. Under their threat of impeachment, the last Republican governor Rufus Bullock fled the state.
Postbellum economic growth
Under the Reconstruction government, the former state capital of Milledgeville was replaced by the inland rail terminus of Atlanta. Construction began on a new capitol building, which was completed by 1889. The population of Atlanta increased rapidly.
Post-Reconstruction Georgia was dominated by the ‘Bourbon Triumvirate’ of Joseph E. Brown, Gen. John B. Gordon and Gen. Alfred H. Colquitt. Between 1872 and 1890, either Brown or Gordon held one of Georgia’s Senate seats, Colquitt held the other, and, in the major part of that period, either Colquitt or Gordon occupied the Governor’s office. With their appeals to white supremacy, the Democrats effectively monopolized state politics. Colquitt represented the old planter class; Brown, head of Western & Atlantic Railroad and one of the states first millionaires, represented the New South businessmen. Gordon was neither a planter nor a successful businessman, but proved the most skilled politician.
A general in the Army of Northern Virginia who led the fabled last charge at Appomattox, Brown was the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. He was the first former Confederate to serve in the U.S. Senate. There he helped write the Compromise of 1877 that ended Reconstruction. A native of northwest Georgia, his popularity impeded the growth of the ‘mountain Republicanism’ prevalent throughout southern Appalachia, where slavery had been uncommon and resentment against the planter class widespread.
During the Gilded Age, Georgia recovered from the devastation of the Civil War and had unprecedented economic growth based in part on development of resources. One of the most enduring products came about in reaction to the age’s excesses. In 1885, when Atlanta and Fulton County enacted prohibition legislation, a local pharmacist, John Pemberton invented a new drink. Two years later, after he sold the drink to Asa Candler who promoted it, Coca-Cola became the state’s most famous product.
Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, emerged as the leading spokesman of the ‘New South’. He promoted sectional reconciliation and the region’s place in a rapidly industrializing nation. The International Cotton Exposition of 1881 and the Cotton States and International Exposition of 1895 were staged to promote Georgia and the South as textile centers. They attracted mills from New England to build a new economic base in the post-war South by diversifying the region’s agrarian economies. Attracted by low labor costs and the proximity to raw materials, new textile businesses transformed Columbus and Atlanta, as well as Graniteville, on the Georgia-South Carolina border, into textile manufacturing centers.
Due to Georgia’s relatively untapped virgin forests, particularly in the thinly populated pine barrens of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, logging became a major industry. It supported other new industries, most notably paper mills and turpentine distilling, which, by 1900, made Georgia the leading producer of naval stores. Also important were coal, granite and kaolin mining, the latter used in the manufacture of paper, bricks and ceramic piping.
Even after the Democrats gained power, in the volatile 1880s and 1890s the number of lynchings of blacks grew steadily, reaching its height in 1899, when twenty-seven Georgians were killed by lynch mobs. From 1890 to 1900, Georgia averaged more than one mob killing per month. More than 95% of the victims of the 450 lynchings documented between 1882 and 1930 were black. This period corresponded to Georgia’s disfranchisement of blacks and many poor whites through changes to its constitution and addition of such requirements as poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency requirements. Political violence was used against blacks to reduce voting until they were disfranchised, a situation that prevailed for more than 60 years into the 20th century.
The Cotton States and International Exposition was famous as the occasion of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise. He urged blacks to focus their efforts, not on demands for social equality, but to improve their own conditions by becoming proficient in agriculture, mechanics, and domestic service. He proposed building a broad base within existing conditions. He urged whites to take responsibility to improve social and economic relations between the races. Black leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who supported classical academic standards for education, strongly disagreed with Washington and denounced him for acquiescing to oppression. Du Bois, the most highly educated black man in America, in 1897 joined the faculty of Atlanta University and taught there for several years. His experience and research in Georgia informed his famous book The Souls of Black Folk.
The black community mobilized quickly to get as much education as possible. Starting from having only a few schools before the Civil War, by the end of the century, the community had seen more than 30,000 teachers trained and put to work in schools across the South for African American children. Often rural schools in Georgia and other states were held only a few months a year because of demands to use children for labor, but parents tried their best. Teaching was highly regarded as a career and seen as a way for talented leaders, both men and women, to help their race.
Agrarian Rebellion and Disfranchisement
While Grady and other proponents of the New South insisted on Georgia’s urban future, the state’s economy remained overwhelmingly dependent on cotton. Much of the industrialization that did occur was as a subsidiary of cotton agriculture; many of the state’s new textile factories were devoted to the manufacture of simple cotton bags. The price per pound of cotton plummeted from $1 at the end of the Civil War to an average of 20 cents in the 1870s, nine cents in the 1880s, and seven cents in the 1890s. By 1898, it had fallen to five cents a pound -while costing seven cents to produce. Once-prosperous planters were reduced to fledgling small farmers.
Thousands of freedmen became tenant farmers or sharecroppers rather than hire out to labor gangs. Through the lien system, small-county merchants assumed a central role in cotton production, monopolizing the supply of equipment, fertilizers, seeds and foodstuffs needed to make sharecropping possible. As cotton prices plummeted below production costs, by the 1890s, 80-90% of cotton growers, whether owner or tenant, were in debt to lien merchants.
Indebted Georgia cotton growers responded by embracing the ‘agrarian radicalism’ manifested, successively, in the 1870s with the Granger movement, in the 1880s with the Farmers’ Alliance, and in the 1890s with the Populist Party. In 1892, Congressman Tom Watson joined the Populists, becoming the most visible spokesman for their predominately Western Congressional delegation. Southern Populists denounced the convict lease system, while urging white and black small farmers to unite on the basis of shared economic self-interest. They generally refrained from advocating social equality.
In his essay ‘The Negro Question in the South,’ Watson framed his appeal for a united front between black and white farmers declaring:
“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”
Southern Populists did not share their Western counterparts’ emphasis on Free Silver and bitterly opposed their desire for fusion with the Democratic Party. They had faced death threats, mob violence and ballot-box stuffing to challenge the monopoly of their states’ Bourbon Democrat political machines. The merger with the Democratic Party in the 1896 Presidential election dealt a fatal blow to Southern Populism. The Populists nominated Watson as William Jennings Bryan’s vice-president, but Bryan selected New England industrialist Arthur Sewall as a concession to Democratic leaders.
Watson was not reelected. As the Populist Party disintegrated, through his periodical The Jeffersonian, Watson crusaded as a vigorous anti-Semite, anti-Catholic and white supremacist. He attacked the socialism which had attracted many former Populists. He campaigned with little success for the party’s candidate for President in 1904 and 1908. Watson continued to exert influence in Georgia politics, and provided a key endorsement in the gubernatorial campaign of M. Hoke Smith.
Disfranchisement and court challenges
A former cabinet member in Grover Cleveland’s administration, M. Hoke Smith broke with Cleveland because of his support for Bryan. Hoke Smith’s tenure as governor was noted for the passage of Jim Crow laws and the 1908 constitutional amendment that required a person to satisfy qualifications for literacy tests and property ownership for voting. Because a grandfather clause was used to waive those requirements for most whites, the legislation effectively secured the disfranchisement of African Americans. Georgia’s amendment was made following 1898 and 1903 Supreme Court decisions that had upheld similar provisions in the constitutions of Mississippi and Alabama.
The new provisions were devastating for the African American community and poor whites, as losing the ability to register to vote meant they were excluded from serving on juries, as well as losing all representation at local, state and Federal levels. In 1900 African Americans numbered 1,035,037 in Georgia, nearly 47% of the state’s population.
Continued litigation by people from Georgia and other states brought some relief, as in the overturning of the grandfather clause in Guinn v. United States (1915). White-dominated state legislatures and the state Democratic parties quickly responded by creating new barriers to expanded franchise, such as white-only primaries.
In 1934 Georgia passed legislation to impose a poll tax as a voting requirement, a provision upheld in the Supreme Court case of Breedlove v. Suttles (1937), a challenge brought by a poor white man seeking the ability to vote without paying a fee. By 1940 only 20,000 blacks in Georgia managed to register. In 1944 the Supreme Court’s decision in Smith v. Allwright banned white-only primaries, and in 1945 Georgia repealed its poll tax. Black civil rights groups, especially the All-Citizens Registration Committee (ACRC) of Atlanta, moved quickly to register African Americans. By 1947 they had managed to register 125,000 people, 18.8% of those of eligible age.
In 1958 the state passed legislation again making registration more restrictive, by requiring those who were illiterate to answer 20 of 30 questions posed. In rural counties such as Terrell, black voting registration was repressed. After the legislation, although the county was 64% black in population, only 48 blacks managed to register to vote.
All Georgia citizens would not gain full protection for voting again until the mid-1960s, after African-American leadership in the Civil Rights Movement gained passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Boll weevil, Great Migration and World War II
In the early 1900s, Georgia’s manufacturing and agriculture grew. The cotton industry benefited from the depredations of the boll weevil further west. In 1911, Georgia produced a record 2.8 million bales of cotton. Four years later, the boll weevil arrived in Georgia, and by 1921 reached such epidemic proportions that it destroyed 45% of the states’ cotton crop. World War I drove cotton prices to a high of $1 a pound in 1919, but it quickly fell to 10 cents per pound. Landowners ruined by the boll weevil and declining prices expelled their sharecroppers.
Starting in 1910, before factory jobs began to open up during the First World War, tens of thousands of African Americans migrated to northern industrial states for work, better education for their children, and the right to vote, marking the beginning of the massive population shift of the Great Migration. From 1910 to 1940 and in a second wave from the 1940s to 1970, more than 6.5 million African Americans left the South for northern and western industrial cities. They rapidly became urbanized and many built successful lives as industrial workers.
Georgia horrified the nation with the notorious trial and lynching of Atlanta Jewish factory owner Leo Frank, accused of raping and murdering a white female employee, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan. After appeals failed, a lynch mob murdered Frank in 1917. Ringleaders calling themselves ‘The Knights of Mary Phagan’ included prominent politicians, most notably former Governor Joseph Mackey Brown. Publisher Watson played a leading role in instigating the violence with inflammatory newspaper coverage.
Added to rising social tensions from new immigration, urban migration and rapid change, the trial contributed to revival of the Ku Klux Klan, refounded in a ceremony at Stone Mountain in November 1915. With Atlanta as its Imperial City, the Klan quickly grew to occupy a powerful role in state and municipal politics. Governor Clifford Walker, who served from 1923 to 1927, was closely associated with the Klan. By the end of the decade, the organization suffered a number of scandals, internal feuds, and voices raised in opposition. Klan membership in the state declined from a peak of 156,000 in 1925 to 1,400 in 1930.
The Great Depression considerably worsened the state’s economic situation. Collapsing demand for cotton and other agricultural staples was compounded by ecological havoc wrecked by poor land-use strategies. In most rural parts of the state, the effects of the Depression were less apparent than in the nation as a whole, only because people had already been struggling throughout the 1920s.
Georgia benefited greatly by the New Deal, which brought major advances in rural electrification, housing and road construction, education, and health care. Enacted during Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office, the Agricultural Adjustment Act paid farmers to plant less cotton to reduce supply. From 1932 to 1936, the price of cotton rose from five to fifteen cents a pound. Between 1933 and 1940, the New Deal brought $250 million to Georgia. It established agencies that offered extensive public works projects, including rural electrification programs, libraries, schools, parks, roads and the nation’s first public housing project and slum clearance. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a particularly close relationship with Georgia. He established a home known as the ‘Little White House’ near the therapeutic waters of Warm Springs.
Roosevelt’s programs faced considerable opposition from Georgia’s powerful governor Eugene Talmadge. He was a former Agriculture Commissioner whose claims to be a ‘real dirt farmer’ won him the loyalty of his small-town and rural constituencies. In his four terms as Governor (1933-37), Talmadge sought to subvert many New Deal programs. Appealing to white supremacy, he denounced New Deal programs that paid black workers wages equal to whites, and attacked what he described as the communist tendencies of the New Deal. In the 1936 election, Talmadge unsuccessfully attempted to run for the Senate, but lost to pro-New Deal incumbent Richard Russell, Jr.. The candidate he endorsed for Governor was also defeated. Under the pro-New Deal administration of State House speaker E.D. Rivers, by 1940 Georgia led the nation in the number of Rural Electrification Cooperatives and rural public housing projects.
Although re-elected Governor in 1940, Talmadge suffered from a scandal caused by his firing of a dean of the University of Georgia system, on the grounds that he advocated racial equality. This led the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to withdraw accreditation from the state’s white colleges. In 1942, Talmadge was defeated in his bid for reelection. In 1946, he was reelected, in part by opposing a Federal court ruling that invalidated the white primary, but he died before taking office. The administration was often able to circumvent Talmadge’s opposition by working with pro-New Deal politicians, most notably Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield.
Wartime factory production during World War II lifted Georgia’s economy out of recession. Marietta’s Bell Aircraft plant, the principal assembly site for the B-29 Superfortress bomber, employed some 28,000 people at its peak, Robins Air Field near Macon employed some 13,000 civilians; Fort Benning became the world’s largest infantry training school; and newly opened Fort Gordon became a major deployment center. Shipyards in Savannah and Brunswick built many of the Liberty Ships used to transport war matériel to the European and Pacific Theatres. Following the cessation of hostilities, the state’s urban centers continued to thrive.
In 1946, Georgia became the first state to allow 18-year-olds to vote, and remained the only one to do so before passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971. (Three other states set the voting age at 19 or 20.) The same year, the Communicable Disease Center, later called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was founded in Atlanta from staff of the former Malaria Control in War Areas offices. From 1946 to 1955, some 500 new factories were constructed in the state. By 1950, more Georgians were employed in manufacturing than farming.
At the same time, the mechanization of agriculture dramatically reduced the need for farm laborers. It precipitated another wave of urban migration of former sharecroppers and tenant farmers, chiefly to the urban Midwest, West and Northeast, but also to the state’s own burgeoning urban centers. During the war, Atlanta’s Candler Field was the nation’s busiest airport in terms of flight operation. Afterwards Mayor Hartsfield lobbied successfully to make the city a hub of commercial air travel, based on its strategic location in relation to the nation’s major population centers.
Civil Rights Movement
African-American men’s sacrifices and achievements during WWII contributed to their activism for civil rights after the war. Men had fought for a country that permitted Southern states to prevent them from voting and kept their children in substandard schools. In the postwar period, there was new movement for change.
In 1960 after waves of migration to the North, African Americans in Georgia declined to 28% of the state’s population, a total of 1,122,596 people. Most of those of eligible voting age were still disfranchised. With Atlanta’s leadership among educated, middle-class blacks, Georgia became an important battleground in the American Civil Rights Movement.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was denounced by Governor Marvin Griffin, who pledged to keep Georgia’s schools segregated, “come hell or high water”.
Atlanta-born and bred Baptist minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a national leader in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. The son of a minister, King earned a doctorate from Boston University and was part of the educated middle class that had developed in the strong African-American community of Atlanta. The success of the Montgomery boycott led to King’s joining with others to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta in 1957, to provide political leadership for the Civil Rights Movement across the South. Black churches had long been important centers of their communities. Ministers and their congregations were at the forefront of the civil rights struggle.
In Georgia and elsewhere, tensions over social change broke out into violence. In 1958, a group called the ‘Confederate Underground’ bombed a Reform Jewish temple in Atlanta in reaction to Jewish support of the Civil Rights Movement.
The SCLC led a desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia in 1961. Together with the local police chief’s restraint from violence, this campaign’s broad focus failed to achieve any dramatic victories. The Albany campaign taught King and the SCLC important lessons which they put to use in the more successful Birmingham campaign of 1963-64 in Alabama. The leadership of King and his followers led national opinion to turn in favor of the moral position of activists’ claiming common civil rights for all citizens. John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby prepared and submitted a Civil Rights bill to Congress.
With the cause of African Americans’ capturing the support of the nation, in 1964 President Johnson secured passage of the Civil Rights Act. The following year he secured passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which established protections for voting. African Americans throughout the South quickly registered to vote and began to re-enter the political process, but it took some years for Georgians to elect the first African American to Congress in the 20th century.
Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. testified before Congress in support of the Civil Rights Act, and Governor Carl Sanders worked with the Kennedy administration to ensure the state’s compliance. Ralph McGill, editor and syndicated columnist at the Atlanta Constitution, earned both admiration and enmity by writing in support of the Civil Rights Movement. However, the majority of white Georgians continued to oppose integration.
In 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater won a majority of votes for president in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, in part because of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. In 1968 arch-segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace won these three states when he ran as an Independent for the Presidency.
In 1966, Lester Maddox was elected Governor of Georgia. He had gained fame by threatening African-American civil rights demonstrators who attempted to enter his public restaurant. He stubbornly agitated against integration. After the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Gov. Maddox refused to honor the Nobel Prize winner by allowing his body to lie in state at the capitol.
In 1969, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a successful lawsuit against the state that required integration of public schools. In 1970, newly elected Governor Jimmy Carter declared in his inaugural address that the era of racial segregation had ended.
Passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) enabled African Americans to regain their suffrage and formal political participation. In 1972 Georgians elected Andrew Young to Congress as the first African American since Reconstruction. He had been one of King’s lieutenants in the movement. In 1974, the city of Atlanta elected Maynard Jackson as its first African-American mayor.
Sun Belt growth and the New Right
In 1980, construction was completed on the William B. Hartsfield International Airport. The largest in the world, it was designed to accommodate up to 55 million passengers a year. The airport became a major engine for economic growth. With the advantages of cheap real estate, low taxes, anti-union Right-to-work laws and lax corporate regulations, the Atlanta metropolitan area became a national center of finance, insurance, and real estate companies, as well as the convention and trade show business. As a testament to the city’s growing international profile, in 1990 the International Olympic Committee selected Atlanta as the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics. Taking advantage of Atlanta’s status as a transportation hub, in 1991 UPS established its headquarters in a suburb. In 1992, construction finished on Bank of America Plaza, the tallest building in the U.S. outside New York or Chicago.
In reaction to the association of the Democratic Party with civil rights legislation and Federal involvement on integration, Georgia, along with the rest of the formerly Democratic Solid South, gradually shifted to support Republicans, first in presidential elections. Realignment was hastened by the turbulent one-term Presidency of native-son Jimmy Carter, the popularity of Reagan and organizational efforts of the Republican Party, and the growth of the Religious Right.
In 1992, Paul Coverdell became the first Republican Senator elected by Georgia since the end of Reconstruction. The Christian Coalition, whose leader, Ralph E. Reed, Jr., had close ties to Georgia, mobilized evangelical and fundamentalist Christian voters in support of Republican candidates during the 1994 midterm elections. Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich, the acknowledged leader of the Republican Revolution, was elected Speaker of the House. His seat represented the wealthy northern suburbs of Atlanta. Bob Barr, another Georgia Republican Congressman, introduced the Defense of Marriage Act and led the campaign to impeach President Bill Clinton. Barr later switched his party affiliation to Libertarian and announced his intention to run for the U.S. presidency on May 12, 2008. On May 25, he was nominated at the Libertarian convention.
Georgia gained notoriety as a center of radical right-wing terrorism. During the 1996 Olympics, after the International Olympic Committee condemned the anti-homosexuality resolutions passed by suburban Cobb County, Eric Robert Rudolph, a militant Christian fundamentalist detonated a bomb that killed one person and wounded 11. The following year, the Army of God, to which Rudolph was linked, bombed an Atlanta lesbian nightclub and an abortion clinic.
In this political climate, Georgia’s leading Democrat, Governor Zell Miller (1990-99), shifted to the right. After being appointed to the Senate following the death of Coverdell in 2000, he emerged as a prominent ally of George W. Bush on the war in Iraq, Social Security privatization, tax cuts, and opposition to gay marriage. He delivered a controversial keynote speech at the 2004 Republican convention where he endorsed Bush for reelection and denounced his Democratic Party colleagues. In 2002, Georgia elected Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He had campaigned against a controversial redesign of the state flag that removed the Confederate battle emblem.