We live in a state where strange things can happen in politics, but you won’t see anything stranger than the time Georgia had three people who all claimed to be the state’s chief executive.
This was the “three governors controversy” of 1947, an incident that made Georgia a national laughingstock and shaped the state’s politics for years.
As we near the 70th anniversary of that scandalous event, Charles Bullock of the University of Georgia, Scott E. Buchanan, and Ronald Keith Gaddie have co-authored “The Three Governors Controversy,” and it is a book that is both hilarious and excruciatingly painful to read.
It all started with the 1946 governor’s race, an important one for a state that was just starting to confront the massive changes of the post-World War II period.
Gene Talmadge, a hard-drinking, race-baiting populist who had dominated Georgia politics for two decades, wanted to win one last term as governor. He was opposed in the Democratic primary by the more progressive Jimmy Carmichael, a Cobb County businessman.
Talmadge ran a racist campaign in which he warned voters that if they didn’t elect him, “the Negroes will be riding the same coaches, sleeping in the same Pullman cars with white people, stopping in the same hotel, eating in the same restaurants, and pay the bill to a Negro cashier.” He didn’t always use the word “negro” when talking about the black population.
It was an effective strategy for that era of racial segregation. Although Carmichael received 16,000 more votes, Talmadge won the primary by carrying more rural counties under the county unit system that would remain in effect until the 1960s.
Talmadge was assured of winning the November general election because he had no Republican opposition, but his people wondered if he would live long enough to be sworn in. Years of heavy drinking had made Talmadge seriously ill.
Talmadge’s advisers hatched a plan to have write-in ballots cast in the general election for his son and campaign manager, Herman Talmadge. They hoped to exploit a state law that provided for the Legislature to elect a governor if the governor-elect died before taking office.
However, Georgia voters also elected M. E. Thompson as lieutenant governor, an office that had just been created as part of the new state constitution.
Gene Talmadge did indeed pass away on Dec. 21, triggering the chaotic events that followed.
The General Assembly elected Herman Talmadge in January 1947, but the Atlanta newspapers exposed the fact that the ballot box in Talmadge’s home base, Telfair County, had been stuffed with fraudulent write-in votes cast by people who had actually died prior to the election.
Thompson, the lieutenant governor, claimed that he should be governor, as the constitution specified. Outgoing governor Ellis Arnall declared he wouldn’t hand over the office to Talmadge and would continue to serve as the chief executive.
It was two months before the Georgia Supreme Court sorted out the mess, ruling that Thompson was the governor and would serve until a special election could be held in 1948, where Herman Talmadge won with the support of voters who were still living and breathing.
Bullock, Buchanan and Gaddie have produced an entertaining book that lays out all the particulars of this sordid affair. They especially deserve praise for their account of how the Talmadge campaign worked hard to keep blacks from voting in the Democratic primary.
In many counties, local registrars deleted the names of blacks who had registered on the grounds that they didn’t provide good enough answers to questions about the U.S. Constitution — or on no grounds at all.
In one county, the registrar kept the voter registration book at her home: “She ‘occasionally’ would allow whites to come to her home and register, but she ‘could not turn over my living room to Negroes’ and refused to allow them to register.”
In another county, the local legislator stood in front of the polling place on election day with a shotgun and said he would shoot any black person who tried to vote there. None did.
Seventy years later, the same issues of voter suppression and access to the ballot box are playing out in the 2016 presidential race, showing once again how history keeps repeating itself.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.