Heeding the Lessons of the Past

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

The 1980s marked the beginning of the most explosive economic expansion in our state’s history. The recession of the late 2000s slowed the pace of growth and persistent poverty and crime continue to detract from it, but there is no denying the miraculous transformation of Georgia from an agricultural, segregated, one-party state into a vibrant, diversified, and dynamic engine of the New South.

The Civil Rights Movement of the thirty years prior set the stage for that growth. The extraordinary energy and resources that for so long had been expended—indeed squandered—to maintain white supremacy now could be used to unleash latent economic potential and catapult the state into the modern era.

We have all heard the story of how Atlanta overtook Birmingham and in the process became the dominant city in the region. In 1960 both cities were roughly the same size; both were poised to emerge as the economic leader of the New South. The difference was the order of priorities and opposing visions of what the future would look like.

Alabama was led by reactionaries like Gov. George Wallace and Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, who tried to stop desegregation by defying federal authority. They thought the future could be built upon white supremacy and that the world would continue to be a better place if the races were separate. The future they envisioned was firmly tied to the worst impulses of the past, regardless of the economic consequences.

In contrast, Georgia was led by leaders like Gov. Carl Sanders, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, and Coca-Cola executive Robert W. Woodruff, who refused to pander to the worst instincts of the electorate and either worked to dismantle Jim Crow or at least peacefully accepted its demise. The future they envisioned was one of economic prosperity, and they were willing to cast aside segregation if it stood in the way of achieving that goal.

In the decade following the Civil Rights Movement, Atlanta’s white businessmen and newly-elected black politicians seized the opportunity to reinvent the state. This new coalition developed during the 1970s the World Congress Center and upgraded Hartsfield International Airport, setting the stage for the explosive growth that began in the 1980s.

Because of the right leadership, priorities, and vision, Atlanta would eclipse its Alabama rival, and every other Southern city, that had clung to a segregated past.

Today Atlanta has a GDP larger than thirty-three states. It is home to seven Fortune 100 companies and ranks fourth nationally in the number of Fortune 500 companies, behind only New York, Houston, and Dallas. Georgia has twenty Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the state. Alabama has one.

The success of the last thirty years seems inevitable, but the future hinged on every decision. The Georgia we live in now is a testament to the caliber of past leadership and the power of wise decisions, proper priorities, visionary planning, and openness to change.

Today, Georgia once again stands at a crossroads. We no longer compete with Alabama, but with New York, Tokyo, and Beijing, and the stakes are higher than ever. Will we be compared to George Wallace and Bull Connor or Carl Sanders and Robert Woodruff?

History teaches us that the social climate of a state can foster or hinder economic prosperity. It teaches us that nothing is inevitable; that the effects of our decisions can last for decades; and that leaders with the right vision and priorities determine if an opportunity is seized or missed.

Historian David Hackett Fischer has written that, “The history of a free people is a history of hard choices.” Our destiny is in our own hands. Let’s heed the lessons of the past and make sure we get it right.

Because it’s not too late to lose it all.

W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.
W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.