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Defining the PeaceWorld War II Veterans, Race, and the Remaking of Southern Political Tradition
By Jennifer E. Brooks
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
World War II Veterans and the Politics of Postwar Change in Georgia
When Georgia's servicemen left for the combat theaters of World War II, few anticipated how profound an impact this experience would have on their lives. By the war's end, however, many of Georgia's veterans felt sure they knew exactly what their military service had meant. The extreme personal sacrifice made by Doyle Combs, a black veteran, fueled a deep determination to seize the political rights that he had just fought in a Jim Crow army to defend. "I went in combat, and I lost a portion of my body for this country," Combs declared, "when I didn't have no right to fight whatsoever cause I didn't have no rights in the United States of America, as a black man." Thus, "I was going to vote regardless [of] what it take." Putting his life on the line-literally-to defend the American way of life earned Combs the right to at least some measure of political freedom when he returned.
For white veteran John Sammons Bell, survival itself created a civic and political obligation he could not ignore. After making it through the horrific invasion of Guadalcanal in 1942, Bell and his buddies made a pledge as the next deadly phase of island-hopping operations against the Japanese loomed: "everyone of those four soldiers said when we get back home," Bell explained, "we are going to do our best to make America a better America." This simple pledge became a serious covenant. None of Bell's comrades made it home alive. As a result, Bell explained at a local Georgia political rally in 1946, "I feel it a bounden duty to carry on their fight for good government." Veterans such as himself, Bell explained, "are determined to continue in peace to fight for the things we fought for in war."
On American and overseas military bases, in combat units, engineering battalions, and quartermaster depots, and in both the Pacific and European theaters, southern veterans such as Doyle Combs and John Sammons Bell found their sense of manhood and citizenship magnified by meeting the challenges of military service and war. Fulfilling this duty heightened veterans' sense of themselves-of who they were and where they fit into postwar political life. In putting a premium on the role of men as citizens-as soldiers performing the highest of civic duties-the war tended to strengthen the historic connection between male identity and political rights. Thus, both black and white veterans believed that they had earned the right to participate in determining the state's future. That veterans of both races registered the war's impact in such similar fashion made for a particularly volatile postwar climate. The Jim Crow South wove political, racial, and gender identities tightly together, making the question of expanded civic participation a highly racialized one.
The structures and institutions that constituted southern political tradition, such as all-white primaries, literacy tests, and poll taxes, sustained the notion that only certain white men were fit to rule. Indeed, southern Democratic conservatives had maintained their domination of state and regional political life for so long by posing any other model of "majority rule" as threatening to pollute the sanctity of the domestic sphere, and white women, with racial amalgamation. The war generated postwar political turmoil by destabilizing the political, gender, and racial identities of both black and white veterans. To returning black veterans, the political and racial manhood they derived from their war experiences mandated that they resist Jim Crow "normalcy" and lead the drive to develop a black political voice. To reactionary white veterans, black activism itself threatened their own notion that white men enjoyed the exclusive entitlement to rule. They reacted accordingly, interpreting black voting as the harbinger of a racial assault on white womanhood and domestic security.
In strengthening, rather than undermining, these complex connections between military service and citizenship, the war produced a politics of change fraught with contradiction. If black veterans wanted racial equality, progressive white veterans prioritized majority rule over desegregation. If white union veterans wanted an organized voice on the shop floor with the political influence to match it, white pro-modernization veterans believed that the importance of recruiting new industry to the state precluded unionization.
Nonetheless, Georgia's black and white veterans did share a deep conviction that military service had a meaning that extended beyond the war itself. It made them uniquely suited, they believed, to play a role in shaping postwar political life. It gave them a special claim, they were certain, upon the American democratic conscience, especially in the notoriously undemocratic South. Thus, returning veterans proved to be the most politicized and ubiquitous of organized citizen groups throughout the South and Georgia in the first years after the war.
Georgia's veterans, however, shared more than a sense of agency born in the war. They also felt a keen disappointment with what the end of the war had wrought: a persistent lack of economic and political opportunity in communities throughout the state. The economic development touched off by the war proceeded unevenly in Georgia, boosting economic growth and populations in urban communities such as Atlanta and Columbus, but also undermining the stability of rural life. Moreover, the end of the war and the trials of reconversion, as military contracts ended, war jobs disappeared, and veterans began returning home, fueled fears of a renewed era of depression and want. Amid this turmoil, Georgians struggled to maintain control over whatever they believed would secure their future. Thus, far from making a smooth transition into postwar civilian life, veterans collided at every turn with persistent racial, class, and political barriers. Black veterans encountered white Georgians who denied the value of their service in the war by fighting to maintain segregation and disfranchisement at all costs. Veteran workers faced antagonistic employers anxious to roll back organized labor's wartime gains and showing little compunction in impeding the right of workers to organize. All activist veterans confronted county seat politicians and mossbacked conservatives who interpreted veterans' political claims as an affront to their own state and local hegemony. These conflicts all took place within a broader context of political stagnation sustained by discriminatory institutions and practices that worked to maintain the prewar status quo, such as disfranchisement and legislative malapportionment.
These conditions stoked the flames of a political disenchantment that sparked a wave of postwar veteran activism across the state, one that represented an unusually broad-based attack on southern political tradition. Black veterans who believed their service in the war should bring the rewards of full citizenship at home, progressive white veterans who took from the destruction and inhumanity of the war a lesson for majority rule and democracy, white union veterans who found in fighting for survival overseas the self-efficacy to stand up to management at home, and white veterans who found Georgia's poor reputation abroad to be a badge of shame they were determined to throw off all represented a diverse array of protagonists. They staged the most significant electoral challenges many of the state's mossbacked incumbents had ever faced.
Nor did these insurgencies remain an abstraction-little dramas played out between competing factions in the chambers of state power and largely removed from the lives most Georgians, black or white, lived. All southern states experienced a degree of political turmoil after the war, but the county unit system in Georgia dispersed this instability all the way down to the local level.
Legislated by the Neill Primary Act of 1917, Georgia's county unit system apportioned the vote in state elections by county population, awarding six unit votes to the eight most populous counties, four unit votes to the next thirty most populous counties, and two unit votes to each of 121 smaller counties. On its face, it appeared to be a democratic mechanism for proportional representation of the vote in gubernatorial and other elections. However, as its many critics charged, given Georgia's abundance of small counties, this system always allowed the less populous rural counties to dominate politics in the state. A gubernatorial candidate, for example, could secure enough unit votes among the smaller and medium sized counties alone to win an election without any unit votes in the largest urban and populous counties. A candidate with the right connections in the state's myriad rural county seats could thereby capture the governor's office without a popular majority of votes. Thus, the unit system of voting meant a candidate had to literally campaign in every single county in the state in hopes of winning over the local politicos who could deliver a county's unit votes. Political controversies at the state level played out, in this sense, at the local level as candidates vied for the favor of each local courthouse gang or opposing faction.
In postwar Georgia the county unit system ensured that political conflict over the ultimate consequences of the war erupted in local communities throughout the state. Thus, in virtually every county courthouse, rural crossroads, city hall, and polling place, returning veterans emerged to challenge incumbents' desire to keep power and policy-making to themselves. The veterans' activism prompted an historic surge in black and white voter registration that threw many local political machines into disarray. Veteran campaigns produced some surprising results, including new faces in the General Assembly and in local governments throughout the state. The veteran programs that prevailed, however, prioritized economic growth, anti-unionism, and racial stability over the racial or industrial democracy many progressives had hoped to implement. Thus, Georgia's veterans offered an apt, if peculiar, portent of change for the future.
Georgia's postwar political drama ultimately played out in three grand acts. The curtains first parted on the campaign season of 1946, as the political insurgencies mounted by veterans electrified the state's first postwar campaign season. Much controversy revolved around the question of black voting. In 1944 the United States Supreme Court had ruled in Smith v. Allwright that the practice of holding all-white Democratic primary elections in Texas violated the federal Constitution and had to end. This decision sent shock waves throughout the Democratic South. A federal court decision in the Primus King case only two years later overturned the all-white Democratic primary in Georgia, driving home the political implications of the earlier Smith decision. The door to black participation in the state's Democratic primary elections opened for the first time ever. In Georgia progressive southerners and national liberal organizations seized this opportunity to implement a progressive reconstruction of the political South by initiating campaigns to enfranchise new black and white voters and to target reactionary incumbents for defeat. Black veterans, liberal groups, and the Georgia Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) launched unprecedented drives to register black and white voters for the state and local races of 1946. To maximize their influence, these progressive campaigns often collaborated with civic groups led by other white veterans seeking to oust complacent, provincial, and corrupt local dynasties. "Good government" veterans forged these often uneasy alliances in order to boost voter turnout to a level beyond what local courthouse gangs could control, opening the way to electing white officials who would support programs for governmental accountability, fiscal prudence, and active industrial recruitment.
Campaigns in Augusta, Savannah, and the statewide gubernatorial race soon took center stage. Black and white veterans fought to overturn conservative and long incumbent political machines in these cities and to challenge the bid of former governor and inveterate race-baiter Eugene Talmadge to retake the gubernatorial office. This activism enlivened Georgia's postwar political scene, turning out droves of black and white voters across the state, defeating entrenched urban rings in Augusta and Savannah, and electing pro-modernization white veterans to local and statewide offices in communities throughout the state.
Antagonists with a very different agenda, however, waited in the wings. Reactionary white veterans were greatly alarmed by the scores of black southerners registering to vote and collaborating with white insurgents to challenge conservative rule. Inspired by Eugene Talmadge's race-baiting bid for governor in 1946, they led the charge to defend all the prerogatives and privileges of white male supremacy. They condemned any campaign for change, however conventional, as a scheme for integration, joined hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), campaigned for Talmadge and other reactionaries, and sometimes terrorized black voters. Even good government crusades, in which white veterans often went to great lengths to proclaim their southern white loyalties, suffered the sting of their opposition's racial wrath. Black voters, however, bore the brunt of this postwar racial tirade aimed at circumscribing their ambitions for change by any means necessary.
Eugene Talmadge's victory in the gubernatorial race of 1946 under the aegis of the county unit system appeared to be a disappointing setback to the hopes Georgia's insurgent veterans had for the future. His sudden death that fall before assuming office, however, threw his entire program into question. Focus then shifted to the chambers of the Georgia General Assembly, as the white veterans elected through the insurgent campaigns of 1946 took their seats in the Georgia statehouse. How would the conservative Talmadge program, which revolved around restoring the white primary, fare under good government veterans' program for change?
The curtains to Act Two parted on the convening of the Georgia General Assembly of 1947, one of the most controversial sessions in Georgia's modern political history. This opening scene began when Herman Talmadge, Eugene's son and also a World War II veteran, seized the governor's office and ousted incumbent governor Ellis G. Arnall by force. This strong-arm approach to the unsettled question of gubernatorial succession provoked a wave of mass protest meetings by angry citizens across the state.
Excerpted from Defining the Peace by Jennifer E. Brooks Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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