How COVID-19 Exposed the Deep Divide Between White Rural Georgia and Atlanta

In Defying the CDC’s Expert Advice, Governor Kemp Is Employing a Political Strategy More Than 150 Years Old

How COVID-19 Exposed the Deep Divide Between White Rural Georgia and Atlanta | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Eugene Talmadge at a 1942 political rally in Moultrie. Courtesy of Special Collections & Archives, Georgia State University Library.

The number of Georgia’s confirmed coronavirus cases jumped by 30 percent in the seven days before Governor Brian Kemp appeared at the state capitol in Atlanta on April 20. There and then, he announced that he was relaxing his previous shelter-in-place order and allowing gyms, barbershops, tattoo parlors, and ultimately, restaurants as well, to reopen.

This was hardly welcome news a scant five miles to the northeast, where experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were warning that such a move would be extremely risky until “the incidence of infection is genuinely low.” Although these same Atlanta-based experts had cautioned in mid-February that people who contracted the virus but remained asymptomatic could still infect others, Kemp claimed to have heard that early warning for the first time only on the eve of his grudging and long-overdue April 2 announcement that he was imposing restrictions in the first place.

The CDC has been in Atlanta since its beginnings in 1946. Its rise to prominence as one of the world’s most respected public health protection agencies has long been a point of pride for the city’s perennially image-polishing, growth-obsessed leaders. By the 1970s their ardent courtship of the approval and capital investments of Fortune 500 executives had led disgusted rural Georgians to complain that Atlanta had been surrendered to the Yankees yet again, and this time without a single shot being fired. 

But rural antagonism toward Atlanta is hardly of recent vintage. It has been a defining element in Georgia politics for almost 150 years. And therein lies much of the story behind the story of the Georgia governor’s apparent aloofness to the health jewel in his own capital’s crown, and to all the CDC expertise that could have helped avoid the healthcare disaster that may soon envelop his entire state.

The physical and financial devastation of the Civil War left Georgia’s farmers, white and black alike, trapped in an accelerating down swirl of dependency and debt. But by 1900, Atlanta, which had been a modest railroad hub of some 9,500 in 1860, had blossomed into a flourishing state capital and commercial and transportation center of 90,000. Atlanta was not only Georgia’s largest city. It had risen from the ashes, and proudly so. Its biggest booster, editor and orator Henry W. Grady, declared it a gleaming embodiment of a “New South.” With Atlanta as its guiding light, Grady predicted, the rest of Georgia would quickly shed its dependence on agriculture to embrace industrialization, urbanization, and commerce and soon be savoring the fruits of an unparalleled prosperity.

This divergence of urban and rural economic fortunes and momentum did not go unnoticed in the countryside. As the largest state by land area east of the Mississippi, Georgia already had 123 counties by 1870. Growing unease over the growth of Atlanta’s population and potential political clout helped to explain why the rural majority in the legislature took the lead in adding of another 29 counties over the next half century. But the sense that even this further dilution of Atlanta’s potential clout might be insufficient to safeguard rural prerogatives gave rise to one of the most blatant and brutally effective anti-urban political artifices ever devised.

Used informally for over a decade before it gained legal sanction in 1917, the “county-unit system” supplanted the popular vote as the means of determining the outcome of statewide elections in Georgia. This arrangement was basically a downsized and even more egregiously anti-democratic version of the national Electoral College. Under the system, each county, no matter how tiny its population, was assigned at least two unit votes, while no county, no matter how populous, was granted more than six.

The effectiveness of this device in neutering Atlanta politically was proven in countless elections, including the 1946 Georgia gubernatorial primary, when fewer than 1,100 votes cast for one candidate across three of the state’s most sparsely populated counties effectively countered more than 58,000 votes cast for his opponent in Atlanta’s home county of Fulton. The beneficiary of this particular thwarting of democracy was Eugene Talmadge, who was elected governor four times between 1932 and 1946 by appealing to rural voters with such proven stratagems as inviting them to join him on the front porch of the governor’s mansion in Atlanta so they could “piss over the rail on those city bastards.”

It was a point of pride for “ol’ Gene” that he had never campaigned in a county where there were streetcars. And he relished his studied role as nemesis to all things cosmopolitan and erudite, intimating more than once that he felt that any home boasting a Bible and a Sears, Roebuck catalog had as much of a library as it needed.

Understandably enough, as a historian of that era reported, upper-class Atlantans embarrassed and repelled by the buffoonish mockery of their refinement and expertise that emanated from the countryside were “quite evidently not proud of [the rest of] Georgia.” Such feelings were hardly a secret, and, if anything, served only to stoke the Atlanta-bashing that remained a fixture of Georgia gubernatorial politics between 1920 and 1962, when not a single urbanite managed to claim the state’s highest office.

Carl E. Sanders, who hailed from Augusta rather than Atlanta, managed to break that protracted dry spell in 1962, after the courts had finally forced Georgia to scuttle the county unit system for good. Finally free of its anti-progressive clutches, Georgia saw a rapid and vitally important expansion of Atlanta’s generally moderating political influences within the state—which, despite the ranting of rural politicians determined to preserve segregation at all costs, may ultimately have kept Georgia from joining the full retreat that wrought such havoc and horror in Alabama and Mississippi.

The beneficiary of this particular thwarting of democracy was Eugene Talmadge, who was elected governor four times between 1932 and 1946 by appealing to rural voters with such proven stratagems as inviting them to join him on the front porch of the governor’s mansion in Atlanta so they could “piss over the rail on those city bastards.”

The demise of the county unit system seemed to point to a more sophisticated approach to statewide campaigning, but old habits die hard. Even more progressive candidates were still not above pandering to enduring anti-Atlanta, or at least anti-urban, sentiments. These included Jimmy Carter, who portrayed himself in the 1970 gubernatorial primary as just a simple, hardworking country peanut farmer, while referring to his principal opponent, former governor Sanders, as “Cufflinks Carl,” an elitist, country club liberal wholly out of touch with the common folk of rural Georgia.

Although Carter proved the exception, gubernatorial candidates who used Atlanta as a punching bag historically reserved a few licks for African Americans and other minorities as well. None in recent memory has sunk so low as Eugene Talmadge, whose deliberate attempts to inflame racial passions in the 1946 campaign set the stage for the lynching of two black couples in rural Walton County shortly after the votes were cast. Race-baiting was Talmadge’s stock-in-trade, but his rhetoric was especially heated in 1946 because, courtesy of a recent court decree, that contest was the first truly meaningful election in the 20th century in which more than a relative scattering of black people had been allowed to vote in Georgia.

Black voting would remain limited, especially in Georgia’s rural counties, until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which quickly boosted black registration from 34 to 55 percent of the eligible population, rendering outright race-mongering a bit risky for any white candidate in a statewide contest. The Voting Rights Act also accelerated the exodus of white Georgians from Democratic Party. During the 1964 presidential election, a few months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the state moved into the Republican presidential column for the first time. Save for three elections, two of them involving Democrat Jimmy Carter, it has remained there since, paving the way for a Republican takeover of both houses in the state legislature in 2004.

Because this political revolution was so overwhelmingly race-driven at the outset, Republican strength in Georgia has been most apparent, not in Atlanta or its immediate environs, but in the majority-white counties most geographically and culturally distant from them. Meanwhile, over a strikingly short time, metropolitan Atlanta counties have seen a massive influx of more affluent white and African American people from outside the state, and upwardly mobile black people have also left the city proper for the suburbs and even the exurbs. The result has been a decided “purpling” of these heavily populated counties adjacent to Atlanta, reflected in the Republican Brian Kemp’s meager 1.3 percent victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

A former Athens businessman, Kemp appeared to reach straight back into the old Gene Talmadge playbook in that campaign, presenting himself as a rural superhero who flaunted his disdain for political correctness and other city-slicker signifiers. This persona came through vividly in his ads. One showed him, clad in cowboy boots and jeans, pointing his shotgun at his daughter’s supposed boyfriend; in another, he sat behind the wheel of the slightly dented pickup truck, which he promised to use to round up undocumented migrants.

Kemp’s calculated rusticity served him well in the 125 predominantly rural counties where he racked up an average victory margin of 38 percent, but it almost backfired on him statewide. Abrams persuaded her metropolitan base of minorities and moderate whites to turn out in large numbers. With the county unit system gone, it makes a difference that some 60 percent of Georgia’s voters now reside in the fast growing, larger metro Atlanta counties, where, on average, Abrams bested Kemp by 17 percent in 2018. Kemp’s narrow escape illustrates why he and his Republican colleagues have dedicated themselves to suppressing minority voting, a role he embraced with bravado in his previous post as Georgia’s Secretary of State. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (another local entity not high on his list) reported that in 2017, as he prepared to run for governor, he had managed to purge the rolls of some half-million, largely black and Hispanic would-be voters.

Kemp’s hostility to immigrants seemed to put him solidly in step with President Donald Trump, at least until the governor declined to appoint ardent Trumpite Republican Congressman Doug Collins to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson. Kemp’s eagerness to get back into Trump’s good graces may help to explain why he leapt well ahead of other Republican governors to respond to White House pressure to re-open their states during the COVID crisis. Another explanation might be that much of the lobbying for the sheltering in place and restrictions on business operations came from in and around Atlanta—rather than the less populous rural counties where Kemp’s political biscuits are buttered.

Up to this point, residents of Georgia’s rural areas have been noticeably more inclined than their metropolitan counterparts to see social distancing and cutbacks in business operations as unwarranted disruptions instigated by outsiders, including scientists and liberal politicians, with no sense of the importance of maintaining the familiar economic and social rhythms of their communities. Ironically, with reported cases now on the rise in rural Georgia, it is there that the worst fears about Kemp’s decision to reopen the state early may be realized.

Rural black counties—with older and poorer-than-average populations beset by heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes, and lacking ready access to health care—have already registered death rates from the virus that are 50 percent higher than in metro areas. These same health problems are also well-known in many of the white majority counties claimed by Kemp in 2018. More than a third of these white counties are currently without a functioning hospital.

Kemp’s country cracker guise worked just well enough to get him into the governor’s office. But it also may have obligated him to artificially distance himself from the CDC. If so, his stiff-necked resolve to adhere to the Georgia political tradition of defying the Atlanta intelligentsia, rather than heeding the most informed advice available for combating an epic medical emergency, may wind up being more catastrophic for his political supporters than for those who opposed him.


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