U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Atlanta, Sport, and the New South of the 1960s-1990s

Last week, in considering some questions that can be raised about late twentieth century American historiography, I zeroed in on the field of sport history. There’s plenty of fertile ground in regards to using sport history to talk about larger issues of America intellectual, cultural, and gender history. LD Burnett’s excellent piece yesterday (if you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this post, go read that one, then feel free to come back to this one!) was an example of how particular athletes can be used to examine larger issues in American history. Today what I’d like to focus on instead are cities—in particular how the development of collegiate and/or professional sports in a city can be used as a proxy for talking about a city’s larger development.

The city of Atlanta, as I briefly mentioned last week, has been for over a century considered the heart of the “New South.” An idea birthed by Henry Grady in the 1880s, this idea of a New South was a way to both rebuild the region economically and move away from the troubles the South faced during the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period. The idea of New Souths were continually adjusted to deal with new conditions on the ground in both the South and the United States as a whole. Of course, such issues are linked with race, gender, and class, but sport also offers an avenue through which historians can think about questions of Atlanta’s importance to the development of a New South creed.

The year 1966 looms large as we speak about Atlanta, race, the New South, and sport. That was the year that the city of Atlanta received the Braves from Milwaukee and also began the National Football League expansion Falcons franchise. Soon afterward, Atlanta was home to the North American Soccer League’s Chiefs (who would inspire the name of the famed South African team Kaizer Chiefs) and the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks (who themselves moved from St. Louis). In a way, the coming of professional sports to Atlanta was a signal that the city had achieved (for a larger, national audience) the goal of being seen as the “city too busy to hate,” a place in the South that finally escaped the problems of racism and discrimination in the past.

Looking at the city of Atlanta in these terms, it’s important to also think about it in conjunction with New Orleans and Miami, two other cities that received NFL expansion teams in 1966-67. All of these cities could be considered part of, or at least attached in some way, to the growth of the Sun Belt region. The professional expansion of sports teams into the South can also be seen as an indicator in the shift of internal American economics away from the North and industrial Midwest towards the South and West. While the shift of the Dodgers and Giants from the city of New York to the state of California has been written about extensively, we shouldn’t lose sight of how important it was to have sports teams also developing in the American South.

The recent historiography of the American South in the 1960s and 1970s, however, still leaves a bit to be desired in regards to the growth of professional sport in the region and its relationship to changing political and cultural mores. Perusing such important works as Kevin Kruse’s White Flight, Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s Courage to Dissent, and Jason Sokol’s There Goes My Everything, there’s little about sport in any of these fantastic works. That isn’t a criticism per se, more an observation of a gap in the historiography that needs to be filled. Sokol’s work does have an interesting footnote on page 210 of the paperback version that speaks to sport in the South, but it’s more a brief review of the importance of high school and collegiate sport in the region. That said, the story it is attached to, of pool players in Albany, Georgia, in 1964, does show that local histories could be useful in speaking to the larger intersection of sport, intellectual, and cultural history in the development of the South during and after the 1960s.

The late 1960s, despite the excellent research done in these three books, still offers much for many historians to ponder when researching the South. It was a time period when the American South became a battleground region for Republicans and Democrats in both national and state elections. The rise of African American politicians in the South is an important story, whose contours are still being explored. Cultural history on the South still has much to say about the region in the 1960s and beyond. Of course, the intellectual history of the region, encompassing a variety of ideological lenses, is still being explored. But I suspect that sport can be a useful vehicle to talk about all these issues. Atlanta’s rise as a part of professional American sports is very important. And I’d argue it is inextricably linked to its continuing role in the development of a New South.

There is an even greater historical connection beyond the professional sports element. Consider the 1996 Summer Olympics. In many ways the culmination of decades of Atlanta’s growth as a city, cultural center, and economic powerhouse, the Games were 101 after another major international event hosted in Atlanta—the 1895 Cotton States Exposition.  While the latter event was targeted more towards Latin America, and wasn’t dependent on sport to bring together various international delegates, both events were a signal to the world of Atlanta’s importance as a center of the New South. An intellectual history background to the Cotton States Exposition is far easier to think about—this was, after all, the site of Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech, and it was during the waning years of the struggle between Populists and Democrats over the political and economic future of the American South. But the 1996 Games offer some food for thought for any historians willing to venture into the 1990s. International competition in the 1990s as a whole can be thought of as something very different from what came before. Unlike the competitions between the Western democracies and Fascism that was the centerpiece of so many sporting events (1936 Berlin Games, Joe Louis vs. Primo Carnera and Max Schmeling, the 1938 World Cup) or those of the Cold War era (the Summer Games of 1960 and 1972, the Winter Games of 1980, and the boycotts of 1980 and 1984 come to mind), the Olympic and World Cups hosted in the 1990s were often devoid of big power confrontation via sport. Any international controversies during the era either were related to events on the field, or were more than likely related to the break of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.[1] With the hosting of the 1994 World Cup, the 1996 Summer Olympics, and the 2002 Winter Olympics, the United States was able to showcase its ability to host the biggest sporting events in the world in a short, eight year span.

            The legacy and importance of the Games in Atlanta, however, carry with them a special significance. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, a major factor in selling Atlanta was its importance to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.[2] Showing the American South as a changed region was the key reason for going for hosing the games, and it was a unique opportunity to show the latest iteration of the New South. It was no coincidence that such an attempt was spearheaded by Mayor (and civil rights activist) Andrew Young, along with businessman and future Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne. Thinking about these very recent events historically is a bit difficult—and, I’d add, as a native Georgian, the burden becomes all the more troublesome. But there’s a conversation worth having about the importance of sport to Atlanta’s image as the cultural, intellectual, and economic engine of the New South of the 1960s and beyond. It is a conversation I’m more than happy to have with the audience here at the Society for U.S. Intellectual Historians.

[1] The ESPN documentary, Once Brothers, is an excellent retelling of the collapse of Yugoslavia as experienced by members of its powerful and nearly-legendary national basketball team. Including NBA players such as Vlade Divac (Serbia) and Toni Kukoc (Croatia), the Yugoslav National Team defeated the United States at the 1990 World Championships, the last time the U.S. sent college players to a major international competition.

[2] “Olympic Games in 1996,” accessed from New Georgia Encyclopedia on Jan 5, 2014, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/sports-outdoor-recreation/olympic-games-1996

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. RG2, you touch on college football, which strikes this Yankee as the true national sport of the South.*

    Such as :

    Consider how legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant and his Crimson Tide may have done as much to integrate the South as any civil rights leader by playing — and losing — a football game against USC in 1970 in Birmingham, Alabama.

    Before the 1970 season, Bryant, coming off his worst season as a head coach, invited USC, led by its esteemed head coach John McKay, to come to Alabama to open the season at Legion Field in Birmingham.

    USC had black players and an all-black backfield (quarterback Jimmy Jones, running back Clarence Davis, and fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham) known as the “Soul Patrol.”

    Alabama’s team was composed of all white players.

    Some believe Bryant may have purposely invited USC to play at Alabama, knowing only a defeat at the hands of the “Soul Patrol” at home would enable him to recruit more black football players, nearly all of whom had to leave the South to play collegiate football.

    USC hammered Alabama 42-21 in that game, as Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Davis, a native son whose family had been from Birmingham, also had a great game and made fans and Alabama administrators realize they were missing out on Southern talent they needed to win football games.

    The Monday after USC drubbed Alabama, Bryant told Alabama officials that, “It’s over. A boy is a boy and he should be able to play where he wishes to play.” And the “formerly silent alumni base as well as the administration saw the writing on the wall.”

    Speaking of the 1970 battle between Alabama and USC, an Alabama assistant coach allegedly said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”

    Alabama integrated its team and became the winningest college program in 1970s (though they would not beat Notre Dame), with 16 black players starting on the 1979 championship team at decade’s end, cementing Alabama’s dynasty. Southern schools quickly followed suit, and Alabama’s efforts at integration most likely ensured that SEC legends like Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson stayed in the region to attend Georgia and Auburn, respectively, in the early 1980s.


    *Aside from, you know, NASCAR.

  2. You know, I intentionally left college football out of this post because, as you said, it’s always identified with the American South. I briefly toyed with including it, but I think I’ll talk about it in a different post–and take a slightly different spin on it than it’s usually portrayed in the development of the South.

    What you have there is an EXTREMELY important story in regards to the development of the South in the post-Civil Rights era, but I wanted to take a closer look at professional and international sports and the American South, precisely because they aren’t identified as much with the region.

    • Cool. Professional sports [at least in America] are a sign of affluence, and if so, the counterargument to GOP = racist fits in here, that the shift to the GOP was the product of a) the acid-amnesty-abortion culture war and 2) that the GOP more fully addressed the concerns of a rising middle class.


      The tension between the myth and voting data escalates if we consider change across time. Starting in the 1950s, the South attracted millions of Midwesterners, Northeasterners, and other transplants. These “immigrants” identified themselves as Republicans at higher rates than native whites. In the 1980s, up to a quarter of self-declared Republicans in Texas appear to have been such immigrants. Furthermore, research consistently shows that identification with the GOP is stronger among the South’s younger rather than older white voters, and that each cohort has also became more Republican with time. Do we really believe immigrants (like George H.W. Bush, who moved with his family to Texas) were more racist than native Southerners, and that younger Southerners identified more with white solidarity than did their elders, and that all cohorts did so more by the 1980s and ’90s than they had earlier?

      In sum, the GOP’s Southern electorate was not rural, nativist, less educated, afraid of change, or concentrated in the most stagnant parts of the Deep South. It was disproportionately suburban, middle-class, educated, younger, non-native-Southern, and concentrated in the growth-points that were, so to speak, the least “Southern” parts of the South. This is a very strange way to reincarnate George Wallace’s movement.

  3. Robert, excellent post as always. In terms of political issues, the 96 Summer Games also bring to mind, perhaps less forcefully as the 92 Olympics, the end of the Cold War and ideas surrounding the alleged victory of the US in the global arena, the so-called end of history, and the overall stability of the new world order. But then you had the bombing that almost paralyzed the Games, which put into question the safety of the Games. In this case, as in the bombing of the World Trade Center, the attack came from within.

    Btw, I am intrigued by your reference to the the 1895 Cotton States Exposition, in what ways did Latin America participate and how was it geared towards the “other south”?

    • The Cotton States Exposition was designed to primarily speak to Latin America, and show that the American South was open for business to South America.

      The Exposition included representatives from Latin America, and so it’s really interesting to think about the various ways race played a role at the event. We think of Booker T. Washington’s speech at the event, but there was so much more going on.

      As for your point about the Olympics: you’re exactly right. I’ve started to see the USA hosting the World Cup and the Olympics as, in some sense, proof of America’s victory in the Cold War. While both events were awarded to the USA before the Cold War officially ended, when they were both held, you can definitely get a sense of American pride in both.

      It’s interesting to juxtapose this with Brazil hosting the World Cup this year and the Olympics in 2016. It’s Brazil’s coming out party as an economic power.

      • Olympics and trade fairs? A promising vein.


        The successful hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and World Expo 2010 in Shanghai is seen as China’s coming-out party.

        Cities worldwide are competing fiercely for hosting Olympic Games. Tokyo had hosted the 1964 summer games, but its win for 2020 Olympic Games still cheered up the whole of Japan. It is also notable that Mumbai, a city in the third world with a tedious development task, is also among the list of cities vying for hosting rights.

        Beijing-Zhangjiakou is a joint bid. We hope it will be the start for Chinese society to see they can host a world-class event with ease.

  4. Interesting post! I grew up in Atlanta and also in a family of rabid LSU football fans, so while sports are certainly not my scholarly focus I have a lot of amateur thoughts about this issue. I recently wrote a little post about the Braves that may be of interest:

    I agree that there is a lot more historical work to be done on this topic, not only vis-a-vis the South, but also vis-a-vis ideas about government. Although we now have a very rich historiography explaining the “rightward turn” of postwar America, it strikes me that I’ve never read an entirely satisfactory historical account of how so many of the very groups that agitate for “small government” are not only very supportive of direct government subsidies for sports (both professional and collegiate), but even seem to view subsidizing sports as a core government function. Thus, for instance, in many states the highest-paid state employee is the college football coach.

    Now, for your amusement: Recently overheard in the women’s restroom line at LSU tailgates: “I mean, Texas A&M belongs in the conference more than Kentucky. Didn’t even secede from the Union.”

    • You bring up some really intriguing points here, and I’ll definitely check out your Braves post!

      The relationship between government and sports is an intriguing one. It’s come up with the Braves moving to Cobb County and away from downtown Atlanta. In this case, it’s a question of what a local government has decided to do in order to entice a sports teams. And, a big key here, it’s important to note that the Braves themselves have noticed that the bulk of their season ticket holders….come from Cobb County.

      As for that last line: I can’t say I’m surprised, heh. Unless, of course, it’s basketball, then Kentucky is just fine in the SEC.

  5. I’ve never read an entirely satisfactory historical account of how so many of the very groups that agitate for “small government” are not only very supportive of direct government subsidies for sports (both professional and collegiate), but even seem to view subsidizing sports as a core government function. Thus, for instance, in many states the highest-paid state employee is the college football coach.

    Well, that’s a thinly veiled slag on southerners and I guess Republicans and males too, Sara, but let’s engage.

    FTR, Mrs. TVD lives in Los Angeles along with her husband, they cheer for no college teams, and are delighted that Los Angeles hasn’t yielded to the NFL’s extortion of “build us a billion dollar stadium or we’ll leave.”

    The Rams left and so did the Raiders. LA has no NFL team. Boo hoo.

    “Small government conservatism”–federalism–sees national government as the enemy of community, a far more voluntary association.

    “Community” = Alabama and Auburn, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech.

    Sounds stupid, I know, Sara, but it’s real.

    I’m from Philly, so that means that New York is our natural and unquestioned enemy in all things professionally sporting. But that’s just not the same as college sports or [in Indiana or Texas] high school sports.

    Probably the closest analogue is English [soccer] football, where every town and borough has a team of some sort, all elevated or relegated to their proper place in the FA pecking order.

    As an expatriate Philadelphian, I spent the whole last week listening to WIP over the internet, recycling endlessly the same non-news and opinions about the Iggles’ upcoming playoff matchup with the Nawlins Saints. [We lost.]

    But the whole city was unified, and in fact the story of how the Saints came back from Hurricane Katrina and won their only Super Bowl is far more interesting than my blatherings above about Philly.


    Thriving Saints Helped New Orleans Revive After Hurricane Katrina
    Published: January 23, 2010.

    It’s all silly, but it’s not. It’s a guy thing, but then again it’s not. Gals love sports too–to bond with their men, with their fwellow citizens, to admire the athletes’ testosteronish behavior. And their butts. Their well-crafted, athletic, manly butts.

    [The wife-unit gave me that last one. When her attention drifts from the score and the standings, there still are the butts.]

    I have said too much, I haven’t said enough.

    But, as a former resident of Philly [and this goes for Atlanta and Indianapolis], RG2’s onto something strong here–and post-Katrina New Orleans is perhaps the greatest historical case in relief. But Philly, Boston, Chicago, they’re tough towns. There is little to unify them except sports.

    The money-grubbing billionaire owners of sports teams are parasitic. Scratch that, symbiotic. Like the finches the alligator permits to dart in to clean his gums and teeth, “subsidizing sports as a core government function” isn’t a “core” government function, but every village and hamlet in England supports their own soccer team in one way or another.

    I see no reason to ruin people’s fun.

    • And the relatively costless cleaning of the polity’s teeth.

      {Dang, acc hit “post’ before the punchline.}

      American sports unify their respective communities. We actually don’t give much of a damn for international sports, USA!, USA!, exc every 4 years Olympics or World Cup, a passion that lasts a month tops.

      Give us 6 months and we’ll be the world champs of any of those wanker sports–rugby, field hockey, volleyball. We’re baaaaaaaaaad.

      • You brought up something here that has always intrigued me about America and international sport: it seems that we really only tend to care about them collectively as a nation during a time of crisis. Like I referred to above, the Joe Louis fight against Schmeling or USA’s 1980 victory over the USSR in hockey are moments that come to mind.

        As someone who’s a huge fan of the US national teams in men’s and women’s soccer, as well as basketball and baseball, it’s far too easy for me to see how other nations care about those events far more than we do, far more often.

    • That importance of collegiate sports to many Americans, especially those in the South and the Midwest, is very important in understanding American sports culture. The Northeast (and for that matter Chicago), it seems to me, is the most passionate when it comes to pro sports. It’s all certainly interesting.

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