Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

Power at the Local Level

Atlanta: Floyd Hunter Was Right

by G. William Domhoff

(click to expand)

Although power had been mentioned in a few community-oriented studies before the 1950s, it was not until the early 1950s that there was a study devoted exclusively to the analysis of a local power structure. This study, published in 1953 by sociologist Floyd Hunter under the title Community Power Structure, was the starting point for the serious study of power within sociology, and it soon spawned a large literature (Hawley & Svara, 1972). It focused on what was called "Regional City," in keeping with the cautious nature of the era, but everyone knew the city in question was Atlanta.

It also led to furious critiques, mostly by political scientists, and it was the trigger for a theorist in political science, Robert A. Dahl, to do an empirical study of the city where he resided, New Haven, the first and only empirical study of his academic career (Dahl, 1961). It also led to a "replication" study by a political science graduate student of the era, M. Kent Jennings (1964). The study by and large showed that Hunter was right, but it revealed this fact in such a backhanded way that it was used by one of Dahl's students to claim that Hunter was wrong (Polsby, 1980).

Just when it looked like Hunter's study had been buried, political scientist Clarence Stone (1976) did an in-depth study of his own on the city that supported Hunter's original claims, and added greater depth to the understanding of the Atlanta power structure. Then Stone (1989) extended his study into the 1980s, showing that the same power structure was still in place.

In many ways, then, Atlanta became the crucial test of the rival claims of pluralists like Dahl and power structure researchers such as Hunter. The result was a complete vindication for Hunter, although few political scientists have ever acknowledged this fact, which suggests they may not be free of sin when they call others ideologists and claim that they are sensible empiricists. Just as importantly, the results from the study of Atlanta fit perfectly with the growth-coalition theory of local power (Logan & Molotch, 1987; Molotch, 1976; Molotch, 1979).

The three sections that follow discuss the findings by Hunter, Jennings, and Stone in detail to show the power of Hunter's method and the strength of the growth-coalition theory.

Hunter's Original Study

Floyd Hunter was a soft-spoken, good-old-boy from Kentucky, born into a family that had lived there for many generations. But he broke the mold by going to the University of Chicago in the 1930s and becoming a social worker, first in the city of Indianapolis, and then during World War II for the military, setting up canteens for soldiers in various cities. It was from these experiences that Hunter first learned about power structures. In particular, he had to deal with them in figuring out where to place the canteens, but he had been close to the Chamber of Commerce in Indianapolis as well.

After the war, Hunter went to work for an agency in Atlanta as head of a neighborhood club for underprivileged boys, but he made clear to the mildly liberal elites who hired him that he would call things as he saw them on segregation. As he later said in his book, using the pseudonym "Joe Cratchett," he had served under what he called "second echelon" personnel in the power structure as head of a community welfare agency. He also soon learned a thing or two about power in Atlanta by getting fired in 1948 for allowing a room in the agency's building to be used for an anti-segregation speech by Henry A. Wallace, the former (1940-1944) vice president of the United States (Hunter, 1953, pp. 190-194). By 1948 Wallace was the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party, and Hunter was the party's candidate for Congress in the Congressional district that included Atlanta. In a history of the Progressive Party, journalism professor Curtis MacDougal (1965, pp. 703-704) tells the story of Hunter's involvement in the Progressive Party and his run-in with his bosses.

At that point Hunter decided to go to graduate school in sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, so he could make more sense of his occupational and political experiences up to that point. For his dissertation work, he returned to Atlanta to do a detailed study of how new policies were generated there. He thought he had a general idea of how things might work, based on his experience, but he wasn't certain. It was only after he had supplemented his past experience with dozens of systematic interviews that he felt he understood the origin of new policies from within the power structure. Even then, he emphasized that he had but a sample of the people involved due to the limited time and money at his disposal:

"No pretense is made that the group to be discussed represents the totality of power leaders in the community, but it is felt that a representative case sample is presented, and that the men described come well within the range of the center of power in the community." (Hunter, 1953.)

Hunter's study, which brought the term power structure into social science discourse for the first time, was recognized as a major and controversial contribution as soon as it was published in 1953. For one thing, its method, later called the "reputational method," was new. Hunter began by asking a panel of 14 people who were highly knowledgeable about the city, essentially upper-middle-class professionals, to pick out the top ten leaders from the lists of organizational leaders he had collected from the Chamber of Commerce (business leaders), the League of Women Voters (government officials), the Community Council (civic leaders), and newspaper reporters and civic leaders ("society" leaders). From these lists containing 175 names, he picked those 40 people who received the most votes, and then set out to interview as many of those people as he could. Among other things, he asked them who they thought were the most important leaders in the city, how well they knew the other people on the list, and what they thought were the two most important issues facing the community at that time.

Hunter was able to interview 27 of the 40, and they overwhelmingly agreed that most of the top leaders in Atlanta were on the list. Only 5 people not on the list received four or more nominations from those already selected. But notice something important: he added the 5 new people to the list based on the interviews. Clearly, the people Hunter interviewed had their own opinions on who was powerful. They were not influenced or constrained by the list of names Hunter presented them. This is a point often overlooked by those who disliked the results and blamed the method.

To gain other perspectives, Hunter also interviewed 34 leaders from the black community and 14 planners and welfare workers who served as expert advisers in the city. He asked them most of the questions he had asked the top leaders. By interviewing everyone in the same way, he was able to develop rather precise information on the personal, economic, and policy relationships among the powerful.

Hunter's new method was not the only contribution of his book. His findings were also very striking. Most people who were interviewed believed that there were only a small number of power wielders in Atlanta and that most of them were major owners, top executives, and corporate lawyers for the biggest banks, department stores, and other businesses in the city. The leaders were found to live in the same neighborhood, belong to the same clubs, and sit on each other's boards of directors. They knew each other well and had definite opinions about which among them were the most powerful at the time, or were about to become more powerful, or were on their way down in influence.

A majority said that the most important leader in Atlanta was the centimillionaire chairman of Coca Cola, but 21 of the 27 said that the best man to head a new policy committee would be the chairman of Georgia Power & Light. Why the apparent discrepancy? Because the Coca Cola chairman was so busy with state and national questions, including the presidential campaign of his friend Dwight D. Eisenhower. He left most local matters to his company vice presidents and his lawyers at King & Spaulding. (Hunter used pseudonyms in the climate of the 1950s, but he later told me the real names of the people, companies, and law firms involved.)

Although a few men stood out as the foremost leaders, it's important to note, because critics distorted this point, that Hunter concluded there was no single power hierarchy or power pyramid in Atlanta. Rather, there were overlapping cliques or crowds within the downtown business community. Furthermore, different people took the lead on different policy issues. On one issue the banking crowd might take the initiative, on another issue it might be the utility crowd that carried the ball. As Hunter wrote:

Only a rudimentary "power pyramid" of Regional City will be presented. One may be content to do this because I doubt seriously that power forms a single pyramid with any nicety in a community the size of Atlanta. There are pyramids of power in this community which seem more important to the present discussion than a pyramid. (Hunter, 1953.)

As interesting as questions of power rankings and power pyramids may be, Hunter's primary concern remained the origins of policy initiatives. Consider the two sentences that open his book:

It has been evident to the writer for some years that policies on vital matters affecting community life seem to appear suddenly. They are acted upon, but with no precise knowledge on the part of the majority of the citizenry as to how these policies originated or by whom they are really sponsored. (Hunter, 1953.)

After his candid interviews with the top business leaders, Hunter felt he understood why most people had the same impression as he did. He found that a new policy within the Atlanta power structure usually had its origin in informal discussions among friends at lunch or a social club. Now, the idea didn't come up as part of idle chatter. These men were constantly working to make their businesses grow, and they knew the difficulties they faced. They also read the newspapers and talked to their hired experts. So their conversations had a clear focus, and they tried ideas out on each other.

If the idea seemed plausible within that small group, it was checked out informally with people from other crowds and modified as necessary. If there was general agreement among those informally contacted, the idea might be brought up for discussion at the "49 club" or the "101 club," both of which were more formalized, but highly private discussion groups involving a cross-section of community leaders. Such groups were later found in other cities, such as the Committee of 25 in Los Angeles, for example, or the Monday Morning Group in Riverside, California. When Hunter (1980) returned to Atlanta for a second study in the early 1970s, he found that the older discussion groups had been superseded by one including both black and white leaders. Called the Atlanta Forum, it was described by Business Week in 1973 as "the informal power center of the city." (Few small groups such as these seem to dominate cities any longer, which has led some social scientists to doubt that growth-coalition theory is still relevant. They are wrong.)

If the idea still seemed sound after consideration by the Atlanta elite in the 49 club or 101 club, a committee might be formed and discussion would turn to more specific questions, such as which organizations and bureaucracies at the middle levels might be brought into the picture. Preliminary discussions of which people should be "out front" as members of formal public committees would also begin. In addition, one or two people might go to the newspaper for the purpose of planting a background story, which would suggest that a new proposal may be afloat. Since nothing had been made public in a formal way, it was possible for the idea to be dropped at this point. Hunter notes that new initiatives were often dropped if it seemed they would generate resistance within middle-level voluntary associations or the general public.

Only when everything seemed to be firmly in place did a policy suddenly become a matter for formal public discussion, often officially proposed by the Chamber of Commerce or a civic organization. From that point on, the problem became a matter of execution, the carrying out of the policy. But the "policy" -- defined by Hunter as "a set course of action" -- had already been formulated in the complex process that involves both informal and formal discussions within the power structure. Hunter's tight summary of his findings remains a minor gem:

"The top group of the power hierarchy has been isolated and defined as comprised of policy-makers. These men are drawn largely from the businessmen's class in Atlanta. They form cliques, or crowds, as the term is more often used in the community, which formulate policy. Committees for formulation of policy are commonplace, and on community-wide issues policy is channeled by a "fluid committee structure" down to institutional, associational groups through a lower-level bureaucracy which executes policy. (Hunter, 1953.)

The concern with growth, which is said to be central to city power by growth-coalition theory, was one of the most striking findings in Hunter's study of Atlanta. When he asked the question "What are the two major issues or projects before the community today?" 23 of 26 gave the plan for growth created by the Central Atlanta Improvement Association as one of their choices. Second, with 9 votes, was a plan developed by the business community's Traffic and Safety Council to move traffic in and out of the city more quickly by means of new highways. No other issue received even 5 mentions. Twenty years later, in 1970, when Hunter returned for the second study and asked the same question, he received the same answer. The number one interest was in physical improvements related to growth, but this time it was a rapid transit system, a new airport, and a downtown sports and convention center. "In the interviews, they could speak of nothing else," reported Hunter (1980, pp. 150-152).

By way of comparison, Hunter found very different emphases in other parts of the community. The 14 professional workers who were asked the same question in 1950 gave as many votes (4) to housing and slum improvement as they did to the plan of development, and 3 of the 14 also mentioned improved race relations. The contrast with black leaders was even more striking; African-Americans thought that improved schools and better housing were the main issues. In 1970 they placed better housing and higher employment as their top concerns.

Given the ease with which the new method could be utilized and the striking nature of the results, several social scientists greeted Hunter's study with great interest and proceeded to apply the reputational method with very similar results. They often made innovations in the method and presented new findings on "submerged" and "symbolic" leaders in the process (Bonjean & Grimes, 1974; Bonjean, 1963; Hawley & Svara, 1972). Hunter went on to show that the method yielded similar findings in the northern city of Salem, Massachusetts (Hunter, Schaffer, & Sheps, 1956), and utilized it with equally informative results at the national level, pinpointing the same corporate leaders, policy groups, and social clubs that are discussed in other parts of this website (Hunter, 1959).

However, the pluralists within the social-science fraternity reacted to the Atlanta study with great dismay. Most of all, they criticized the method for the possible bias that might be introduced:

  1. by the way in which the first set of knowledgeable informants are selected to go through the leadership lists;
  2. by the wording of the questions that are asked in the interviews; or
  3. by the alleged lack of concern with whether or not a reputation generated from newspaper publicity or success on a single community issue actually reveals anything about leadership in general.

The alleged failings of the reputational method aside, pluralists also felt Hunter's portrait of power in Atlanta was inaccurate because he had not spent any time studying the workings of government on issues of general significance within the community. Without such studies of specific issues, they said, it would be impossible to ascertain the distribution of power in an American community.

However, two different studies, one using the reputational method, the other focusing on actual decision-making, showed that Hunter was right about Atlanta.

The Jennings Replication

The author of the first of these studies, M. Kent Jennings, a pluralist political scientist, could not really bring himself to say that Hunter was right in Community Influentials: The Elites of Atlanta (1964). Instead, he obfuscated matters by claiming that the people he calls "economic dominants," who consisted of local manufacturers and the branch plant managers of national corporations, were not uncovered by the method. This type of claim had been reported in earlier studies as well, leading to a pseudo-controversy over possible changes in local power structures due to the rise of the "absentee ownership" of large corporations. The problem largely disappears if we understand the distinction between the corporate community and the growth coalitions, and if we understand that landed elites are the "economic dominants" in cities.

What Jennings actually found in Atlanta is a complete vindication of Hunter and his "reputational method," not to mention a boost for the ideas of growth-coalition theory. The fact that this simple truth has never been acknowledged is a commentary on the power of pluralism within the political science fraternity. When the main study comes up with 57 of the 59 names uncovered in the pilot study, and when those names include 23 of the top 27 from Hunter's study of several years earlier, then there is evidence that the method is a lot better than anyone later admitted (Jennings, 1964, pp. 24, 25, 156). This is especially the case when it is added that Jennings found many of these people -- labeled as mere "perceived influentials"-- were involved in the issue areas that he studied. As Jennings himself finally wrote, many pages after he presented his findings:

From a methodological point of view, our findings show that the nomination-attribution technique is neither so infallible as its supporters claim [a straw man because no one claimed the method was "infallible" - GWD] nor so misleading as its attackers insist. Most of the perceived influentials at both levels were indeed influential in one or more issue areas. Those considered most influential tended to engage in more deliberately influential behavior and appeared actually to be more influential than those reputed to be less influential. The technique measures more than simply respect, popularity, or social status. It serves to locate people of consequence in community decision making. (Jennings, 1964, p. 164.)

Moreover, even though most of the "perceived influentials" were not "economic dominants" by Jennings's preconceived and tortured definition, the majority turned out to be businesspeople who came by and large from the downtown business interests:

Those who were economic dominants as well as perceived influentials came mainly from non-manufacturing firms, which are located in the central business district, are locally owned, and have their locus of consumption in the immediate metropolitan area. (Jennings, 1964, p. 197.)

However, it is no small task to figure out the composition of the group of "perceived influentials" in the Jennings study. His Table I (p. 46) reports that 30% are in commerce, 15% in finance, and 15% in manufacturing, which means that at least 60% are businesspeople, unless some people fit into more than one category and he didn't so inform us. Another 34% are in a category called "professional and public administration," but we also learn that 30% of the "perceived" elite had legal training. This information, along with other hints here and there, suggests that some of those who are legally trained may be corporate lawyers. Finally, 6% of the perceived influentials are listed as retired, but Jennings shows remarkably little interest in their former careers.

We further learn that there are two African-Americans in the group, one a lawyer who runs the black voters' league and the other the president of a black-run financial institution (p. 39). We are then told (p. 40) that there is one woman in the group, the superintendent of public schools. On page 120 we learn that one influential is a labor leader. Elsewhere we learn that the executive director of the business-dominated Central Atlanta Association is a perceived influential (p. 102), but we do not know if he is a businessman or a professional. It is my hypothesis that the great majority of the perceived influcntials are part of the Atlanta growth coalition, but Jennings was not willing to send me a list of their names so I could check for myself. This failure to follow the standard canons of scholarly practice is one indication of just how defensive the pluralists were in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Stone Studies

One of the best and most detailed case studies of an urban renewal program concerned Atlanta between the years 1950 and 1970, It is of special interest because it was designed with the controversy between Hunter and Dahl clearly in mind. Clarence Stone's (1976) excellent study redresses Hunter's lack of detail on government decision making by showing how city officials in Atlanta functioned to aid cohesion in business groups and to discourage and fragment neighborhood groups. It is written in a balanced way that allowed some political scientists to hear the message.

In the course of his study, Stone arrived independently at a position similar to that expressed by growth-coalition theorists. Land values and growth were the key issues in Atlanta politics, and urban renewal was "part of a general struggle over the control of land" (Stone, 1976, p. 45). He came to this conclusion because he found that urban renewal in Atlanta was based on the desire to expand the central business district occupied by low-income black neighborhoods that were also in the process of expanding. It was a classic clash of a growth coalition with a neighborhood.

According to Stone's empirical work on Atlanta, the growth coalition's concern for renewal was expressed through the Central Atlanta Improvement Association. Members of this group involved themselves with government through membership on the City Housing Authority and a Citizen's Action Committee on Urban Renewal, which was jointly financed by business and government, and through informal contacts with the mayor, who was himself a former downtown businessman. Responsibility for specific government plans was lodged in an Urban Renewal Planning Committee composed of commissioners from the Housing Authority and elected officials from the city council's Committee on Urban Renewal.

In tracing the history of the Atlanta urban renewal program, Stone finds immediate contrasts with what Dahl claimed about New Haven. Unlike New Haven, where the mayor played the role of drum major, the Atlanta mayor stayed in the background as much as possible. Responsibility for the program was insulated from him so that he would not become the center of any political controversies over it. This difference is important because it once again shows that leadership by the mayor is not essential, contrary to the early pluralist claim.

Then, too, neighborhood resistance appeared almost immediately in Atlanta, but did not arise in New Haven until the 1960s, after Dahl had completed his study, In Atlanta, a tentative plan floated in 1950 was protested by residents in the white neighborhood that would be most affected. Then a black newspaper editorialized that there was a danger of urban renewal becoming "Negro removal," a phrase that was to be made famous in the 1960s by speeches of Malcolm X.

Despite the support from the downtown growth coalition, Atlanta suffered delays in getting its program under way when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that the state's enabling legislation on urban renewal was unconstitutional. The legislation had to be rewritten and was not passed until 1957. Such legal challenges, which were often initiated by ultraconservatives concerned with the implications of the program for the rights of private property, were not uncommon in other cities and states.

Atlanta skyline in 1960
(click to enlarge)

Stone studied several specific decisions from both the formative years of the program, 1954-1962, and the more protest-laden years of 1962-1969. He found that the downtown coalition was overwhelmingly successful in achieving its major objectives during the first phase. Its only setback was a partial one of little direct interest to it. In this instance, sites for low-income housing that it had agreed to as the price for black leadership support were blocked by a middle-income white neighborhood. So we can say that the growth coalition lost to white racists, but of course the real losers were the African-Americans who had to scramble for new housing in a setting where white neighborhoods would not accept them. This proved to be the pattern just about everywhere in the country where urban renewal was attempted.

In the second phase of urban renewal, the downtown business interests were successful in obtaining land for a stadium, a civic center, and the expansion of a downtown university. At the same time, they were able to quietly veto the repeated requests of specific neighborhoods for public housing. This second phase was highlighted by black demonstrations and protests, actions that should have met with great success, Stone (1976, p. 62) notes, if pluralist theorists are right that "the prizes go to the interested and active."

For a time, it actually looked as if African-Americans were going to be successful. In early 1966, a neighborhood group was able to save one-half of its area from plans for urban renewal clearance. Then the outbreak of relatively mild civil disorder in two other black neighborhoods in September, 1966, galvanized the city into promises for larger recreational and fix-up programs for neighborhoods. In November, 1966, the mayor announced a goal of 17,000 new units of low-income and moderate-income housing, with 9,800 of those units to be completed within two years. By the end of 1966, Stone reports, the urban program seemed to have changed rather dramatically:

The change had come abruptly. As late as the 1965 Declaration of Policy in the city's Workable Program document, Atlanta's urban renewal program was explained primarily in terms of the encouragement of economic expansion, physical planning and development, and the overall economic ability of the City to support...urban development and renewal activities. By the close of 1966 the urban renewal program was completely recast; neighborhood improvements, grass-roots participation, and an expanded supply of standard housing for low- and moderate-income families appeared to be central elements in a new renewal policy. (Stone, 1976, p. 128.)

However, the policies did not change after all. As protest receded, the promises went unfulfilled. City officials stalled and delayed as they fought with neighborhood groups and as the groups within neighborhoods began to argue with one another. Only a few thousand of the 17,000 promised housing units were built. City officials blamed neighborhood opposition for this failure, but Stone suggests that lack of business support was even more important, because the business leaders had made it clear that they preferred low-income housing to be built outside the city. Also left unmentioned by city officials was the opposition by real estate interests to any government involvement in the construction and management of housing.

Stone sees these results as a direct contradiction to the general theory of community power that Dahl derived from New Haven. Poor citizens do not have what Dahl called the "slack," i.e., extra, resources to invest in politics when they feel their interests are threatened enough to make politics worthwhile. Despite sustained protests and other efforts, African-Americans in Atlanta were not able to induce politicians and government officials to forward their interests. Instead, the link between the growth coalition and city hall, based upon common values, organizational ties, and campaign finance, proved more durable. Between 1956 and 1966, one-seventh of the people in Atlanta were moved out of their homes to make way for expressways, urban renewal, and a downtown building boom that drew nationwide attention throughout the 1970s.

As if this excellent study was not enough, Stone (1989) had the inspired idea to return to Atlanta for another study that carried the story into the 1980s, to see if the rise of black political leaders in the city in the 1970s had led to any major changes. Basically, he found the election of African-Americans to the mayor's office and city council had little or no impact on the growth coalition. At this point, Stone also put forth a new theory, regime theory, as a general explanation for urban power structures. This theory is compared to growth-coalition theory and found wanting in my general critique of rival urban theories.

Atlanta skyline in 2003
(click to enlarge)

There is evidence that things remained unchanged in the 1990s; a study showed that the Atlanta growth coalition took the lead in that decade in creating a new policy of "smart growth" in the face of the city's declining attractiveness for new investment (Morcol, Zimmermann, & Stich, 2003). It also spearheaded the political process that created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. The authors conclude that their case study provides more support for Molotch's growth-coalition theory than it does for Stone's regime theory.

So, when it comes to the years before 1980, there is only one in-depth study -- Dahl's (1961) study of New Haven -- that found anything different than what Hunter found in Atlanta. Could New Haven really be that different? Only in one way: it was dominated by an Ivy League university that did not have to pay taxes on the large amount of land it came to control. The flaws of Dahl's study are demonstrated in the on-line article "Who Really Ruled in Dahl's New Haven?".


Bonjean, C., & Grimes, M. (1974). Community power: Issues and findings. In J. Lopreato & L. Lewis (Eds.), Social stratification (pp. 381-383). New York: Harper & Row.

Bonjean, C. M. (1963). Community leadership: A case study and conceptual refinement. American Journal of Sociology, 68(6), 672-681.

Dahl, R. A. (1961). Who governs? Democracy and power in an American city. . New Haven,: Yale University Press.

Hawley, W., & Svara, J. (1972). The study of community power: A bibliographic review. Santa Barbara: American Bibliographic Center-Clio Press.

Hunter, F. (1953). Community power structure: A study of decision makers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hunter, F. (1959). Top leadership, U.S.A. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hunter, F. (1980). Community power succession: Atlanta's policy-makers revisited. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hunter, F., Schaffer, R. C., & Sheps, C. G. (1956). Community organization: Action and inaction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Jennings, M. K. (1964). Community influentials: The elites of Atlanta. New York: Free Press.

Logan, J. R., & Molotch, H. (1987). Urban fortunes: The political economy of place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

MacDougal, C. (1965). Gideon's army (Vol. 3). New York: Marzani & Munsell.

Molotch, H. (1976). The city as a growth machine. American Journal of Sociology, 82, 309-330.

Molotch, H. (1979). Capital and neighborhood in the United States: Some conceptual links. Urban Affairs Quarterly, 14, 289-312.

Morcol, G., Zimmermann, U., & Stich, B. (2003). The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority: A smart growth machine? Politics & Policy, 31, 488-511.

Polsby, N. (1980). Community power and political theory (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stone, C. (1989). Regime politics. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.

Stone, C. N. (1976). Economic growth and neighborhood discontent: System bias in the urban renewal program of Atlanta. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

This document's URL: http://whorulesamerica.net/local/atlanta.html