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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Herman Talmadge, November 8, 1990. Interview A-0347. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Talmadge defends his record on race in education

As he reflects on what he considered to be an uneducated black electorate in the 1960s, Talmadge describes the progress Georgia was making before the courts and federal government interfered. He confesses, however, that his accomplishments, such as equalizing teacher pay for whites and blacks, were intended to head off integration efforts. In any case, had the country applied the Fourteenth Amendment when it should have been applied, argues Talmadge, integration would have never been a problem. He describes the <cite>Brown</cite> decision as a revolution.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Herman Talmadge, November 8, 1990. Interview A-0347. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

HERMAN TALMADGE:
That's right. What made the people so mad and disgusted them so, see, the blacks had, unfortunately, a lower level of education than whites, and they would vote, say, 10,000 votes in Augusta, Georgia, and the results would be 9,995. Just like voting cattle or pine trees, and that's the reason they disfranchised the blacks. [Richard] Daley [of Chicago] in his heyday couldn't muster the votes that they did in those days, black vote. Manipulated, bought and sold, just like cattle. That probably had more to do with disfranchising them than their color, really.
JOHN EGERTON:
Prior to the Brown decision, that was in '54, those cases were in the lower courts for about three years. And even before that, there were some higher education rulings. . . .
HERMAN TALMADGE:
A ruling in Texas on the university system that antedated the voting issue.
JOHN EGERTON:
And some of those went back quite some time. Looking back on that now, it seems to me that people surely must have seen this coming. And yet when I talk to people, regardless of their point of view on whether they think Brown was good or bad, they still say they were shocked when Brown came down.
HERMAN TALMADGE:
I tried to anticipate it to some degree with my inaudible and my building authority. When I took the governor's office in '48, there was inequality in teachers' salaries between whites and blacks. I equalized that. There was woeful inequality in the schools between whites and blacks.
JOHN EGERTON:
Yeah, the buildings and all of that.
HERMAN TALMADGE:
I had a mammoth school building authority. We built more schools in Georgia than any state in the union except New York and California. Each one of those states had about three times our population and much higher per capita income. I did that to try to equalize the opportunity for blacks and whites. When I took office, the white children were riding school buses to school, and the black children were walking. I changed all that. I equalized the salaries, I put them in school buses, and I put them in good buildings. Frankly, part of that was to try to stave off the threat of integrated schools. It didn't work.
JOHN EGERTON:
Could it have worked?
HERMAN TALMADGE:
Looking back on it in hindsight, it could not have worked, probably with the lawsuits. Looking back on it in hindsight, it was the proper thing to do regardless of motive. When they passed the Fourteenth Amendment, following the War Between the States, they ought to have broken down the barrier of segregation at that time.
JOHN EGERTON:
Right then, yeah.
HERMAN TALMADGE:
Then we'd have never had the problem that we had in the courts, and the local level, and everything else.
JOHN EGERTON:
It was your responsibility, and it fell on you to deal with the whole notion of the law said separate but equal, the courts were about. . . .
HERMAN TALMADGE:
And the people said that, too.
JOHN EGERTON:
And the people said that, and the courts were about to say something else.
HERMAN TALMADGE:
I was between the people and the courts, really.
JOHN EGERTON:
From an economic standpoint, leaving aside the politics and all that, do you think Georgia could have supported two separate school systems that would have ever been adequate in the larger scheme of things?
HERMAN TALMADGE:
Well, we did in those days. Strangely enough, more money we spend on education, the worst the SAT scores get. So there's a hell of lot more to schools than just money. I found that out when I was governor. It takes an apt teacher and an apt pupil to have a good school. You can do it under the shade of a pine tree, if you've got that. But the main problem with education today is the fact that we've had a complete breakdown in discipline in this country. It's true in the homes. It's true in the schools. We don't use the rod any more. They used that freely when I was a student, and I needed every whipping I ever got, too, and they all helped me. We've had a complete breakdown of discipline in the homes and the schools and the workplace and even in the military. That's the problem with education today.
JOHN EGERTON:
Well, there's no doubt that a whole lot has changed in this society, and right now, I think everybody's got an uneasy feeling that nobody knows quite how to get it back on track.
HERMAN TALMADGE:
We've got to restore discipline, and I don't know quite how to do it.
JOHN EGERTON:
But prior to Brown, were you shocked by that ruling? Did you go along thinking that it would never happen?
HERMAN TALMADGE:
Well, I knew what the decisions of the court had ruled. The latest one that I recall, I believe was 1896, and I think it was full-bench [unanimous] decision. I knew that it was not unheard of to reverse decisions, but I thought in a matter that fundamental that the courts would be pretty slow about it. And the real shock that I got was [Chief Justice Earl] Warren got a unanimous decision.
JOHN EGERTON:
Nine to nothing. And Plessy, the 1896. . . .
HERMAN TALMADGE:
Plessy v. Ferguson was 1896.
JOHN EGERTON:
It was seven to one. Charles Evans Hughes, I think, was the only dissenter. So that was virtually unanimous. This was a complete turnaround.
HERMAN TALMADGE:
It was a judicial revolution and a political revolution really.