Georgia's Noble Revolution: Three Governors, Two Armies, the Georgia Supreme Court, and the Gubernatorial Election of 1946

Article excerpt


In 1946, the governor-elect of Georgia died, sparking a constitutional battle that brought a state government to its knees and a state supreme court to the height of its power. As two armies drew up on the streets of Atlanta, fights erupted in the executive offices, and two men stood head to head in a battle for the vacant governor's seat. Into this fray, however, came the rule of law in the form of the state courts, and what may have swelled into an armed conflict of unseen proportions in twentieth century American politics ended with the stirring strike of the state supreme court's gavel.

While the war over the executive powers ended without a single gunshot, the staggering battles that took place in the state court system provide a fascinating glimpse at Southern legal and political history in the mid-twentieth century. Not only can one examine a court struggling to define itself as a legitimate independent branch of government, but one also witnesses attorneys and judges laying the groundwork for an originalist argument that would become a major constitutional movement decades later. Through all this, one learns not only of the history of a magnificent case, but also about the evolution of legal institutions and ideas in the mid-1900s.

I. The Gubernatorial Election of 1946

In 1946, Ellis Arnall was completing his final year as Georgia's governor, and the only primary that mattered in the South during this period, the Democratic primary, was beginning to heat up. Prevented from running for reelection because of term limits imposed by the Georgia Constitution, Arnall's chosen successor was James Carmichael, a state legislator and supporter.1 Also vying for the primary endorsement was Eugene Talmadge. Talmadge, often referred to as the "wild man from Sugar Creek," was a Democratic demagogue who had served as Governor of Georgia from 1933-1937 and from 1941-1943 before Arnall defeated him.2 The final candidates in the Democratic primary were Eurith Rivers, another former governor, and Hoke O'Kelly, a disabled war veteran, neither of whom had a chance against the powerful campaigns of Carmichael and Talmadge.3

As Carmichael struggled to introduce himself to the voters, Talmadge quickly began to dominate the campaign by focusing the electorate on the issue of white supremacy. This exploitation of race, while not unusual, was particularly effective in Georgia in 1946 because of two federal court decisions involving the right of African Americans to vote in primaries. First, in 1944 a federal court in Texas ruled that African Americans must be allowed to vote in electoral primaries.4 This decision was quickly followed by the filing of a similar federal lawsuit in Georgia by Primus King against the Muscogee County Democratic Committee.5 King prevailed in 1945, and, after the trial court's decision was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the state's appeal to the United States Supreme Court was denied.6

In response to these cases and in an attempt to use this emotionally charged issue to garner votes, Talmadge pledged to create a "Democratic white primary."7

While Talmadge portrayed himself as working to make his "white primary" a reality, the law allowing African Americans to vote was firmly entrenched and could not be repealed. Nevertheless, supporters of the "white primary" did disfranchise many African Americans by challenging and disqualifying them in a voting purge shortly before the election.8 To Talmadge, however, the fact that the Democratic white primary was an impossibility mattered not. His real goal was less about successfully implementing a legally discriminatory primary and more about using race to scare and motivate voters, especially those in rural counties.9

Rural counties were particularly important to Talmadge because he realized that Georgia's county unit electoral system gave a disproportionate amount of power to less populated rural areas as compared to the densely populated urban centers. …