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Atlanta secession effort raises race issues

A new secession effort is under way that would break off Atlanta's predominantly white, wealthy suburbs to the north from poorer, black neighborhoods in the south.
Atlanta Secession
Milton High School in Alpharetta, Ga., is seen in a 1970 photo. A bill sponsored by Georgia state Rep. Jan Jones, an Alpharetta Republican, would amend the Georgia Constitution to allow the return of Milton County. Robert Connell / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the cradle of the civil rights movement, a new secession effort is under way that would break off Atlanta's predominantly white, wealthy suburbs to the north from poorer, black neighborhoods in the south.

There's a renewed push to take some suburbs out of Fulton County, Georgia's most populous and home to most of the city of Atlanta, and put them under the now-extinct Milton County.

Its supporters hope resurrecting the county would give residents there more responsive government. But opponents say the measure is racially motivated and will open up a deep rift between black and white, rich and poor in a state with a complicated racial history. The area that would be split off is more than 75 percent white, while a large block of the remaining portion of Fulton County is 90 percent minority.

"It sends a message when you say the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King is going to be split apart in a kind of latter-day secessionist movement," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat.

The idea isn't new. But these days, there's some muscle behind the movement now that its sponsor is about to become House Speaker pro tem, the second-most powerful position in the Georgia House of Representatives. The measure made it out of House committee this year. It's been stymied so far by questions about the counties' financial viability and the tangle of laws that would have to be changed.

The region that became Milton County was originally part of the Cherokee Indian Nation until the state of Georgia grabbed the land in the 1830s. The Cherokees were expelled to what is now Oklahoma and cotton plantations flourished there, helped along by cheap slave labor before the Civil War.

But a boll weevil infestation of cotton in the early part of the 20th century decimated the county's economy. After limping along financially, Milton County was folded into Fulton County in 1932 during the Great Depression.

Race a factor?
The shotgun marriage worked as the sprawling new Fulton County grew and thrived.

But it's that very growth that has made Fulton County residents frustrated by the unwieldy behemoth the county has become, saying it's slow to respond to their concerns and wastes money.

"The issue is what the hell are they doing with our money," Joe Stewardson said as he sipped coffee at a shop in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, home to Martin Luther King's birthplace.

"Is race part of the equation? Probably. But I think money transcends all other considerations."

The legislation's sponsor, state Rep. Jan Jones, an Alpharetta Republican, denies race is behind the proposal.

"That's just misguided rhetoric that ignores the merits," she said.

Jones said that with more than 1 million residents, Fulton County is simply too bloated to really be considered local government.

Her bill would amend the Georgia Constitution to allow the return of Milton County. It would need a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the state Legislature and must then be approved by voters because state law limits the number of counties to 159.

If the Legislature approves the measure, it would be on the ballot in November, but the split wouldn't take place until 2013.

Newly elected Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed opposes the measure, worried it will hurt the city's bottom line.

Changing faces
It was frustration with Fulton County that led to the creation of the new cities of Sandy Springs in 2005, Milton in 2006, and Johns Creek in 2006. Those suburban enclaves — along with Alpharetta, Roswell and Mountain Park — would constitute the newly formed Milton County.

What used to be Milton County is now largely white and Republican and affluent. Atlanta and its southern suburbs are mostly black, are controlled by Democrats and have neighborhoods with some of the highest poverty rates in America. Buckhead, a trendy Atlanta neighborhood known for its clubs, restaurants and mansions, would remain in Fulton County.

The entire Milton County area is now incorporated in one city or another which means those cities could provide some services like police and fire, cutting down on the county costs.

A February 2009 study conducted jointly by the University of Georgia and Georgia State University found that Milton County's population would be about 311,000 people while Fulton County's would be left with 589,000 residents. The U.S. Census places Fulton County's population at more than 1 million, according to 2008 data. Part of the city of Atlanta also rests in DeKalb County.

State Rep. Ed Lindsey, a Republican and also a newly minted House leader who represents parts of Buckhead, said he's skeptical of the plan.

Splitting off the county's wealthiest cities could be a devastating blow to Atlanta, which is grappling with a steep budget shortfall and skyrocketing pension obligations. State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights activist, called it a "sucker punch" for the city, which is the engine for the state.

"There's no doubt in my mind that race is part of the equation here and it has been since Day One," said Brooks.