“Here in our own city government we are proud of the progress that is being made in amicable race relations. We have and are making progress in increased public housing for our Negro citizens. We have built new parks and libraries; we have aided in the development of new residential subdivisions; we have greatly increased our public health appropriations and the health service rendered to Negro citizens. In the field of hospitals, our Hospital Authority is even now bringing to completion a great new Negro hospital for the use of those not classed as charity cases...
Truly, my friends, the record in Atlanta has been one of great and continued progress, under a city administration which believes in fairness and justice for all of our citizens. Such a city, my friends, and such a people, welcome you to Atlanta. We hope you will look us over thoroughly with kindly and understanding hearts and minds, observe the progress that is being made, and go away with a happy and pleasant impression of our great and friendly City of Atlanta.
The city government formally bids your convention welcome to Atlanta.”
Editor's Note: In the summer of 1951, the NAACP held its 42nd Annual Convention in the city of Atlanta. The excerpt above comes from Hartsfield’s welcoming address to the convention’s attendees. This convention occurred just a few short years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, striking down segregation as unconstitutional. Segregationists such as Governor Herman Talmadge loudly criticized Hartsfield for officially welcoming the convention to Atlanta and set the city a buzz with fear over the possibility of integration.
Hartsfield’s speech to the NAACP convention marked a change in his own personal views of race relations in Atlanta and in the country. When Hartsfield entered politics in the 1920’s, he was a staunch segregationist much like Herman Talmadge. However, in the years following World War II, his stance on integration and civil rights slowly changed. As the Civil Rights Movement picked up pace, Hartsfield became determined that Atlanta would move forward with integration without violence, setting an example of nonviolence for the South and the country.
Hartsfield’s change in racial attitudes came in 1946 when the court cases Smith v. Allwright and King v. Chapman outlawed the white primary. Before these court cases, African Americans were excluded from voting in the Democratic primary elections. Under the voting restrictions that existed before 1946, fewer than 300 African Americans had bothered to even register to vote in Atlanta. However, with the prohibition of the white primary, African Americans across the South began to register to vote by the thousands.
Hartsfield knew that voting patterns in the South were set to change and that politicians who failed to listen to African American voters would soon find themselves out of office. Instead of opposing the end of the white primary, Hartsfield began to meet with Atlanta’s black leaders and to listen to the needs of African American voters. He began to take tentative steps toward change, slowing undermining segregation in Atlanta.
Before removing “white” and “colored” signs from the airport, he ordered them to be reduced in size until they could hardly be seen and then finally removed them with no announcement. His slow, moderate approach to racial progress and integration received criticism from both segregationists who accused him of being a radical integrationist and some civil rights activists who accused him of being a segregationist at heart.