- Veiled Visions: The 1906 Atlanta Race Riot and the Reshaping of American Race Relations
At first glance, Veiled Visions, David Fort Godshalk's treatment of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, seems to retread a familiar set of stories. The causes of the riot itself traced a predictable pattern: white-on-black violence borne out of hatred and social anxiety, fanned by fears of black mobility, and shot through with themes of manhood under threat. Moreover, there is little surprising in the way that Atlanta responded to the carnage; in a city that has become famous for its [End Page 202] commercial-mindedness and civic boosterism, local leaders quickly understood that angry white mobs, a terrorized black working class, and blood in the streets made both for bad business and bad publicity. Godshalk shows that although Atlanta did not start billing itself as "the city too busy to hate" until the Civil Rights Era, the inspiration for the slogan derived from the riot's immediate aftermath.
But if the contours of Godshalk's narrative are familiar, his treatment is never facile. He builds from the experience of Atlanta in 1906 to discuss civil rights activism later in the 20th century and posits the city's response to the riot as a template, albeit a flawed and regrettable one, for the subsequent management of racial tensions throughout the United States. In an even more important contribution, Godshalk looks closely at the struggles, priorities and inner conflicts of the riot's black protagonists and the style of black leadership that emerged from this crucible. In so doing, he provides a complex and nuanced account of interclass tension in the black community. Drawing on an impressive array of sources, he argues that elite blacks' decision to cooperate with whites prevented further violence, "but only at the cost of veiling promising black visions of America's future." (p. 290)
Godshalk devotes just one early chapter to a description of the riot itself, allowing ample space for the examination of a yet more compelling story: "the concrete ways in which the memories and representations of an individual race riot helped reshape a city and a nation." (p. 4) Black and white Atlantans, of course, crafted different narratives of the riot and different interpretations of its significance, but Godshalk is most interested in another version of events: the one that circulated in the national media and made its way into the national consciousness. According to that version, cooperation between white civic leaders and the "better sort" of blacks allowed cooler heads to prevail and end the riot. Then, in the aftermath, black and white elites forged an interracial alliance dedicated to the preservation of law and order, which maintained the peace and allowed the city to flourish commercially. The premium these leaders placed on such strategic cooperation—and the economic success it made possible—became known as the "Atlanta Plan," and its guidelines steered race relations in the city for the remainder of the 20th century.
Godshalk makes plain that the Atlanta Plan was conceived by elite whites as a wholly defensive measure, a "cold calculation" intended to protect the reputation of the city and its business prospects while forestalling blacks' demands for social change. (p. 269) The interesting—and agonizing—part of Godshalk's story is the response of African-American elites to a plan that promised an end to racial violence, but required them to cut ties to working-class blacks, renounce militancy, and genuflect to traditional structures of white power. With the notable exceptions of W.E.B. Du Bois and Jesse Max Barber, most black leaders acceded to this plan and traded progress for peace. While he does not condemn Atlanta's influential blacks for their choices, Godshalk clearly portrays this tradeoff as lamentable. Yes, the Atlanta Plan prevented further violence, but that security came at a heavy price for ensuing generations of African-Americans. According to Godshalk, it "enmeshed black elites in a dependent patron-client...