During his three terms he ruled autocratically, fought the New Deal, and brought Georgia education to a low estate with his witch hunts in schools and colleges. His rallying cry was "white supremacy." This week as his body lay in state under the state capitol dome, there stood nearby a huge floral wreath, with the inscription "K.K.K."|
Gene Talmadge's death set off one of the biggest, oddest political rows in U.S. history. The new Georgia constitution provided no clear-cut method of determining his successor. Backers of incumbent Governor Arnall believed that he should continue in office, even though he was constitutionally barred from a second candidacy and had not run in 1946. Others wanted the General Assembly to choose between the two highest general election write-in candidates: James V. Carmichael and Talmadge's son, Herman (pronounced Hummon to rhyme with summon). Still others tried to make a case for M. E. Thompson, Georgia's newly elected lieutenant governor. At week's end no way had been found of resolving this dilemma.
January 27, 1947, p. 20:
NATIONAL AFFAIRS: GEORGIA: Strictly from Dixie
...there was still a south that the rest of the U.S. could not quite understand. That South loved buffoons... Last week it got a new one-- at least temporarily. Old Gene's heavy-lidded, 33-year-old son Herman (pronounced Hummon) claimed that he was now the governor of Georgia....
During the week Georgia had endured not one but three governors. Both retiring Governor Ellis Gibbs Arnall and Lieut. Governor Melvin E. Thompson, once Arnall's executive secretary, had set up governments-in-exile....
The Question. In a sense, Hummon was the work of one Gibson Greer Ezell, an unknown shopkeeper from little Monticello (pop. 1,746). One day just before last November's final election, Ezell ran a coony eye over the new Georgia constitution, discovered that it provided no clear answer to a question which had been bothering him and many other Georgians: "What if ailing Old Gene Talmadge died before he got inaugurated?" Ezell thought of an answer that suited him, and telephoned Hummon: "You better get some votes written in for yourself."
Hummon got busy. On election day, 675 hastily coached Talmadge backers scratched Old Gene's name off their ballots and wrote in Hummon's. This place him second to Gene's 143,279. When Old Gene died, Hummon and an ex-Georgia legislator named Roy V. Harris set out to parlay this handful of paper into the governorship. They put their faith in a line in the constitution which read: "If no person shall have [a] majority (of the total votes cast) then from the two persons having the highest number of votes... the General Assembly shall immediately elect a governor." Their reasoning: if Old Gene was dead, he couldn't be a person, and if he wasn't a person he couldn't have a majority vote, even if the people had given him one.
Almost everyone else in Georgia was confused. Many a citizen believed that glib, liberal Ellis Arnall should just continue in office. Others, including Arnall himself, thought Melvin Thompson should have the job....
When legislators began arriving in Atlanta for the election session, Harris set up headquarters on the 14th floor of the Henry Grady Hotel, began plying them with bourbon, cigars, veiled threats and glittering promises. Alarmed, the Arnall-Thompson forces followed suit, began an equally rough electioneering campaign. Wild rumors floated through the hotel lobby. The most titillating: blocks of six votes for Hummon were fetching $60,000....
Hooray for Hummon. ...In the early hours of the next morning the legislature "elected" Hummon governor (161 to 87) and swore him in. Then, while crowds of the faithful ran ahead to pound and bay at the door of the governor's office, Hummon set out to get his rights. But Governor Arnall pudgy, cocky little man, stood in the way.
He met Hummon and his flushed an breathless followers in a paneled anteroom and announced: "I respectfully but firmly decline to surrender the office. I consider you a pretender."
Hummon turned pale, in the best historical tradition. He clenched his teeth, said, "We shall see," and turned on his heel. The crowd charged the door to the governor's office. Anteroom furniture was splintered and an Arnall aide had his jaw broken.
After that, the whole performance grew progressively more unbelievable, like something conceived late at night by three unemployed radio writers.
Pincer Movement. For three days the two governors jockeyed for capitol office space like raccoons snatching at pieces of cheese. On the first day Hummon got nothing better than a desk in a side office. But that night he had the locks changed on the doors. The next day he strode in at 7 o'clock and grabbed the desk in the executive office-- from which Arnall had thoughtfully removed all his correspondence. Gathering impetus, Hummon also moved his family into the governor's mansion...
Rearguard Action. ...Arnall... moved to a suite in the 17-story Candler Building, to continue his rearguard action. His most effective stroke: he sent Attorney General Eugene Cook into court to demand a permanent injuction against Hummon. Hummon had a quick answer-- the courts just didn't have any jurisdiction over him.
During all this manuvering, pedantic, plodding Melvin Thompson, the lieutenant governor-elect, kept as quiet as a porcelain nest egg. But at week's end he got himself sworn in as lieutenant governor. Thereupon, Arnall not only resigned but celebrated the occasion with a speech which surpassed all his previous efforts.
"I want you all to know," he confided to a radio microphone, "that... I was barred from the state capitol by a man who had no right, except for claim to pugilistic endeavors, to ursurp it."
While Georgians were presumably decoding all this, Thompson, a former school-teacher, began to flap his wings in earnest. He dramatically proclaimed himself acting governor, announce that he was going to throw Herman Talmadge out of office.
Just what was going to happen next was anybody's guess.... The suit would come up in Superior Court on Feb. 7, would almost certainly go to the state Supreme Court-- which, Hummon cried, had been packed by Arnall.
To Georgians it looked only like the end of Act Two of the breathless melodrama. The third act might be even better.
March 14, 1947, p. 45:
THE PRESS: Southern Exposure
The night of Jan. 14, when Georgia's legislature met to select a successor to Governor [-elect] Gene Talmadge, son Herman's chances were slim. In the first count of write-in ballots, he was running third among the contenders, and the new governor was to be chosen from the top two. Then, suddenly, 58 new votes-- all from Talmadge's home county of Telfair-- put Hummon back into the running....
It began with a politician's quiet tip to the [Atlanta] Journal's veteran political editor, Earl Gregory. The Telfair ballots, he said, had been fixed. The Journal sent a young reporter named George Goodwin... he began digging in the State Secretary's office. In the bottom of a carton full of election-return envelopes, he came across a list of voters from Helena precinct in Telfair. The list looked fishy: the last 34 names were all in alphabetical order, from A through K. Goodwin reasoned that people just don't arrive at the polls in alphabetical order... at least two of the 34 had been dead for years, five had long since moved from the county, five were willing to testify that they had not voted, and more than a dozen could not be found....
...the Journal's two G-men, Goodwin and Gregory, were still digging...
...Managing Editor William Kirkpatrick contentedly indicated that he still had a few more firecrackers to shoot off.
March 31, 1947, p. 45:
NATIONAL AFFAIRS: GEORGIA: Don't Shove!
At 11:20 a.m., the female clerk of Georgia's Supreme Court stepped out into the mob of newsmen and politicos milling in a dark hallway of the State Capitol. Trembling with excitement, she squeaked: "No shoving please." When the mob shoved anyway, a man shouted anxiously: "Don't shove. It's 5-to-2 for Thompson."
With that, two reporters ran for the executive office to break the news of Lieut. Governor Melvin E. Thompson's court victory to narrow-eyed, young Herman ("Hummon") Talmadge, the "Pretender." Hummon looked dignified in a grey chalk-stripe suit and red tie, but when he heard the news he blurted: "What judges voted against me?"...
Within 15 minutes he vacated the office-- as he had said he would-- and Georgia's 63 day fling at two-headed government was over.
Calm & Slow. In ruling Hummon out, the court had pooh-poohed his contention that it had no jurisdiction in the case. Georgia law, said the court, states plainly that the legislature may elect a governor only when no candidate has a majority. Gene Talmadge and Thompson, elected with him as lieutenant governor, had had majorities in the November election. Thus, said the court, the legislature had had no legal grounds for electing Hummon, and Thompson, the ex-school-teacher son of a tenant farmer, had every legal right to the governorship...