Atlanta Secession Bid Raises Race Issues

MSNBC, January 7, 2010

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.

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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?

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“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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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[Editor’s Note: An earlier story on the push for a Milton County can be read here.]

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