FBI Investigated Ga. Gov in Old Lynching
Friday, June 15, 2007; 7:59 PM
MONROE, Ga. -- Newly released files from the lynching of two black couples more than 60 years ago contain a disturbing revelation: The FBI investigated suspicions that a three-term governor of Georgia sanctioned the murders to sway rural white voters during a tough election campaign.
The 3,725 pages obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act do not make conclusions about the still-unsolved killings at Moore's Ford Bridge. But they raise the possibility that Eugene Talmadge's politics may have been a factor when a white mob dragged the four from a car, tied them to a tree and opened fire.
"I'm not surprised ... historians over the years have concluded the violently racist tone of his 1946 campaign may have been indirectly responsible for the violence that came at Moore's Ford," said Robert Pratt, a University of Georgia history professor who has studied the case. "It's fair to say he's one of the most virulently racist governors the state has ever had."
Talmadge, who died just months after his 1946 election to a fourth term, dominated Georgia politics in the 1930s and 1940s with a mix of racism and pocketbook populism.
He came under FBI scrutiny because of a visit he made to the north Georgia town of Monroe two days before the Democratic gubernatorial primary and a day after a highly charged racial incident there, a fight in which a black sharecropper stabbed and severely wounded a white farmer. The sharecropper was one of the four people who would later be lynched.
In a report sent to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the agent in charge of the investigation said Talmadge met with George Hester, the brother of the stabbed farmer. Citing an unconfirmed witness statement, the agent said Talmadge offered immunity to anyone "taking care of negro."
While the agent dismissed the notion of Talmadge's involvement as "unbelievable," he said it still merited investigation. Other memos raised suspicions that state employees could even have been active participants in the lynching.
FBI agents took note of the political stakes. Talmadge faced a tough challenge in the Democratic primary _ which was then tantamount to the general election _ and Walton County was still up for grabs.
Talmadge eventually won the county by roughly 200 votes, with overwhelming support from the Blasingame District where the Hester family lived.
In the FBI memo to Hoover, the agent cited the opinion of Monroe assistant police chief Ed Williamson, who had spotted Talmadge meeting in front of the Walton County Courthouse with the brother of the stabbed farmer.
"The opinion on Mr. Williamson's part was that this conversation between Talmadge and Hester probably resulted in the Blasingame District going very definitely in the Talmadge column," read the memo.
Votes from small rural counties played a crucial role in Georgia's elections then because primaries were decided by a "county unit system," similar to the electoral college, which minimized the impact of urban centers.