|WHO RUNS GEORGIA?
death of Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge set off a political
free-for-all that left observers wondering if Georgia was
being run by wild, gun-toting yahoos.
More than fifty years
ago, in the wake of a legendary political crisis, two alumni painted
a dark portrait of a state in turmoil
"The historian is a prophet in reverse."
--Friedrich von Schlegel, 1798
THAT WOULD DETERMINE the next governor
of Georgia stunned political observers nationwide. A highly factionalized
electorate had watched and listened as the conservative candidate
hammered home such popular issues as low tag taxes and traditional
Southern values. Painting his adversary as too liberal for Georgia,
he broadcasted his views to audiences of thousands and fought
to overcome his opponent's endorsement from the popular, progressive
No one could have predicted the surprising effect of a record
number of black voters, spurred to the polls by what they perceived
as race-baiting. They made the difference against the better resources
of the conservative, overwhelming him in the popular vote.
Roy Barnes and Guy Millner? No. The year was 1946, and the story,
though familiar, has a very different ending.
Though reform-minded James V. Carmichael '33C-'34L had beaten
Talmadge by sixteen thousand votes, the conservative Talmadge
was headed, quite legally, to the governor's mansion, thanks to
Georgia's unique process of vote tabulation, the county unit system.
Talmadge's victory set off a tragicomic series of events that
spurred a constitutional crisis, still notorious today as the
Georgia progressives were left reeling. In
1947, still smarting from postelection events that resembled
a banana-republic coup, an interracial, interfaith committee commissioned
a report from two young Emory graduates and WWII veterans. The
pair observed the legislature and toured the state's 159 counties,
asking the question "Who runs Georgia?"
INTENDED IT TO BE A BOOK," says one of the report's
authors, Calvin Kytle '41C, now seventy-nine,
from his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Who
Runs Georgia? remained a private document, known only
to scholars and historians, until its publication last year by
of Georgia Press.
never intended it to be a book," says Calvin
Kytle and James Mackay '40C-'47L,
a second-generation Emory graduate, spent the summer of 1947 in
Kytle's five-year-old Plymouth, driving the hot, dusty roads of
rural Georgia, talking to members of the "courthouse gang,"
writers, preachers, and small-town businessmen. In cities, they
tracked corporate executives and lobbyists through office buildings.
They watched as members of a fractious, greedy legislature fought
to protect the interests that had elected them.
"The format [of the report] was so loosely designed, we were
able to do just about whatever we wanted with it," says Mackay,
eighty, now living in a home perched on the brow of Lookout Mountain,
at the corners of Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.
Their fifty-two-year-old report is that rarest of historical
texts, breathing life into a difficult, too-easily forgotten past.
A dark portrait of postwar Georgia emerges, with a few brushstrokes
"I was astonished," says Dan T. Carter, William Rand
Kenan Jr. University Professor, who wrote a preface to the work,
"at how prescient and insightful they were."
The South had clung to a number of peculiar institutions after
the end of the Civil War, including the cruel Jim Crow laws that
excluded African Americans from virtually every facet of white
public life. Many states from the old Confederacy carried voting
laws that favored rural areas, where most blacks were intimidated
from voting. But even in the South, Georgia's county unit system
of elections was singular. In this funhouse-mirror reflection
of the electoral college, rural county votes counted as much as
one hundred times more than urban votes.
Despite the popular-vote majority for Carmichael, the philosophical
successor to the progressive then-Governor
Ellis Arnall, rural counties had gone overwhelmingly for Eugene
Talmadge, the infamous "Wild Man from Sugar Creek,"
whose name is now nearly synonymous with racist demagoguery. Talmadge,
who often bragged that he wouldn't campaign in any county with
a streetcar, easily carried the county unit tally and became governor-elect.
But this was only the beginning of the strange saga. Talmadge
died before he could take office. His son and campaign manager,
Herman, knowing his father was ill, had thoughtfully entered himself
as a write-in candidate in several counties. Talmadge forces then
argued before the legislature that constitutional law should be
interpreted to mean that they should now choose a governor from
among the write-in candidates. The heavily rural legislature was
pleased to have such an option, ignored Lt. Governor-elect M.
E. Thompson, and promptly proclaimed Herman Talmadge governor.
Governor Arnall battened down the hatches at the capitol, refusing
to hand over power to Herman, who arrived posthaste at the governor's
office to claim it. (Secretary of State Ben Fortson hid the state
seal under the seat of his wheelchair.) Talmadge returned the
next day, armed with a pistol. With an army of supporters, he
changed the locks to the governor's office and took over the mansion.
Arnall, undeterred, continued doing business in the capitol lobby.
Thompson took up an office downtown.
In the next jaw-dropping twist, Atlanta Journal reporter
George Goodwin broke the story that somehow, the critical batch
of write-in votes from Telfair County that had given Talmadge
his edge had come from dead folks, who'd apparently arisen in
alphabetical order to go to the polls.
Weeks later, the state Supreme Court declared Herman Talmadge's
appointment unconstitutional, ordered a new general election and
declared Thompson interim governor. Herman Talmadge easily carried
the second, bitter primary contest over Thompson.
The free-for-all left observers wondering if Georgia was being
run by wild, gun-toting yahoos. But the Supreme Court decision
left intact the same problems that created it: the influence of
corporate money, a white majority eager to protect its privileges,
and a county unit system that profited both.
Mackay and Kytle say their
politics were formed early. Mackay's father was a Methodist minister
born in Northern Ireland; his mother was born in Shanghai, China,
the daughter of missionaries. They passed on strong religious
beliefs, marked by tolerance of others' differences.
format [of the report] was so loosely designed, we were able
to do just about whatever we wanted with it," says James
The Methodist church also played a role in Kytle's political
education. At a Methodist youth leadership program at Lake Junaluska,
the fifteen-year-old Kytle saw and participated in thought- provoking
one-act plays on pacifism and equal opportunity. But when Kytle
tried to put on the plays in his own church, "the next thing
I knew, I was being called to the pastor's office." Kytle
was told he could do the play on pacifism, but not on race relations.
The pastor told him, "Someday you'll understand."
At Emory, both students found an important mentor in Cullen Gosnell,
professor of political science, whom Mackay called "a tiger
in the ivy." This quiet scholar was "almost obsessed
with the county unit system, which he saw as a prime evil of Georgia
politics," says Kytle. "He pursued that like a fanatic."
As a result, the academic was ridiculed by the pro-Talmadge faction,
who called him "Goose Gosnell."
Other faculty also shaped the young me's careers. Mose Harvey,
who taught international affairs, "made me realize how important
the pursuit of facts was," says Kytle. "I was impressed
with the need for facts, just by the weight of his own scholarship."
Kytle also cites sociologists Luke Clegg and Hugh Nelson Fuller,
English professor Garland Smith, ethics professor Leroy Loemker,
and journalism professor Raymond Nixon. Mackay was president of
the student body, and Kytle edited the Emory Wheel.
"Jamie and I were molded by Emory," says Kytle.
World War II followed, searing its impressions on the children
of the Depression. As a Coast Guard Reserve officer on the U.S.S.
Menges, a destroyer escort in the Mediterranean, Mackay saw
nearly five hundred men incinerated by a torpedo attack before
his own ship came under fire. "You begin to understand that
some things can't be settled in a bull session," he says
quietly. Mackay and Kytle (who served in the U.S. Army in Australia
and the Philippines) both earned Bronze Stars. Back home again,
the generation who'd fought overseas against Hitler's "master
race" looked at Georgia in a new light. "With their
horizons lifted," says Carter, "many veterans realized
Georgia was out of step with the modern world."
WRITING THEIR REPORT, Mackay and Kytle formed Georgia Veterans
for Majority Rule, which raised funds for a court test of the
county unit system. They lost their case, but the U.S. Supreme
Court eventually dissolved the county unit system by ruling on
another case, Gray v. Sanders, in 1962. By then, the authors
had embarked on careers in journalism, law, and public service.
In 1964, Kytle went to Washington, eventually becoming acting
director of the U.S. Community Relations Service, a conciliation
agency created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Later, he formed
a consultancy group for Washington-based nonprofit public-interest
organizations and founded a publishing affiliate, Seven Locks
Press. He also wrote periodically for Harper's, the New
York Times Book Review, and Saturday Review, and is
the author of Gandhi, Soldier of Nonviolence.
Mackay decided he couldn't be just a "drawing-room liberal"
and served six terms as a state representative, as well as a term
in the U.S. Congress, where he was one of two Southerners who
voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Both say the end of segregation and the county unit system were
hallmark developments in Georgia but suggest many of the problems
still remain, in only slightly different forms.
"Georgia politics in 1946, in some ways, simply went national,"
says Kytle. "The system of campaign finance in this country
is functionally equivalent to the county unit system. It has disfranchised
enormous numbers of people."
Kytle and Mackay watched as years passed and only a few of their
goals were accomplished. Yet anyone who meets them is impressed
with their buoyant optimism.
"Look at these guys," says Carter. "They end up
far from being dispirited. This is a struggle they recognize may
not be won in a few years, or even in their lifetime.
"This book will never be a bestseller, but I would hope
that people will read Who Runs Georgia? and bring to their
current political world the same kind of tough-minded questions
Kytle and Mackay asked: 'Who calls the shots? Who is benefiting?
Who is being most hurt?' These are fundamental issues."
"Every generation," says Mackay, "encounters
things that need to be changed."
Krista Reese profiled Georgia Governor Zell Miller in the
Winter 1999 issue of Emory Magazine.