As Atlanta moved into the twentieth century, it was two separate cities, one white and one black, reflecting inherent inequality. Separate was not equal, as expressed in the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessey v. Ferguson.
White and black residents lived in different neighborhoods, attended separate schools, churches, and parks, and occupied strictly segregated spaces in public areas.
Black neighborhoods received fewer municipal services with many roads unpaved, water and sewer inadequate, social programs almost nonexistent, and schools overcrowded and underfunded. In 1940, African Americans represented 30% of Atlanta’s electorate, yet less than 5% were registered to vote. The registration of African American voters proved an important key for change. By July 1946, a successful campaign increased the number of registered black voters in Atlanta to 21,000.
In 1948, Mayor William B. Hartsfield hired eight African American police officers and later supported a court ruling to desegregate Atlanta’s golf courses. In 1961, he oversaw the peaceful desegregation of Atlanta’s public schools. Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African American leaders rose to political power. As a result, decades of oppression known as Jim Crow began to give way to a more equitable society.
Atlanta is often called the cradle of the modern Civil Rights Movement. A strong infrastructure created by the organizations and businesses of “Sweet Auburn” Avenue combined with the city’s historically black colleges and universities helped establish positive change during the 1950s and 1960s.