Jerry Summers: Gene Talmadge (Beaten By A Bite)

Tuesday, April 13, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Prior to the United Supreme Court decision in Baker v. Carr 369 U.S.186 (1962), which loosened the stronghold that rural communities held over the urban large cities, one of the most powerful politicians in Georgia would be Eugene Talmadge.

Talmadge was born in 1884 in Forsyth, Georgia.  He came from an upper class family but he always claimed to be the champion of the lower class rural white citizens.

He actively promoted segregation and white supremacy and was an avid opponent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as a Southern conservative Democrat.

He and his successor, Marvin Griffin, were the darlings of the “wool hat boys” who primarily consisted of Southern white men who after the Civil War had returned home to find that after the freeing of their slaves they had to do their own plowing, hoeing and picking.

The Confederate veterans stubbornly refused to wear the cool, wide-brim straw-field hats favored by the former slaves.  Instead the white farmers wore sweaty, narrow-brim wool hats that the boiling Southern sun would turn their “necks red” when they bent over.

Gene Talmadge was a master at playing to the poor, rural voters.

In spite of his family wealth he would arrive for courthouse rallies in worn-out cars, pushed by a gang of supporters because he didn’t have enough money to buy gas to get into town.

He always wore a rumpled suit and his black hair would be lying lank across his forehead in an unruly fashion.

Gene on the speaking platform would point his fist stirring up the crowd with his anti-city and segregation rhetoric and would close by taking off his coat and reveal his trademark, a pair of flame red galluses holding up his britches.

He cultivated the image of “the wild man from Sugar Creek”.

On one occasion when he boasted about being a country man it possibly cost him the election in 1948. Talmadge, for some reason, liked to boast about having to answer a call from Mother Nature by relieving himself in the woods. On the way to give an important campaign speech in Moultrie, Georgia, Gene told his driver to stop the car so he could relieve himself in the bushes. While he was performing the necessary act a black widow spider bit him on his privates and almost killed him. Gene became so weak that he couldn’t give his usual fiery speech and had to let someone else give his speech.  He later would claim that it cost him the governorship.

Ellis Arnall won the race and Gene like any politician had an explanation for his loss.

In a post-election interview with his political nemesis, Atlanta Constitution Editor Ralph McGill (of Soddy), said that Arnall would not have been him “if that black widow spider hadn’t bitten him on the b_ _ _ _.”

Are modern day Georgia politics as interesting?

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

Gene Talmadge
Gene Talmadge

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