President Marion L. Brittain had been through so much as president of Georgia Tech. It was time for him to ride off into the sunset and enjoy retirement, or so his thought was. But then three-term former governor Eugene Talmadge decided to throw his hat into the ring in the 1941 election.
Before he was governor, Eugene Talmadge was a product of the school in Athens originally from Forsyth, Georgia. Upon graduating from law school, he practiced with a firm he started downstate. In two attempts at running for state legislature, he lost. However, near the end of the Roaring Twenties, he did succeed in one thing - being elected to serve as the state agriculture commissioner.
Suffice it to say, but Georgia’s state government was a lumbering, corrupt travesty back then. Talmadge, an espouser of laissez-faire government policy, instead was a morally reprehensible, deceitful swindler who repeatedly abused or outright stole financial benefits from his constituents in order to manipulate futures, take trips to the Kentucky Derby, and pay his family members. When alerted of the hog price scandal, the State House declined to impeach him, electing instead to sue him for compensation, and when governor Richard Russell referred the suit to the attorney general, he refused to pursue legal action against Talmadge, who was wildly popular in rural areas due to some of his policies and his soapbox newsletters. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the whole white supremacist thing yet.
In the meantime, back on the north side of the city, Georgia Tech was plugging along as usual. Brittain’s biggest construction project of the era came not in the form of campus expansion, but rather as an ardent supporter of revitalizing the rundown Techwood neighborhood just beyond North Avenue. The land now occupied by the North Avenue Apartments was even turned into the site of the prototypical subsidized low-rent housing project later adopted across many major cities, the Techwood Homes Project. Brittain, though, was ecstatic, as Tech would be able to house 189 of its own students in the nearest building. Tech architects, P. D. Stevens and Flippen Burge, the latter of which would later have a sketchy campus apartment building, which is now thankfully a parking lot, named in his honor, headed the design of the large property. President Franklin Roosevelt was even on hand to dedicate the new facilities on the Friday of Homecoming weekend in 1935. Tech would go on to beat the school out east for the first time in seven years, 19-7, to cap the festivities the next day.
Though the Republicans never handed over the deed for the entire complex to Tech, as Brittain hoped, when they next came to power, though that wouldn’t be for many years. They did, however, obtain control over the section known as the Techwood Dormitory.
Tech extensively celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, in a weekend long exhibition of various scientific, sporting, and social events, including a Tech-Notre Dame football game, and also hosted representatives of 60 other institutions. This, of course, was in 1938, to coincide with the actual start of classes, rather than its approval by the state legislature, as would make sense, in the same way that North Carolina is an older school than the one in Athens, since students learned from said school first. But I digress.
Brittain submitted his resignation in the winter of 1941. It was, however, quickly rejected by the Board of Regents and Chancellor Sanford. Yeah, the guy that the cesspool of the South is named after, that Sanford. However, in this case, it is okay to agree with an Athenian. In the own words of the former president of the school out east to Brittain, “I fear that Governor Eugene Talmadge will dictate the appointment of a personal or political friend as your successor,” (Wallace, 205).
See, the Talmadge guy we talked about had just been elected governor. Not only that, but this was his fourth term. After bowing out for four years, the man with a very obvious history of racial bias and ethical questionability was back for another term. They were right to be wary of the retread of Talmadge, who had previously passed a law voted down by the legislature via proclamation, declared martial law and set up military tribunals, arrested strikers and protestors and imprisoned them in former prisoner of war camps, opposed the New Deal and policies in favor of equal rights, and, most pressing to the regents, eliminated governing boards that disagreed with him. He had previously attempted to pass a law handing control of all funds and property of any institute of public education to the governor, as well as eliminating funding mechanisms for new construction. This failed, and Tech was able to build the Heisman Gymnasium. After three terms, he stepped down to run for senator, losing twice, and the Dixiecrat failed to mount enough steam to challenge Roosevelt for presidency, notably receiving attention when the former literary society member in his college days in Athens noted that, though he didn’t have time to read many books, he had read Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf seven times. This was not a good dude.
Talmadge was on a mission that made even the people aligned with him apprehensive - a mission to exert control over the state university system by weeding out opponents and “furriners,” a word that apparently is a derisive term for foreigners and those with differing opinions from the governor-elect. Brittain, for now, had to stand his ground at the captaincy of the Institute. Deans Perry and Skiles agreed with Chancellor Sanford.
Talmadge, ringleader of the “wool hat boys” who controlled state politics with an iron fist during the county-unit system days - a corruption of an electoral college that allocated an arbitrary six units to a minisucle amount of “urban” counties, four to “town” counties, and two to “rural” counties, representing nearly sixty percent of votes but under a third of population - was on a collision course that would lead to the de jure suspension of the accredation of the entire public higher education system in the state for almost two years.
His first action is much less famous, but more immediately applicable to Tech, was nominating Red Barron to be Georgia Tech’s Vice President. I will preface the following with this statement - Tech folks liked Barron, who was a three sport varsity athlete at Tech, a part of three Southern Conference championship teams, multi-sport All-Southern, and got cups of coffee in both professional football and baseball. However, the students of Georgia Tech, upon hearing this, started off on a two block demonstration (which was stopped by police), carrying signs that included a banner reading “I’m a Rambling Wreck from Talmadge Tech.’ They despised the executive meddling in the affairs of the school - in attempting to placate the Techies with one of their own, the governor had instead managed to provoke a full on, and very public protest. Instead, Talmadge had him elected as Dean of Men without the consent of either Brittain or Sanford. Barron, understandably, declined the offer forthwith.
Two days later, in Athens at the Board of Regents meeting, Talmadge decided to make an appearance. He began with a very vehement denunciation of “furriners,” which Wallace understates with signature tongue-in-cheek commentary, who want to desegregate Georgia public higher education. This is what is now known as the Cocking Affair.
In his furor, Talmadge fired the Dean of Education of the school out east, Dr. Walter Cocking, who he singled out as the leading advocate for the policy, as well as Dr. Marvin Pittman, president of what is now Georgia Southern, when he tried to defend Cocking. The Board of Regents voted to retain both men, some convinced by spurious dissociation of the real issue at hand from the merit of his executive leadership. Rather than use the funding mechanisms he put in place, Talmadge put the two men on trial and stacked the board by eliminating three opposition members from it, under the grounds that it was wrong to have so many representatives from the school in Athens. Ironically, this was a major gripe Tech had with the system, but principle of the policy and egregiously manner of their removal far outweighed the representation issue. The governor’s packed board terminated the men. Consequently, in its next meeting, the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools suspended the University System of Georgia. They argued that,
“In light of all the evidence, the Committee is forced to conclude that the University System of Georgia has been the victim of unprecedented and unjustifiable political interference; that the Governor of the State has violated not only sound educational policy, but proper democratic procedure in insisting upon the resignation of members of the Board of Regents in order to appoint to that body men who would do his bidding; that the Board of Regents has flagrantly violated sound educational procedure in dismissals and appointment of staff members; that every institution in the System is profoundly affected by the precedents established and by the actions already taken whether any of its staff have been dismissed to date or not; that there can be no effective educational program where this condition exists...the Board of Regents does not appear to be an independent and effective educational board of control,” (Wallace, 209).
The following schools (listed by name) were suspended due to the governor’s actions:
- The Georgia Institute of Technology
- Georgia College and State University
- Valdosta State University
- The School in Athens (you know the one)
- Georgia Southern University
- Georgia Southwestern State University
- Middle Georgia State University
- University of North Georgia
- University of West Georgia
- South Georgia State College
Though the suspension was not positive news in the moment, the staff, students, and alumni of all of these school rose up in support of unseating Talmadge, who would lose in the primary to liberal-minded attorney general Ellis Arnall, where the victor was almost guaranteed to win the general election. The first bill passed by the new legislature, House Bill No. 1, severed higher education from executive control, and the state constitution would ultimately be amended to permanently ensconce this principle.
The Cocking Affair became a springboard for drastic educational and indeed political transformation for the state of Georgia. There was even an opera written about it. During his term, new legislation would limit governors to one four year term, beginning with the seated governor. Talmadge, however, was permitted to run again once more, and would indeed win the Democratic primary with the primary itself as his main issue, arguing for a horrifically dubbed “Equal Primary” - where Talmadge argued that the Supreme Court’s Smith vs. Albright decision outlawing closed white-only primaries was unconstitutional. Talmadge even lost the popular vote to James Carmichael, who himself won only a plurality of the vote, but thanks to the county-unit system, he won the primary. Notably in poor health even before the election, he died before taking office, resulting in the Three Governors Controversy, where constitutional vagaries led to the question of who should succeed him. The outgoing Arnall, up against term limits, argued he should serve until his successor was sworn in. Melvin Thompson staked his claim as the lieutenant governor-elect. The final candidate, Herman Talmadge, son of the deceased governor elect, had a claim not based on some fanciful medieval inheritance delusion, but rather that since the elder Talmadge had run unopposed and in ill-health, his campaign had secretly had his son written in on ballots to ensure he was the second finisher.
Interestingly, the state constitution, which had been totally rewritten when term limits were introduced, terms lengthened, and executive limits on meddling in higher education enacted, also introduced the new office of lieutenant governor, filled for the first time by Thompson, a noted anti-Talmadgite. However, there was no succession plan in place. With the state seal successfully hidden in the Secretary of State’s wheelchair, no state business could proceed until it was all sorted out.
Since the General Assembly hadn’t yet verified the election results, Thompson was not officially the lieutenant governor. Talmadgites encouraged the General Assembly to dubiously pick between the second and third place finishers in the election, which would assure victory for the dead man’s son. Both Herman Talmadge and Arnall claimed to be the rightful governor, and when the former changed the locks on the office doors, “Arnall continued to maintain his position as governor and even set up a governor’s office in exile in an information kiosk in the capitol,” (New Georgia Encyclopedia). Arnall would ultimately back out in order to support his fellow liberal Thompson.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled in favor of Thompson, but a special election was held in order to fill the remainder of the term, which Talmadge won easily thanks to good will following his easy capitulation following the ruling and the galvanizing force amongst rural voters that the election had been stolen from them in the first place. This stranger-than-fiction sequence was one important step to reform the state, which would ultimately rid itself of the county-unit system in 1962, after the Supreme Court ruled the system unconstitutional in Gray vs. Sanders, the first case to rule that one person equals one vote.
Ultimately, the New Georgia Encyclopedia best sums up the Talmadge era not just for the state higher education system, but for that entire era of life in the state of Georgia, musing that, “Perhaps Herman Talmadge best described how Georgians felt about his father when he said that a third of the people would follow his father to hell and a third of them wanted him in hell. Eugene Talmadge’s belief in negative government and his bitter opposition to the New Deal and racial equality did little to improve the material well-being of Georgians during his governorship.”
As for Tech, Brittain was eventually able to retire under the assurance of the new constitution, and able to even expand its funding opportunities under the new system. What was a ridiculous and embarrassing affair for the whole state turned, ultimately, into a vehicle for some positive changes for the school, and the rest of Georgia. Though, to get to it, Georgia Tech, Sanford, Brittain, the Board of Regents, and the population at large had to suffer through one governor who was awful in unspeakable ways and several astonishing and often bizarre twists in the long history of the state of Georgia.
A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule, as the column is only planned out through this very column. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.