updated 7/16/2008 5:14:23 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:14:23

Georgia and Atlanta—the megacity whose metropolitan area spreads out over the red clay hills of 20 of Georgia’s 159 counties—have been one of the great boom areas of America over the last dozen years and have been the site as well of one of the great political transformations of the first decade of the 21st century. From 1990 to 2006, Georgia’s population grew by 45%, the fifth highest rate of population growth among states, after Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho, ahead of Florida and Texas and far ahead of California. The 2000 Census recorded it as the tenth-largest state—the first time it has been in the top 10 since the Census of 1850—and in 2002 it passed New Jersey to become number nine. Metro Atlanta, now spreading over 28 North Georgia counties, has grown by 67% in that period. This is the highest rate of growth for Georgia since the 1870s, when Atlanta rose literally from the ashes of the Civil War and Henry Grady’s New South sprang into being. Atlanta and Georgia have been in many ways, for many years, the center of the South, at least since General William Tecumseh Sherman marched here in 1864. This is where John Stith Pemberton invented Coca-Cola, where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind, where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, and where most of the civil rights organizations that changed America were headquartered. But in growth and flamboyance, Georgia for decades was outdazzled by other parts of the South—by Texas with its oil wells and high-tech industries, by Florida with Miami Beach and Disney World, even by North Carolina with its Research Triangle and college basketball champions.

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Neither Atlanta’s rise to world eminence nor its role as the capital of the South was inevitable. Georgia was the last of the seaboard colonies, founded by James Oglethorpe in 1733 as an “Asilum of the Unfortunate”; Oglethorpe forbade slavery, but the settlers rebelled and repealed his ban in 1750. This was only a small, though well located, railroad crossroads when it was burned by Sherman’s troops on their “march to the sea.” Richmond, Charleston and New Orleans all had stronger claims to being the central focus of the South a century ago. But in the 20th century two figures imprinted Atlanta on the national imagination. One was Margaret Mitchell, whose 1936 novel Gone with the Wind inspired the 1939 movie. The other was Martin Luther King Jr., reared in Atlanta and based there during most of his career, as a leader and ultimately the national symbol of the civil rights revolution that changed the South and the nation. Linking the two was Atlanta’s business community, notably Robert Woodruff, who headed Coca-Cola from 1932–60 and made Coke a worldwide enterprise. Perhaps aware that a world company could not indefinitely be associated with racial segregation, Woodruff and William Hartsfield, mayor from 1937–61, cooperated with blacks and promoted Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate.” Hartsfield’s successor, Ivan Allen, elected in 1961 and 1965, supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as Peachtree Center and the first atriumed Hyatt Regency were going up in downtown Atlanta.

This new Atlanta was growing up amid a mostly rural, deeply segregationist Georgia that as late as 1960 cast the second-highest Democratic percentage of any state for president: Hatred of Sherman was still strong 96 years after he marched through Georgia. Political contests typically matched Atlanta-supported moderates against rural-supported segregationists, and the latter invariably won: Georgia’s electoral votes were cast for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George Wallace in 1968. Then came change in the person of Jimmy Carter, a one-term state senator who was elected governor in 1970 with a rural base as well as conspicuous black support. On taking office he proclaimed a reconciliation of the races and installed a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Capitol. Carter thus became one of the first politicians from the rural South to celebrate and honor the civil rights revolution and in the process set himself on the road to being elected president in 1976.

Since then, Georgia and Atlanta have seen an in-migration of black Americans. The state’s population was 29% black in 2000, the highest figure since 1950; the state has more blacks than any other state except New York and Texas, and will surpass them soon if present trends continue. The presence of nine historically black colleges, of large numbers of prominent black public officials and businessmen, the growth of middle- and upper-income predominantly black suburban neighborhoods in DeKalb County and, more recently, Cobb County—all have made metro Atlanta in some sense the capital of black America. Arguably, Georgia has developed what Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler described in their book on race in the Army, All We Can Be, an Anglo-African culture, a merger of traditions that were long associated intimately in private life but rigidly and even violently separated in public. Georgia has four black Democratic congressmen, two from non-black majority districts, and Andrew Young won in a white-majority district as long ago as 1972; black Democrats Thurbert Baker and Michael Thurmond have been elected attorney general and labor commissioner statewide, and reelected despite a strong Republican trend; in 2004 Georgia elected its first black Republican state representative since Reconstruction, and blacks came in second in the contests for the Republican nomination for the Senate and the 8th District House seat. Georgia also has been attracting immigrants, and 7% of its residents in 2005 were Hispanic and 3% Asian—quite a change over the past quarter-century. And it has been attracting even more internal migrants from the United States: domestic inflow in 2000–06 was 5% of 2000 population. These newcomers were attracted by, and in turn stimulated, Georgia’s booming and vibrant private sector economy, which has generated more population growth than in any state east of Arizona.

Demographic change and economic change in Georgia have been followed by political change, to the point that this once heavily Democratic state now seems to be solidly Republican. In retrospect, this change seems to have been a long time coming. It was delayed by the presence of politically skillful Southern and Georgia Democrats with rural bases—George Wallace, who carried the state in 1968; Jimmy Carter, who sent it in a different direction in 1970, and carried it solidly in 1976 and 1980; Carter’s successors as governor, each of whom served for eight years, George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris and Zell Miller; by Bill Clinton, who carried the state 43.5%-42.9% in 1992 and lost it by only 47%-46% in 1996. Then, in 2000, a sign of change: George W. Bush carried Georgia by a solid 55%-43% margin. Bush carried metro Atlanta (which cast 53% of the state’s votes) by 52%-45% and the rest of Georgia, historically Democratic, by a resounding 57%-41%. William Tecumseh Sherman was dead.

The trend has continued ever since. Democrats seemed well positioned to hold onto power in 2002. Roy Barnes, an activist governor with strong ties to Atlanta’s business community, raised $19 million for his campaign and was mentioned as a possible vice presidential or even presidential candidate. Senator Max Cleland was well known as a veteran who had lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. The Democratic legislature, led by 28-year Speaker Tom Murphy passed complex redistricting plans designed to give Democrats a majority of the state’s 13 U.S. House seats (up from 11 thanks to 1990s growth) and to lock in Democratic majorities in the legislature. Arrayed against this juggernaut was state Republican Chairman Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and later a campaign consultant, who created an on-the-ground organization that ultimately deployed 3,000 volunteers and 500 paid workers to knock on 150,000 doors in 600 precincts. He ran registration drives in fast-growing heavily Republican counties in metro Atlanta. This was a prototype of the Bush-Cheney 2004 volunteer effort that produced votes in rural and exurban areas that no one thought were there. Former state Senator Sonny Perdue beat Barnes 51%-46%; Congressman Saxby Chambliss beat Cleland 53%-46%. Turnout rose robustly in central Atlanta and in black counties, but it rose even more in the fast-growing suburbs: demographic growth translated into votes. In the week after the election, four state senators switched parties and gave Republicans control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. This was a political revolution of a sort that seldom occurs in a state. The politically ambitious could ponder the careers of Barnes and Perdue. Both started in politics as canny young Democratic legislators with ambitions to be governor. Barnes chose to remain a Democrat and was elected governor, then couldn’t hold the office. Now Perdue, by winning against a well-financed incumbent, showed that it is easier to win as a Republican.

The trend continued in 2004. Zell Miller, with no further political ambitions, also showed the way. Frustrated with Senate Democrats’ obstructionism, he wrote a book, A National Party No More (“the modern South and rural America are as foreign to our Democratic leaders as some place in Asia or Africa”), endorsed George W. Bush and gave a rip-roaring speech at the Republican National Convention. Georgia Democrats reviled him, but he spoke in the authentic accents of Andrew Jackson and delivered the same message Georgia voters would two months later. Though Georgia was not a target state, turnout rose 28% and Bush beat John Kerry 58%-41%. Republican Johnny Isakson beat Democrat Denise Majette in the Senate race by an almost identical 58%-40%. Bush won 56% in metro Atlanta, up from 52% in 2000, and he won 60% in the rest of the state, up from 57% in 2000. Kerry won among blacks, who cast 25% of the votes, by 88%-12%; most Kerry voters were black. But Bush won among whites, who cast 70% of the votes, by 76%-23%. Turnout was up sharply from 2000 in fast-growing counties in metro Atlanta—up 67% in Paulding, 65% in Henry, 59% in Forsyth and Newton, 45% in Walton, 41% in Cherokee, 38% in Carroll and Spalding, 37% in Douglas and 25% in Fayette. Bush carried these counties by 200,000 votes, 72%-27%. Republicans increased their majority in the state Senate to 34–22 and transformed the state House from a 102–77 Democratic majority to a 99–80–1 Republican majority.

The Republican trend continued in 2006, as most other states trended Democratic. The new Republican majorities passed the nation’s toughest law on illegal immigrants, requiring employers to consult a federal database when hiring, welfare recipients to prove their legal status and jailers to inform federal authorities of illegal inmates. They cut income, corporate and property taxes. Democrats had a spirited primary for governor in 2006, but it no longer seemed to matter much: Perdue was reelected in November by a 58%-38% margin. Georgia became one of just 10 states with a Republican governor and legislature (the others are Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Utah). Republican Casey Cagle, who beat Ralph Reed in the primary, was elected lieutenant governor; Democrats Baker and Thurmond were reelected attorney general and labor commissioner. Leah Ward Sears became Chief Justice of the state supreme court in 2005, the first black woman in that position in Georgia. Two Democratic congressmen, Jim Marshall and John Barrow, came very close to losing central Georgia House seats—the Republicans’ strongest challenges in the nation in 2006. Georgia Democrats will surely figure out how to compete in this economically surging environment some day, but they haven’t found the formula yet.

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