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