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Historians of the future should find legislator’s letter a useful source

By Tom Baxter

What with all the current efforts to tell teachers what they can’t teach and students what they can’t read, some may wonder what exactly the schools of tomorrow should be teaching. Here’s a suggestion.

In the future, any course on the contemporary history of Georgia should include as required reading the 11-page letter which Rep. David Knight, chair of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on higher education sent on Feb. 4 to Teresa MacCartney, the interim chancellor of the University System of Georgia. You can read it here.

The letter is over the top in the amount of “data” it expects college administrators to provide and ludicrous in the piled-on legalisms and bureaucratese employed to disguise what it’s really about. But it’s a valuable historical document, directly connected over the span of eight decades to the most stupendous political miscalculation in the modern history of this state.

In 1941, Gov. Eugene Talmadge fired Walter Cocking, the dean of education at the University of Georgia, and declared he would fire any other educator who advocated (his words) “communism or racial equality.” When the Board of Regents bucked him on the issue, he replaced the offending members of the board with appointees who went along with him and launched into a full-scale assault on the university system, firing Cocking and about 10 more educators and removing offending books and periodicals from university libraries.

Future scholars will find the Knight letter useful for the study of how the language of racism and repression modulated over the years. Talmadge routinely used the “n-word” in public and railed against “Jew money.” In contrast, the Knight letter oozes with courtesies: “I respectfully request you emphasize to the presidents both our appreciation for and expectation of their full cooperation with not only the letter but also the spirit of requests for information.”

When you read down to the bottom of the letter, however, the only people the letter specifically asks for information about are two African-American academics, Ibram Kendi and Carol Anderson, and a white professor who has written about race, Robin DiAngelo. She is misidentified in the letter as Beverly DiAngelo, an apparent confusion with an actress who appeared in the National Lampoon vacation movies.

The firing of Cocking in 1941 drew strong protests from educators around the state and elsewhere. They spoke out in defense of academic freedom, not for racial equality, which both Cocking and his defenders stoutly denied any interest in. It was for that reason that W.E.B. DuBois, looking on from his post at Atlanta University, steered clear of the controversy.

When the Southern University Conference kicked Georgia out in October of that year because of the political interference in its affairs, the student body at UGA responded more vociferously than their professors. Some 2,000 students hanged and burned an effigy of Talmadge, with a separate hanging in a women’s dorm. A large number of protesters proceeded in a motorcade to Atlanta, where they were joined by students from Emory and enacted another hanging on the steps of the state Capitol as they sang “Glory, Glory to Old Georgia.”

MacCartney’s response to Knight’s letter was to forward it to the presidents of all the colleges and universities in the system last week with instructions to comply with the request. This was met, reportedly, with resignation in some cases and resistance in others. The amount of “data” being demanded in the letter — months of busywork, by some estimates — appears to be as much an issue as what is being demanded.

The news this week that Sonny Perdue is on the verge of becoming the only candidate for the position MacCartney is currently holding the place for is almost certain to raise the temperature under this simmering pot. There have been no public demonstrations yet, but there have been a lot of conversations about the next steps.

Three days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges stripped the schools in the university system of their accreditation. That was the breaking point for a lot of Georgia voters. Talmadge had been elected governor three times and would return in four years to win a fourth term he didn’t live to serve. But in that war year of 1942, he was defeated by Ellis Arnall.

The history of what happens after this year’s academic controversy is yet to be written, but Knight’s letter should be excellent source material.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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