I find it beyond ironic that the state of Georgia named a bridge after Eugene Talmadge, two in fact, the 1950's version and its 1990's replacement. He was a three time Governor who boasted of reading Mien Kampf seven times. (Hate Jews, start war - was there something he missed on the first six readings?) But the most relevant aspect of Eugene Talmadge's stewardship over his state, and the element that reminds me of current Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's career, was the assessment made by Eugene's own son and political heir, Herman Talmadge. Said Herman of his father, “A third of the voters would have followed him through h-ll, and a third wanted him to go to h-ll...”. It was an honest and ugly description of how Eugene Talmadge earned the sobriquet, “The Wild Man From Sugar Creek”.
“I never admit I'm wrong - even if I am - and I'll never apologize. If I've made a mistake, I'll ignore it and in time it'll work itself out.”
In 1940 Democrat Franklin Roosevelt carried Georgia with an unheard of 85% of the vote. But that same year anti-Roosevelt Democrat Eugene Talmadge was elected Governor for a third two year term with only 40% of the popular vote. The deciding factor in state wide elections was the convoluted 1917 Georgia “county unit” system. The lest populated 55 counties in Georgia got 110 votes for the office of Governor, while Atlanta itself got only six votes.
“I can win in any county that hasn't got streetcars.”
As governor, Talmadge had a seat on the University of Georgia board of regents, and was determined to gain control over their budget, the largest single spending source in the state. It seemed a safe issue, as in 1940, 83% of Georgia citizens had not even graduated high school. The means to achieve his goal dropped into Talmadge's lap a few weeks after returning to the Governor's mansion, when a fired teacher wrote a letter of complaint to Talmadge about the dean of the College of Education, 46 year old Dr. Walter Dewey Cocking. He was, she charged, in favor of integration.
"A good strong man has got no business sitting around a jail...What we need is a whipping post in a man's own town in the case of smaller crimes, such as gaming or wife beating."
Cocking (above) had been brought in three years earlier by University of Georgia President Harmon Caldwell to reform the teachers' college. Cocking was a smart administrator and a well qualified academic, but he had the swagger of a bureaucrat on a mission. Worse he was a Yankee, a native of Iowa. He had served at southern colleges in Texas, Missouri and Tennessee - where he had even been the director of public education. But he was still a Yankee, which is why Talmadge chose him as the starting point for his assault.
The only way to have honest government is to keep it poor.”
The end of May was commencement in Georgia – time for renewal of contracts for not yet tenured professors. On the morning of Friday, May 30, 1941, the University Board of Regents, most of whom had been appointed by Talmadge, with Talmadge present, were presented with the charges against Cocking from the fired teacher. It was Cocking's intention, claimed the teacher, to open an integrated school in Athens, Georgia, and to have white and black graduate students study together. There was a short heated debate, and the vote was eight to four to let Cocking go. Then the board went off to dedicate a new building.
“Sure I Stole it! But I stole it for you!”
After the dedication, the board was informed that, while University President Caldwell recognized the right of the board to not renew Cocking's contract, nevertheless, unless Cocking were given a full hearing before being fire, Caldwell would resign. The board tabled the motion, and on further consideration voted to rehire Cocking by 8 to four. Talmadge immediately called for another vote June 16, this time at the state capital.
“The next President will be a man who knows what it is to work in the sun 14 hours a day. That man will be able to walk a two by four plank, too.”
Eugene Talmadge 1940 (remarks for which Talmadge later apologized to polio victim Roosevelt)
Forty-one senior professors signed a letter supporting Cocking, but it did not good. Two board members who had voted in favor of rehiring Cocking were pressured to resign. They were replaced with Talmidge toadies. And the Monday, June 16, 1941 meeting was described by Time magazine (7/28/'41) under the headline, “Lynching in Georgia” ;”Not since the Tennessee monkey trial had there been such clownish witch-hunting as went on in Georgia last week. Cigar-chewing, red-suspendered Gene Talmadge ran amok through Georgia colleges, chasing furriners (i.e. non-Georgians) and Negro-befrienders...The Governor, himself a regent, was there, munching his lunch and prompting his fellow board members. Regent James S. Peters....cried...”Negroes will ride in the same railroad cars, sit in the same schools, go to the same lavatories as white men." "They won't do it," shouted Talmadge....Said Talmadge to Peters: "Hit the chair and holler." Peters hit, hollered....Hearing over, the board voted 10-to-5 to fire not only Dean Cocking but "Furriner" (Mississippi-born) Marvin S. Pittman, president of Georgia State Teachers College and Georgia-born J. Curtis Dixon, vice chancellor of the State University system.”
"You got three friends in this here world - and I want you to know it. You got Sears Roebuck Company, and I want you to know it. You got God almighty - and I want you to know it. And you got Eugene Herman Talmadge of Sugar Hill, Georgia - and I want you to know it.”
Eugene Talmadge stump speech
Developments now came fast and furious. Governor Talmadge ordered an investigation of “foreign Professors” in at the University. This inspired Jack Tarver at the Macon Telegraph to write, “We's gotta shoot these furriners, Who ain't got Georgy blood. We got to shoot old Gran'ma fust, I hates to do it, kin'er, She's been a good ole Gran'ma, BUT She 'uz born in Caroliner” The Governor ordered a sweep through the libraries of all colleges and high schools, searching for any anti-American texts. Of the 30,000 books at the Universtity of Georgia, one was found to fit the description - “Calling America”. This proved to be not a book, but a single article in the February 1939 issue of “Survey Graphic Magazine”. At the same time the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools opened an investigation of “political interference” at the University of Georgia. The General Education Board rejected Georgia's application for $74,000 in funding for the coming year. And the Association announced that they were withdrawing the accreditation from all Georgia colleges. A degree from a Georgia university was no longer recognized beyond the state borders.
“We credit our own schools down here.”
Life magazine described Georgia under Talmadge as a “...hillbilly dictaorship...more humiliating than dangerous to the rest of the nation.....(Talmidge) has ignored the merit system, muzzled freedom of speech for Georgia's 23,000 teachers and 8,000 state employees...” Time reported on October 27 that “Students gaily gathered on the campus of the University of Georgia last week (above)...shouting 'To H-ll with Gene,' hanged and burned Governor Eugene Talmadge in effigy not once but twice. Women students at Lucy Cobb dormitory had a third private hanging of their own.” Son, Herman Talmadge remembered, “I tried to dissuade him and so did my mother, but once that my father made up his mind, he was the most stubborn independent minded man that I ever knew in my life.”
“I'm just as mean as hell.”
Public demonstrations drove Talmadge to ask a reporter, “Do they (the electorate) think I am a dam--d fool?” The newsman replied, “ Well, Governor, some think you're a dam--d fool...A lot of others think you're just as mean as hell.” It turned out that although the majority of Georgians had never been to college, they all dreamed of sending their children. And what Talmage had done had threaten that dream. His 1942 re-election campaign was based on tried and true meathods; “White supremacy. State rights, local self-government and old time religion”. Talmadge sent out a mailer which asked, “Do You Want Your Child to Go to School With Negroes?” But even America's entry into World War Two did not convince the electorate to forgive Talmadge. The Democratic primary of 1942 saw Talmadge and his rural constituency swept from office by a slim margin. Wrote Time magazine, “Thus ended the reign of the most high-handed, low browed local dictator.”
"I now call on all Georgians regardless of political affiliation, to help us in our endeavor, so that Georgia may no longer be the laughing stock of the nation”
Ellis Gibbs Arnall. Georgia Governor, 1944-45
Like a bad penny, Talmadge came back, in 1946, and ran again for governor. And, with the help of the Klu Klux Klan, he won. But it appears that God had finally had enough of him. He called Eugene Talmage to his final reward on December 21, 1946, before he could take the oath for a fourth term . He was 62 years old. And any bridge named after him is truly a bridge to nowhere.
“Talmadge has a Phi Beta Kappa key, can you believe that? What did he use all that precious knowledge for? To accomplish what?”
Young Martin Luther King Jr. to his father.
- 30 -