Eugene Talmadge (September 23rd, 1884 – December 21st, 1946) was an American Dixiecrat politician who served two terms as the 67th Governor of Georgia from 1933 to 1937, and a third term from 1941 to 1943. Elected to a fourth term in November 1946, he died before his inauguration, scheduled for January 1947. Only Talmadge and Joe Brown, in the mid-19th century, have been elected four times as Governor of Georgia. He is well known for actively promoting segregation, white supremacy, and advocating for racism in the Georgia university system,
In 1932, Governor Richard B. Russell, Jr. sought a seat in the United States Senate. Talmadge ran for governor, appealing to rural Georgia by idealizing the small farmer, and preaching what he said were the true values of rural America, such as rugged individualism, frugality, governmental economy, segregation, limited government, and low taxes. Talmage won a majority of the county unit votes in the primary, and winning the nomination of the Democratic Party was tantamount to automatic victory in the general election. The County Unit System gave power to the rural counties, which were Talmadge's base. He boasted, “I can carry any county that ain't got street cars.” He made twelve campaign promises, the most controversial of which was to lower the price of an automobile license to 3 dollars, putting them within reach of the poorest farmers. The state legislature intensely debated the $3 license fee issue, but did not pass it. After it adjourned, Talmadge fixed the $3 fee by proclamation.
Talmadge was re-elected in 1934, carrying every county but three in the state's Democratic primary, although he was often tied to both controversy and corruption. When the Public Service Commission, a body elected by the voters, refused to lower utility rates, he appointed a new board to get it done. When the Highway Board resisted his efforts to control it, Talmadge declared martial law and appointed more cooperative members to the board. When the state treasurer and comptroller general refused to cooperate, the governor ordered state police to physically remove them from their offices in the state Capitol. Critics denounced him as a dictator, a demagogue, and a threat to the tranquility of the state. His supporters considered him to be a friend of the “common man” and one of the state's most outstanding governors.
When textile workers went on strike on September 1st, 1934, Talmadge declared martial law during the third week of the strike, and directed four thousand National Guard troops to arrest all picketers throughout the state. He ordered the prisoners to be held behind the barbed wire of a former World War I prisoner of war camp for trial by a military tribunal. While the state interned about one hundred or so picketers, the show of force effectively ended picketing throughout most of the state. When Talmadge discovered that one of the employers had hired the notorious strikebreaker Pearl Bergoff, he had Bergoff and his two hundred men deported to New York City.
The Democrat Talmadge governed as a Southern conservative, vehemently attacking the nationalization of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. He objected to policies favorable to black people (President Roosevelt did not introduce any Civil Rights measures), the farm programs, and relief-work programs such as the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. Talmadge tried to build a region-wide coalition, making a national speaking tour in preparation for a challenge to FDR in 1936. His ‘Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution’ organized a convention in Macon, Georgia, in January 1936 that brought together fragments of the old Huey P. Long coalition.
Talmadge pledged to defend the “sovereignty of our states and local self-government” at the upcoming Democratic National Convention. However, Roosevelt, who visited Georgia often because of his past polio, was more popular with the poor farmers. Unable to run for re-election in 1936, Talmadge chose to challenge Senator Russell in the primary, but Russell defeated Talmadge by a landslide and Talmadge's presidential hopes collapsed. Talmadge's handpicked candidate for governor, Charles Redwine, lost the 1936 Georgia gubernatorial election to pro-New Deal Democrat Eurith D. Rivers by an overwhelming margin.
In 1936, according to a United Press (UP) article printed in the Atlanta Constitution on August 21, 1936 titled "Gene Selects Hitler as Favorite 'Author'", Talmadge reportedly told a Los Angeles newspaper that while he didn't have time to read many books, he read Adolf Hitler's "My Struggle", or Mein Kampf, seven times. In response, the Nazi publication Die Bewegung reprinted the interview with Talmadge and praised him, stating that "Governor Eugene Talmadge, of Georgia, is obviously a very intelligent man.
In 1938 Talmadge challenged Senator Walter George. Though George had sided with 34 of Roosevelt's 44 New Deal proposals, he refused to support some of the proposals in Roosevelt's second term. The president believed George had now been “put out to pasture.” Roosevelt tried to purge George and campaigned for his own candidate, Lawrence Camp. George, however, refused to criticize Roosevelt during the campaign and blamed the purge on Roosevelt's advisers. Despite the divide among the New Deal vote, George easily won the renomination, securing 141,922 popular votes and a majority of 246 unit votes, while Talmadge won just 102,464 popular votes and 148 unit votes. Talmadge's victory over Roosevelt's candidate Camp, who secured just 78,223 popular votes and 16 unit votes, surprised his critics.
Talmadge returned to the governor's office in 1940, emerging as the leader of racist and segregationist elements in Georgia. Responding to reports that Walter Cocking, a dean at the University of Georgia, had advocated bringing black and white students together in the classroom, he launched an attack on the university, charging elitism, and called for the regents to remove Cocking and purge the university of Communists, "foreigners" (non-Georgians), and subscribers to racial equality. The university board of regents at first refused Talmadge's demands, but after the governor restructured the board, the dismissals took place.
This intervention into academic affairs caused the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to remove accreditation from the Georgia state universities. It also contributed to Talmadge's defeat by Ellis Arnall in 1942.
During Arnall's term, the state legislature lengthened his term to four years and prohibited him from seeking re-election in 1946. Talmadge ran for governor and used the United States Supreme Court's Smith v. Allwright decision, ruling that the closed white primary was unconstitutional, as his main red flag issue. Talmadge promised that if he were to be elected, he would restore the 'Equal Primary.'
Talmadge lost the popular vote in the Democratic primary to James V. Carmichael but won a majority of the "county unit votes". He died on December 21st, 1946, before he could be sworn in for his fourth term