Sundown towns and white flight

Residential segregation by race is such a key fact of American life that it seems as if it has existed from time immemorial. And it also seems like the result of a natural process – if not members of different races voluntarily sorting themselves out, then as a result of impersonal economic factors that have to do with race only by coincidence.

Two books I read a couple of years ago show this isn’t so.  The recent discussion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act reminded me of them.  One is Sundown Towns: a Hidden Dimension in American Racism by James Loewen. He describes how American small towns between 1890 and 1940 used violence and governmental authority to drive out their black residents, a historical event which has been forgotten and covered up in the years after.

The other is White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin M. Kruse. It gives a blow-by-blow account of the civil rights struggle in Atlanta in the 1960s, and tells each victory for racial integration led to white people withdrawing to the suburbs and allowing the city to become a black ghetto.

Sundown Towns tells a history I hadn’t known until I read the book a couple of years ago. James Loewen applies the term “sundown towns” to white American communities in which black people were driven out by violence or governmental authority.  His phrase derives from the American small towns which once had signs saying “Nigger – Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in This Town.” Only a few had actual signs, which are shown in the book’s illustrations. But Loewen claims that the majority of American incorporated towns outside the South were sundown towns between 1890 and 1940, which was the nadir of race relations in America.

He documents incident after incident in which black people were driven out by force, their homes destroyed and some of them murdered. The piling on of stories was painful to read, and was only a part of what Loewen said he was able to document.

He of course could not investigate the history of every small town in the United States. What he did was investigate a representative sample of towns with substantial black populations in which the black population dropped to virtually zero from one census to the next, and then stayed that way for decades. The overwhelming majority of the towns he investigated were sundown towns, and I believe he is justified in extrapolating this to the nation as a whole.  Sundown towns existed in every region of the United States except the Deep South, where white people felt comfortable around black people who “knew their place.”

Residential segregation as it exists today did not exist during the 25 years following the Civil War. Black citizens of the United States were spread all across the nation. But after 1890 there was a movement equivalent to what we now call ethnic cleansing.

Loewen attributed the change partly to the reconciliation of Northern and Southern white people, which entailed what he called the Great Retreat from civil rights for black people.  The immediate cause was anti-Chinese riots by white workers and labor leaders in the West, after which they decided all the reasons for driving out Chinese immigrants also applied to black American citizens. Sometimes black people were driven out following a real or alleged crime by an individual black person, or the use of black strikebreakers in a labor dispute.  Sometimes a riot in one town – in those days, race riots were violent attacks by white people against black people – would inspire “copycat riots” across a region. Sometimes actual violence was not needed; the threat was sufficient.

Hardly any local histories of sundown towns mention this history, Loewen wrote. Sometimes, when the black population was driven out by mob violence in the distant past, the relevant issues of the local newspaper are missing from the files. However, he found that when he interviewed long-time residents of a town, all this history was well-remembered.

Sundown towns were strongholds of all-white labor unions and of the Democratic Party which, prior to 1940, was unabashedly the “white man’s party.” The Ku Klux Klan during the 1890-1940 period was powerful nationwide, and not just in the South.

Communities which persecuted any minority group also persecuted black people as a matter of course. On the other hand, communities with diverse European ethnic groups or with large concentrations of Italians, Mexicans or Jews tended to be less prejudiced, and even among native-born white Protestants, there were individual leaders who persuaded their communities to remain open.

Loewen said that every planned U.S. housing development built from 1890 to 1960, and many unplanned developments, were white-only by design. The National Association of Realtors code of ethics forbid the selling of a dwelling in a predominantly-white area to a black person. The Federal Housing Administration under the New Deal insisted on restrictive covenants forbidding sales to black people.

Despite all this, the majority of black voters benefited economically from the New Deal and shifted their support from the Republican to the Democratic party.  The Democratic Party in turn moved from support for white supremacy to support for civil rights.

White Flight describes the consequences, using the city of Atlanta as a case study. The business establishment of Atlanta, “the city too busy to hate,” kept an uneasy peace between black and white residents by making inch-by-inch concessions to civil rights, enough to mollify black leaders without disturbing the whites. This uneasy balance ended when a new generation of black activists demanded full equality and the federal government backed them up.

Kruse showed how, each time a public park or a department store was opened to black people, the majority of white people would boycott it.  White resistance to racial integration led not only to the movement of whites to the suburbs, but to the drive for privatization of public services and school vouchers, which kept whites from having to mingle with blacks, and the tax revolt, which many whites saw as subsidizing poor blacks.  Segregation continued, but in a new form.  It was not government-enforced segregation within the city, but the separation of the majority-black city from the white suburbs.

White suburbia, especially Southern white suburbia, has become the conservative Republican power base. Newt Gingrich, Bo Calloway, Dick Armey and Tom Delay all came out of Southern suburbia.  They represent an improvement over white supremacist Democrats of an earlier era, such as Tom Watson, Eugene Talmadge, James Eastland or George Wallace, and there is nothing inherently racist or even unreasonable about favoring property rights, local governmental autonomy, minimal taxation and judicial restraint. But the base of support for the Southern Republican conservatism is white people who desire to keep their distance from black people and their problems – which, to repeat, is not the same thing as the racist violence of an earlier era.

To what degree is the character of all-white suburbs and small towns the result of historical inertia and economic forces, and to what degree is it the result of deliberate exclusion? Loewen guesses about half of them are still all-white on purpose, while Kruse sees growing ethnic diversity in the suburbs.  I think the Kruse’s view is true of the Rochester, N.Y., suburbs.  Residential segregation is based on economic class, not race as such.

Click on this for James Loewen’s home page.

Click on this for a review of James Loewen’s Sundown Towns in UU World.

Click on this for a review of Kevin Kruse’s White Flight in Smithsonian magazine.

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2 Responses to “Sundown towns and white flight”

  1. Slavery did not end with the Civil War – 101 Daily Says:

    […] that the resurgence of neo-slavery coincided with the Sundown Towns movement, in which small towns in the North and West drove out their black […]


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