Obituaries in The New York Times and elsewhere call former Ga. Gov. Carl Sanders a leader of "the New South." Sanders, one of several dynamic young men who transformed Atlanta into a major American city during the 1960s, died last weekend at the age of 89.
Elected after the demise of Georgia's old county "unit system," Sanders joined with Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. and banker Mills B. Lane to bring the old railroad town major league sports and prominence on the national and international scene, though never as much as Atlanta's relentless boosters claimed. Backed by Coca-Cola magnate Robert Woodruff's civic generosity, they promoted Atlanta as a showplace of racial tolerance and economic power.
Once Atlanta was roughly the same size as Birmingham. The racial moderation of Atlantans like Sanders, as well as the modernization of Atlanta's airport, put it far ahead. As the Alabama steel town crashed in racial violence, Atlanta claimed itself "the city too busy to hate."
In reality, though, Atlanta's simmering underlying racial tensions brought white flight and deep poverty shielded by the glass and steel buildings rising on Peachtree Street. Blacks gained political power in the city, and some share of the economic boom, but whites controlled most of the state's economy. Downtown died as power shifted north toward the suburbs.
The word "New South" came to define cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Miami, Charlotte, Houston and Dallas that moved beyond the region's old segregated society and agricultural-bound economy to move into "Sun Belt" prosperity. Those in the middle-class managerial class streamed from old Northern Cities to the new suburbs mushrooming upon what was once not so fertile farmland.
Yet the term orginated in the 19th century, popularized by Henry Grady, another brash Atlantan, who edited The Atlanta Constitution. Grady in a speech in New York in 1886 galvanized the term, which he didn't originate, to assure Northern industrialsts that the South had moved beyond its Civil War defeat and was ready to rejoin the nation's economy. For years, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used Grady's speech in marketing materials, underlining Grady's comment that "we have raised a brave and beautiful city." Atlanta boosterism always floated high above reality.
That the term rose again to describe the 1960s progressive South shows the hollowness of Grady's talk. Much of the Northern investment in the South crippled it for years. The industrialists expropriated the region's resources and labor, and contributed little in return.
Through the Great Depression, the South remained mired in poverty, racial violence, ignorance and self-defeating regional pride. The historian C. Vann Woodward wrote the defining books about the conflict between Grady's vision and Southern backwardness, "The Origins of the New South" and "The Burden of Southern History."
The Democratic Party ruled that South. If anything, Democratic control was even more extensive than that held by the Republicans today. The old Democrats were generally conservative, suspicious of outside ideas, supportive of rapacious business schemes. In short, they were virtually identical to today's Republicans.
Yet, men like Carl Sanders represented a progressive strand in Southern politics. As with Sanders, who opposed the Civil Rights Act, those Democratic progressives were hampered by regionalism. Even men like Allen, who testified in favor of the civil rights act and comforted Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, Coretta Scott King, after the civil rights leader's assassination, was marred by racism - he placed a barrier across an Atlanta street to stop integration of a neighborhood.
The expropriated term "New South" masked harsh realities. Those business types populating Sun Belt suburbs proved strong supporters of first Richard Nixon, and then Ronald Reagan, who sought to turn back racial progress. The South produced "new Democrats" like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, notorious in Georgia for his racially edged campaign to defeat Sanders' bid for a gubernatorial comeback in 1970.
Nixon's Southern strategy turned the old Democrats into Republicans. Lincoln's old party now thrived on racial and economic polarities. It had no place for the progressives who sometimes gained power in the old Democratic framework.
As the Democratic Party's power waned, progressives turned increasingly defensive, defeatist and deferential to Republicans. Carter and Clinton yielded to Republican opposition during their presidencies. The populist, progressive rise of men like Carl Sanders, Big Jim Folsom in Alabama and "Chep" Morrison in New Orleans shimmers like a vanished dream. That confident, dynamic, progressive politics no longer exists. Lacking a dynamic agenda for the future, Democrats remain marginal in the South.
Through all of its permutations, the term "New South" was hollow, more of a boast than sustained reality. Now, whatever truth it once held is even more eroded.