Friday, September 23, 2011

23 September 1884: Eugene Talmadge Is Born

On this day in 1884, Eugene Talmadge was born outside Forsyth, Georgia, to Carrie and Thomas Talmadge. Fifty-six years later, he would ignite the largest crisis in the University of Georgia's history, causing UGA and all other state-funded schools to lose their accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), and dooming his re-election chances in 1942.

The controversy began in the summer of 1941 when Governor Talmadge, then a member of the recently created Board of Regents, acted to remove UGA's Dean of Education, Walter Dewey Cocking, on the charge that Cocking had advocated integrating a demonstration school near the University campus. Though the assertion had originally been made by a disgruntled former teacher without any evidence, and a ally of Talmadge on the Board had told him that the allegation had no merit, the Board voted to remove Dr. Cocking from his post. 

When the popular and respected UGA President Harmon Caldwell heard what had occurred, he sent word to the Board that he would resign if Dr. Cocking was fired without a chance to address the charges. The Board reconvened and conducted a four-hour inquiry that included testimony on behalf of Dr. Cocking from 16 College of Education faculty, President Caldwell, and the Presidents of Emory University and Agnes Scott College. The only person to testify against Dr. Cocking was the fired staff member, and the Board voted to rehire.

Incensed at this result, Governor Talmadge insisted that by fall quarter, Dr. Cocking would no longer be in office. He initiated changes to the Board of Regents in order to appoint more people who would vote for removal, and any other changes he wanted to make to the system. He asked for the resignation of three members, but was refused, and even altered the papers of appointment for one member to show the regent's term ending in 1941 rather than 1947, calling it a clerical error. His next vote to remove Dr. Cocking, with his newly constituted Board, passed 10-5.

At the same time, Talmadge was using Dr. Cocking's relationship with the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which had a large program of building schools for rural African-American students, to prove that Dr. Cocking was untrustworthy, and insisted that communist conspiracies meant that all state-funded libraries must remove any books or periodicals that he deemed as advocating "social equality" or communism . He also began removing more people from their positions in the University System, insisting that the schools be rid of "foreigners," which to Governor Talmadge meant that they were not from Georgia. 

On campus, tempers ran high. In October, the Southern University Conference had dropped the University of Georgia from its rolls, which caused outrage on campus. Students burned effigies of Talmadge on at least three separate occasions, and protested in Atlanta with motorcades 120 cars long. 

On October 31, 1942, the Red and Black published 16,000 copies of a state-wide edition distributed to all state colleges, alumni, and members of the General Assembly. The special edition included editorials, letters, articles about protest plans and solidarity pledges from private schools such as Emory and Mercer, poems about the situation, and excerpts of articles taken from state newspapers, the New York Times, Life magazine, and Time magazine. A front page editorial called for "all honest people of the state to cooperate with the students in the University System to put their power against the present 'dictator,'" and called those who did Governor Talmadge's bidding "a bunch of stooges," warning that "A tyrant always loses in the end and the small mice that follow the rat lose with him."

The Southern Association of Schools and Colleges created a committee to investigate what was happening in higher education in Georgia. At their December meeting, SACS voted unanimously to revoke accreditation at the University of Georgia and all other state-funded institutions. In order to allow current seniors to graduate, the invalidation would not go into effect until Fall Quarter, 1942. 

Though many schools had drops in enrollment due to the United States entry to World War II, UGA's dropped by 37%. Both the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association withdrew their support from Georgia's professional schools, and the situation received national attention. 

The lost accreditation was a step too far for most citizens of Georgia. During the 1942 gubernatorial race, Governor Talmadge was challenged by 36-year-old state Attorney General Ellis Arnall, and lost decisively due to the accreditation issue and the enthusiastic student campaign support for Arnall. On the day of his inauguration, Governor Arnall took the time to meet with two young University students, George O. Marshall and George Doss, just as Marshall, having enlisted in the Army, was about to report to Fort MacPherson.

Governor Arnall's first act was to pass reforms to the Board of Regents that diminished the influence of the governor and legislators on the schools, changes that were added to the Georgia constitution and passed by the citizens of Georgia in the next election.

Eugene Talmadge ran for governor again in 1946 and won. However, he died just weeks before taking office on December 21, 1946. His son was eventually elected by the legislature to take his place.

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