“The Costs Are Too High”: Development and Black Resistance in Post-Civil Rights Atlanta

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:30 AM
Flatiron (Sheraton New York)
Danielle Wiggins, California Institute of Technology
In the 1980s, metro-Atlanta was one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. Atlanta mayor Andrew Young sought to ensure that the city shared in that development. The Young administration adopted an explicitly pro-growth agenda, taking on large-scale development projects that would attract private investment to the urban core. Growth, however, had rarely benefited the city’s black working class and poor. Historically, growth had meant slum clearance, urban renewal, and highway construction; it had meant the displacement of thousands of Atlanta’s most vulnerable citizens.

This paper will examine how black working-class and poor Atlantans took on the city’s growth regime in the late 1980s. It will focus on contestations over two projects: the Georgia Dome and the city’s African American history research library. In campaigning against each of these initiatives, local activists critiqued the projects’ impact on the environment, local black institutions, and the quality of life of city residents. It will explore the unexpected coalitions they formed and the tactics they employed to resist growth. Though they were not always successful, their campaigns reveal the ways working class and poor Atlantans sought to challenge the logics of growth and re-assert control over the built environment.

In sum, the paper will show how contests over space revealed competing visions of black advancement in the city that was deemed a new “Black Mecca” yet also had the second highest poverty rate in the country. Such contrasts were visibly manifest in the built environment; an airport whose construction created several black millionaires located right next to a public housing complex whose residents were displaced by noise pollution. These debates over growth and space reflected broader struggles over the meanings and legacy of the movement for racial and economic justice that underlie black politics in the post-civil rights era

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