How the New South & Populism Affected Georgia's Culture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In the era between the Civil War and the 20th century, the people of Georgia had a lot of things to figure out. In this lesson, we'll look at how Georgia handled the many changes after the war and developed a plan for its future.

Postbellum Georgia

In 1861, Georgia joined a handful of Southern states and seceded from the Union. Most Americans know this story. We hear about the antebellum South, with the gentile mannerisms, devotion to hospitality, and uncontested dominance of slavery. We also know that Georgia, and the rest of the Confederate States of America, would end up losing the Civil War and be reincorporated into the USA. But what happened next? The history of the South doesn't end with the Civil War. After the war was over, the people of Georgia found their lives changed in many ways, and how they handled those changes would shape the South for generations to come.

The New South

After the Civil War, Georgia's economy and infrastructure had been badly hurt, slavery had been abolished, and Southern culture was in question. As they started putting their lives back together, the people of Georgia started reflecting on what went wrong. Who was to blame? Many people came to the conclusion that the blame fell upon a king. King Cotton, as the definitive Southern cash crop was called, was blamed for Southern defeat. The South had relied too heavily on cotton without diversifying their economy. This made it easy for the Union to undermine their economy during the war; if the cotton industry fell, the entire South fell with it.

So, if an overreliance on cotton led to the South's downfall, what was the solution? One proposal came in 1874 from the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Henry W. Grady. Grady described the South like a phoenix, rising from its own ashes, and advocated for the development of a New South (as opposed to the Old South of the antebellum era), based in Atlanta. The New South would be built upon a much more diversified economy, which included a full-scale industrialization. Before the Civil War, most Southerners opposed industrializing the South. However, the advantages of industrialization became quickly apparent when Northern industries kept the Union strong throughout the war.

Henry Grady

Grady wasn't alone in this idea. A group of politicians shared this vision of the New South, and called themselves the Redeemers since they thought they were redeeming the defeated South. The three leading figures were Joseph Brown, Alfred Colquitt, and John Gordon. Colquitt had been a governor of the Confederate States, Brown and Gordon were Confederate generals, and all three wanted to see the South returned to its former glory. The Northerners derisively called these three the Bourbon Triumvirate.

Atlanta in the New South became an industrial center

Impact on Georgia's Culture

The Redeemers had many challenges to face. For one, they had to start industrializing an agricultural society. Secondly, they had to introduce a more diverse range of cash crops into a cotton-dominated economy. Third, they had to do it without slaves. One of the biggest issues that immediately arose after the Civil War was the meaning of race in the South. A group called the Ku Klux Klan rose at the end of the war to continue racial violence against free blacks, but the KKK was essentially silenced by federal force by the early 1870s.

Still, the Redeemers saw racial hierarchy as an important part of the New South. For the most part, they wanted blacks and whites to remain segregated from each other, and for blacks to remain subjugated to white interests. To this end, they implemented a series of laws at the state level which exploited loopholes in the recently-passed 14th and 15th Amendments that granted free blacks citizenship and their right to vote. Redeemers implemented taxes on the polls that free blacks could not afford, and created literacy tests required for voting that most free blacks (who were not educated as slaves) cold not pass. Collectively, racial segregation in the New South was maintained by a series of laws collectively called the Jim Crow laws, named after a black character in 19th-century minstrel shows. The Jim Crow laws made segregation the official policy of the New South. It also became a part of Southern culture that was maintained until the 1960s.

In this cartoon, a figure representing the South writes out a literacy test preventing blacks from voting
Jim Crow

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