Growing Up White in Jim Crow Atlanta

By Heather Gray

I know much has been written about this period – primarily the 1950’s and early 1960’s. I am, however, sharing some of my experiences and reflections about growing up in “Jim Crow” Atlanta, Georgia. As a child I had come here from western Canada. Martin Luther King’s home was about 8 miles away from my family home in Atlanta. It was so near yet so incredibly far away.

One of the dilemmas we face today is about the racist actions on the part of the police now and in the past and also currently in U.S. foreign and domestic policy overall. Understanding the role of racism and white supremacist behavior, particularly in the South, is perhaps one way to grasp some insight into it all and its unfortunate continued legacy from slavery up to now. As William Faulkner wisely stated, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Ultimately, this article, toward the end, is about how Karl Marx positively impacted me as a youth in my quest to understand racism and white supremacy in the South, but first I had to experience Jim Crow. I was 16 years old when I discovered Marx in my high school library from the Encylopedia Britannica of all places. Economics, however, along with a critique of capitalism and most certainly anything about Marx or any alternatives to the southern exploitive model was not something you could discuss openly in the Jim Crow south. I was not yet acutely aware of all the cold war rhetoric. Besides, what did I know about anything? And I had no desire at age 16 to critique capitalism and plus neither did I understand or know anything about it. But I was in a exploratory phase to understand why people were treated differently. None of this system in the South made sense to me.

The Advent of Jim Crow and the Manifestation of White Supremacy

Jim Crow was foreboding. To me, as a white youth, everyone in the South seemed in some kind of personal and societal prison of sorts and afraid to express themselves. It was rather like some dark cloud enveloped the region and the feeling that everything could explode at any minute… as if we were sitting on a tinderbox most of the time.The south, I later learned, was known as a “closed society”, in other words not amenable to open discussion, free press, new ideas or democratic principles. Critiquing the white supremacist system as an individual without organizational backing made you incredibly vulnerable if you were black or white with the repercussions more often being

1950s – Protesting Jim Crow – Atlanta Black Star

deadly for blacks and sometimes for whites as well. And organizational backing was not a guarantee from suffering dire consequences. So threats of your very life, your job, your family, your affiliations overall were vulnerable if you critiqued virtually anything in the oppressive southern Jim Crow system.

Jim Crow was a manifestation of white supremacy in the southern states from the 1870’s to 1965. It was imposed after the Civil War and at the end of the reconstruction period, which had provided federal troops in the South to protect the civil rights of freedmen. Left to their own initiatives after the troops left and with virtually no oversight from the federal government, southern whites imposed their own tyrannical policies throughout the region. Central to it all was control of freed slaves. The white elite could no longer control Blacks through slavery so they did so through ruthless restrictive laws that separated the races and disenfranchised Blacks and many poor whites throughout the region. Greed, I ultimately learned, was the ulterior motive coupled with white supremacy, which was a poisonous formula for everyone in the region. Ferris University’s “Jim Crow Museum” offers an excellent brief summary of Jim Crow:

Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-black racism. Many Christian ministers and theologians taught that whites were the Chosen people, blacks were cursed to be servants, and God supported racial segregation.

Historian George Fredrickson in his book “Racism: A Short History” (2002) states that Jim Crow, in the southern United States, was one of three overtly racist regimes in human history. He writes:

What are the distinguishing features of an overtly racist regime that would distinguish it from the general run of ethnically pluralistic societies in which racial prejudice contributes significantly to social stratification? First there is an official ideology that is explicitly racist. Those in authority proclaim insistently that the difference between the dominant group and the one that is being subordinated or eliminated are permanent or unbridgeable. Dissent from this ideology is dangerous and is likely to bring legal or extralegal reprisals, for racist egalitarianism is heresy in an overtly racist regime. Second, this sense of radical difference and alienation is most clearly and dramatically expressed in laws forbidding interracial marriage. The ideal is “race purity” and the bans on miscegenation reflect the maintenance or creation of a caste system based on the presumed racial difference. Third, social segregation is mandated by law and not merely the product of custom or private acts of discrimination that are tolerated by the state. The object is to bar all forms of contact that might imply equality between the segregators and the segregated. Fourth, to the extent that the policy is formally democratic, outgroup members are excluded from holding public office or even exercising franchise. Fifth, the access that they have to resources and economic opportunities is so limited that most of those in the stigmatized category are either kept in poverty or deliberately impoverished. This ideal type of an “overtly racist regime” applies quite well to the American South in the heyday of Jim Crow, to South Africa under apartheid, and to Nazi Germany. Nowhere else were the political and legal potentialities of racism so fully realized.”

While growing up in Atlanta, I was witness to all of the overtly racist manifestations described by Fredrickson. I ultimately learned how everyone, blacks and whites alike, were victimized by this dreadful system.
Arriving in Atlanta and an Introduction to Jim Crow

I’m originally Canadian and specifically from Edmonton, Alberta in western Canada. My father moved our family to Atlanta in the early 1950’s. I was six years old. He was to teach at Emory University.

We arrived late at night when first in Atlanta. The next morning, I remember looking out the window of the room in the Alumni Building, where we stayed briefly on the Emory campus. Here before me, across the street and standing on the corner, was an exquisite black woman. I had never seen anyone like her in my young life. I had also never seen someone with black skin. She wore beautiful colorful clothes and walked with such grace. I was transfixed.

Then my journey began.

It didn’t take me long to realize that black folks were treated differently by whites. To understand any of this, my journey required, of necessity, learning about white supremacy and it’s impact on both blacks and whites. There was no choice in the matter. White supremacy permeated the very air you breathed. I had to learn how to communicate with everyone in this new culture. It was not easy.

I was raised in a white upper middle class professional family and the school I attended in Atlanta was segregated, of course. I never had the opportunity to socialize with black folks. I received no answers about racial relations in school or the Methodist church that my family attended on the Emory campus except that subjugation of black folks was standard practice. We weren’t specifically taught this…the subjugation was everywhere as witness to the practice.

Decades later I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. was occasionally speaking at the Quaker Meeting not far from our house but I had no idea about this. Activities like this were not widely publicized, of course. It was too dangerous to do so.

Learning about White Supremacy – How to Act

As white youth in the South, we were essentially taught that being white was superior. It was not stated openly, but you knew. It was rather a “holier than thou” concept and it translated not only in the requirement to have superior attitudes toward blacks but also in your relationships with other whites. You almost always had to give the impression that you were better than everyone around you – white or black.

Atlanta was filled with all kinds of Jim Crow symbols in the 1950’s and requirements to separate the races. It was crazy. The behavior of everyone was incredibly scripted in this system. I was always afraid I had violated some custom or some person. The tempers of white southerners seemed to explode sometimes in anger or in unexplainable moods. They would become perturbed if people didn’t act according to the white supremacist script or they observed someone letting down their supremacist guard in the open society…as in being too friendly to someone black or acting like blacks were their equal.

The culture almost permeated under your skin, like the hot humid summer days. It was in the atmosphere and you couldn’t shake it off.

In all of this scripted behavior to demonstrate white dominance, even eyesight was important. Blacks could never look directly at whites – eye to eye. To do so would be a challenge to the status quo – an assumption that both blacks and whites were on equal footing. Blacks always had to divert their eyesight whereas whites could stare directly almost burning a hole through you.

I knew racist acts and abuses were committed all around me. This evil was eminent. You knew it was there yet much was unspoken. The deeds were just done.

And our living space was strictly segregated in school, housing, church, just everywhere it seemed, except when we went to downtown Atlanta where there were both blacks and whites on the street. I knew black folks lived in the south-side of Atlanta but I was never there.

But then I really didn’t know the questions to ask and my parents didn’t understand the concept of white supremacy in the southern context, so they didn’t teach us any of that, which was a good thing. But I know they picked up what to say and do in the South’s closed society.

Over the years, however, my mother, Lois McEwen, repeated to me what she had learned about her grandmother in Ontario, Canada. My Great-Grandmother apparently always stressed, “Everyone was welcome at her table”. I think this was my mother’s way of critiquing white supremacy. The irony, as my mother recognized, was that in the South everyone was not welcome at the vast majority of white southerner’s tables. For upper or middle class whites, the chairs at their tables were exclusively for other whites, and only certain whites. Working class whites were excluded and the hospitality was never extended to blacks.

Southern whites at church and elsewhere, however, (particularly the women) hovered over us young girls to make sure we acted appropriately. The issue, I ultimately realized, was about the white women and black male taboo. It had been historically a long southern tradition to keep black males away from white women or vice versa. It was the ridiculous and hypocritical chastity of white females that was the issue and all in the interest of the white male ego. It was like we white girls were some kind of untouchables, trophies, on a pedestal of sorts.

The older women obviously wanted to ensure that young white girls were pure to the point that the pastor at church made us feel guilty about everything related to sex. The truth of the matter is white southern males have always exploited both black and white females. This has been the case until the feminist movement inspired by the black civil rights movement altered the equation somewhat for black and white women. White women, however, have been used as scapegoats in the white male’s desire for power. If there is anything that is the fulcrum of white supremacy, sex is one of the most central of all.

Southern whites, within the white supremacist model, seemed always to try to give the impression that they were better than the other, no matter the race or class. This was how your status as a white person was essentially imbued. It meant assuming some kind of status even if it required a fabrication (as in, stating untruthfully that your family ancestry was aristocratic, your relatives once owned the largest cotton mill in the South, etc.). Growing up I never knew whether or not to trust my white friends because often what they said about themselves was exaggerated or were outright lies. And forbid you should challenge anything they said about themselves. It was simply not done. Not polite. It was exhausting sometimes to be a part of this practice and to observe the exhibition of hollow pride.

Jim Crow in Public Spaces

I remember at about 7 years old seeing water fountains for “colored” and “white” for the first time in the Sears & Roebuck building on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. When I saw that, I thought “the ‘colored’ water would probably taste better than the ‘white’ water” and I wanted to try it. As I was about to drink from the “colored” fountain, my mother grabbed me and forced me away.

I remember occasionally going to downtown Atlanta on buses. Black folks sat in the back of the bus. In the few times I was on the bus, I never saw blacks or whites challenge any of this. Everyone knew precisely what to do and that the white bus driver had enormous control and oversight of everyone’s behavior. Everyone knew this. Also, when I was on the Atlanta buses Rosa Parks had not yet refused to leave her bus seat in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, leading to the hugely significant and symbolic Montgomery Bus Boycott and the launching of the modern civil rights movement.

I remember occasionally going to the Fox Theater on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta to watch movies. Blacks were not allowed to walk through the front door so they had to climb up the stairs along the side of the building to reach the highest seats in the balcony away from whites. The stairs looked dangerous to me and they probably were.

Decades later I talked with blacks who had refused to go on buses or public places during this era to avoid being so degraded.

I do need to mention jazz, however. Something positive for me at least! While white clubs were segregated in Atlanta during Jim Crow, whites were able go to black jazz and other clubs to hear “real” music. A few of us youth did that in our late teens. We were often the only whites sitting in the black owned La Carousel Lounge at Paschal’s Motor Hotel and Restaurant on Hunter Street (now M.L. King, Jr. Drive) or at the Magnolia Room on Auburn Ave. It was unbelievable to hear the likes of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Lou Rawls, the Paul Mitchell Trio and others in somewhat of an informal setting. We were exposed to the geniuses of American music. We were blessed. The culture was profound, creative, enduring. Otherwise, I recall hearing the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as a student – nice but stark and staid by comparison.

W.E.B. Du Bois, my Father and Some Atlanta History

My father, Arch McEwen, became friends with the woman who was a librarian at the

W.E.B. Du Bois and family –
Atlanta 1897-1910

Atlanta University Center – the largest consortium of Black colleges and universities in the U.S. and where the renowned W. E. B. Du Bois had taught earlier in the century.

Du Bois was at Atlanta University, in fact, from 1897 to 1910 and 1934-1944. His tenure included his exposure to the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot after which he wrote “A Litany of Atlanta“. Here are two of the many verses from the Litany that speak to injustice and greed:

A city lay in travail, God our Lord, and from her loins sprang twin Murder and Black Hate. Red was the midnight; clang, crack and cry of death and fury filled the air and trembled underneath the stars when church spires pointed silently to Thee. And all this was to sate the greed of greedy men who hide behind the veil of vengeance! “Bend us Thine ear, O Lord!”…..
Behold this maimed and broken thing; dear God, it was an humble black man who toiled and sweat to save a bit from the pittance paid him. They told him: “Work and Rise”. He worked. Did this man sin? Nay, but someone told how someone said another did–one whom he had never seen nor known. Yet for that man’s crime this man lieth maimed and murdered, his wife naked to shame, his children, to poverty and evil. “Hear us, O Heavenly Father!”
The Atlanta University librarian my father knew was a white woman. I once visited the library with my father. It was a memorable experience for me as a 12-year-old white youth seeing all these young black students at the university.

My Canadian father, now living in the urban South, and who was a dentist, told me shortly before he died in 1988 that in the 1950’s he was furious that the Georgia Dental Association did not allow membership for black dentists. He wanted to change this and lobbied for an open membership policy. He thought he had the votes, but when the vote came to the floor at one of their meetings in the 1950’s, he said he was the only one to stand. “I have never felt so lonely,” he told me. My father was learning about southern culture – it was a rude shock for him.

Some Canadians might have different notions of justice and inclusion compared to whites in the U.S., but as some blacks have told me it’s largely because Canadians didn’t have slavery – if so they would probably be as racist as Americans. That’s probably true. But this is not an article about Canadian attitudes and Canada’s own racist history, although the comment on slavery does offer relevance to the topic of dissent, the advent of white supremacy and how it evolves.

It is easier, I think, for those outside a culture to witness injustices and act upon them, as with my father. There’s not that vested interest in family, culture and history for outsiders. It’s why I admire white southerners who resisted and fought against Jim Crow and who were often alienated from their families and communities because of their positions and activism. Often their lives were at stake, particularly in rural areas.

Race and Class in Southern Jobs

Jim Crow allowed for the manipulation of blacks and whites in the economic arena that served the interests of the white elite. Ever since the end of the Civil War when Georgia’s Henry Grady, in his 1886 famous speech, invited northern industrialists to the South by offering incentives to their advantage, the workers in the South have continued to suffer. Grady and other southern leaders essentially stressed to the North, for example, don’t worry about unions – we’ll make sure there are none. Don’t worry about taxes. In the south we will virtually give you the land you need without a tax burden. Child labor was also available. Basically, the Southern elite have always passed laws against the interests of southern workers (Cobb, 1993).

In our area you would see black females working as maids; black males as janitors and working in yards; blacks working as cooks in restaurants but not as waitresses or waiters. They were always there behind the scenes in the lowest paying jobs. I knew blacks were in all kinds of professions elsewhere as in teaching, medicine, dentistry, law and other professions as well as in black-owned businesses but I never saw them. The order of things was rarely questioned in the white community. You risked being ostracized if you questioned anything.

But then I also learned that the Southern white society is incredibly hierarchical and Southern whites are very class conscious. The upper class and middle class whites generally go to great lengths to make sure they give the impression that they are “better” than the southern white working class and to keep their distance from them in any kind of social relationships.

It is also not an exaggeration, as virtually everyone knows, that exploitation has always been the hallmark of white supremacy. In fact, the white elite has excelled at exploiting the poor and disadvantaged regardless of race. (We are witnessing this now as southern whites embrace anti-immigration bills coupled with excessive exploitation and degradation – it echoes of the Jim Crow period. One attorney friend, who is originally German and works on immigration law, said the immigration laws reminded her of the Nazis. Indeed!)

It is important to note that upper class whites, I realized later, rarely or never hire whites as servants. This is still the case. I assumed that white upper classes would not want their children exposed to the white working class. Wouldn’t want them tainted by association. There were or are no worries about the association with blacks, however, as that was the black role – to be subservient.

The white elite would have the white lower class working for them in their industrial capitalist ventures, of course, at exceptionally low wages. In factories, in the past, industrial owners often had these workers living in largely shoddy housing, but housing nevertheless. And rarely have unions been able to make inroads into southern factories now or in the past. Historian James Cobb in his “The Selling of the South” (1993) notes that even in addition to the “right to work” laws in southern states making it hard to organize unions, even when a factory might be a benefit and provide jobs, if it was union based the white elite would invariably oppose it and not allow it in their community. The exploitation of white workers, then, has always been the norm; while Blacks have had it even worse with lower paying jobs and rarely industrial work.

I also learned later that the white working class in the south is one of the most alienated and isolated of all southerners. The white elite has used them to maintain their elite status by creating conflicts between the white working class and blacks. It has always been the classic divide and rule strategy. The white working class has traditionally been the ones used by the upper class whites to do their “dirty” work, as in Ku Klux Klan activities. So they become the despised group not only by the upper and middle class whites but by Blacks as well.

In Atlanta, one of the neighborhoods that symbolized white working class alienation was “Cabbagetown”, which was the home of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. Created in 1881, the owner brought in poor whites from Appalachia to work in the mill and he built homes for them around the mill. At one point there were 2,600 workers. It closed in 1977.

The Southern textile industry relied in large part on the labor of children. Between 1880 and 1910, roughly a quarter of all textile workers were under the age of 16. Reformers eventually began to chip away at the use of child labor. But early efforts to curb the practice failed. Children did not disappear from the mills in the South until economic conditions and technological advancements made their labor more expensive than that of adults.The Southern textile industry became a “white domain.” Laws in some states prevented blacks and whites from working in the same factory rooms. Black men, however, did perform some of the most important jobs in the textile factories. They worked in the mill yards, moving bales of cotton and loading finished goods on to boxcars. They also worked in the opening and picking rooms of mills. Black women were almost completely shut out of the industry in the South. (

Cabbagetown was located in an Atlanta inner city neighborhood next to the one of Atlanta’s major black communities known as the Auburn Avenue district where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and raised. Other Cabbagetown neighbors earlier in the 20th century were wealthy whites in Inman Park. Close by is the renowned Oakland Cemetery where the likes of Margaret Mitchell of “Gone with the Wind” is buried along with black and white Atlanta leaders, Civil War veterans, slaves and others.

Cabbagetown became the stuff of legend. I recall Cabbagetown folks being incredibly isolated, looked down upon by middle and upper class whites in Atlanta and conflicting with their neighboring blacks. It was an urban creation bound for disaster. As teenagers, we were told to stay away from the area because of the violence and shootings. We were also told of the abundance of weapons and rumors of incest. Over time, the community, understandably, had become insular and defensive.

The exploitation of workers in the South is on-going with low wages and relatively no union organizing allowed. Not much has changed in this arena.

Learning from Marx and Understanding the Economics of Jim Crow

After some five years in Atlanta, my family was settled in the Druid Hills area close to Emory. There were five of us children at that point. Not long after, my mother hired a black “maid”. Her name was Bessie Smith.

When Bessie Smith came into our lives, I felt I still understood nothing about the South. I was then about 12 or 13 years old and I jumped at the chance to talk with her. When I was brave enough to do so I began to ask her about her life. What it was like. How it was different from ours. I’m sure I pried too much. My father took note and stopped me altogether. I protested, but he prevailed of course. All of this would have been not long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You could feel the tension in the air.

For years, the questions remained for me about everything.

Then to my 10th grade at Druid Hills High School. My history teacher, Robert Morgan, gave me an assignment. I remember to this day, sitting in the library on the third floor, the sun even streaming through the window to add to the drama, and I discovered Karl Marx in the Encyclopedia Britannica. To use a Marxian concept, this was one of the most revolutionary experiences of my life. Marx told me, from the pages of the Encyclopedia, that people were treated differently for profit. Finally, someone told me something about why people were treated differently…so, to repeat, I learned that blacks and the white working class were abused and exploited for egregious greed.

At the age of 16, I wrote for my assignment a 50-page paper on Marxian philosophy. I was angry about the system in the South but almost everything fell into place for me when the economic aspect of it all became clear. My life was never the same after that. Later, of course, I acknowledged that race and class are independent variables and that was a whole other journey.

I experienced all the above on the cusp of changes in the South as the black community,

Heather Gray, Congressman John Lewis, King Center Interns
in Selma 1986

after years of organizing, rose in mass to end the injustice. In fact, just a few years after my 10th grade Marxian revelations, we witnessed enormous changes in the South and the end of Jim Crow. What was most important, ultimately, to the demise of the Jim Crow laws, were the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was thanks to the uprising of the blacks and their relatively few white allies.

It is important to note, however, that the end of Jim Crow marked the end of formal racial discrimination in the South but not the end of economic exploitation. This is what Martin Luther King was attempting to address. It was his next major campaign. He inferred that if blacks can stay in a hotel what’s the point if they can’t pay the bill.

King was killed while addressing economic injustice, specifically the rights of garbage workers in Memphis but generally the economic injustice and poverty throughout the country as well as taking a stand against war. The powers that be were uncomfortable but tolerant with King addressing racial injustice. But when King started going after the economy and profitable wars that was another matter altogether.

Interestingly enough, my revelations came not long after the U.S. had ended the dreadful 1950’s Joe McCarthy era witch hunts against communists and socialists, yet McCarthy’s legacy of finger-pointing continued. The white elite in the south used McCarthy’s tactics to their advantage by labeling the activists who worked for justice and against Jim Crow, as communists and socialists. In fact, the white elite used anything as an excuse to disrupt those who challenged their power. Martin Luther King was one of their primary targets.

Nevertheless, during this on-going labeling in the South, here I, as a young high school student, was entranced with the concepts of economic and social alternatives as well as economic dynamics that Marx offered me. And while questions of capitalism and its exploitation were rarely openly discussed in the South, thanks to the chilling effect of the McCarthy era, Marx launched me on a whole new and informed exploration about human behavior and capitalism. I am forever thankful to the man.

The Jim Crow south was always in the interest of bolstering white supremacy for the benefit of the aristocratic wealthy southerners. But to accomplish this, it was also class oriented and required controlling the behavior and economic degradation of both the blacks and lower class whites. The Jim Crow south was the classic divide and rule model.

Historian James Cobb has stated that the rest of America is becoming like the South, writ large. He refers here to corporate abuse, economic injustice generally and worker exploitation. I would add to this that America is imposing a similar economic model on the rest of the world as well. It’s an unfortunate legacy. So everyone, take heed and learn from the South’s past and ongoing oppression and its arrogant greed. The south’s black and white workers have always been the proverbial canary in the mine. As Dr. King would say, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!”


James C. Cobb, The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936-90 (Chicago, 1993)

George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, NJ, 2002)

The article was revised from an earlier version on Counterpunch “Growing Up in Jim Crow Atlanta” (2011)
HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at

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