M.E. Thompson Papers
Scope and Contents
Melvin Thompson, the first person elected to the office of lieutenant governor of Georgia, served as the state's governor in 1947-48. He is best remembered for his fight with Herman Talmadge over the governorship after the death of Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge in 1946. The papers of M.E. Thompson consist primarily of correspondence relating to the Three Governors Controversy and Thompson’s subsequent campaign years. The major correspondents include Jimmy Carter, Phil Landrum, Herman Talmadge, John Sammons Bell, Ellis Arnall, Mayor George B Glover, Judge Randall Evans, Georgia State Representative Clifford R Avera, Roy V Harris, Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., and Attorney General Eugene Cook. Other correspondents are Georgia State Senators G.W. Taylor, J. P Hogg, Ray Crow, and John L. Mavity. There is also correspondence from Jim Hinton, president of the NAACP. The documents fall into a wide variety of categories including miscellaneous maps and photographs, letters, postcards, telegrams, newspaper clippings, and a play relating to the governors controversy. Relating to Thompson’s campaign, the correspondence include mailing lists, voter solicitation lists, campaign literature, bills and receipts, and tax returns, There are many lists incorporated in the papers including lists of hospitals in Georgia, Georgia high schools, locations of state highways in Georgia. Thompson’s memoir on politics and the Democratic Party is included as well. Finally, a book entitles Guide to Price Control from the Research Institute is in the collection.
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- Other: Majority of material found in 1947, 1954, 1956
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This collection is open for research.
Biographical / Historical
M. E. Thompson was an educator, the Governor of Georgia from 1947 to 1948 after the Three Governor’s Affair, and a prominent citizen of Valdosta, GA. Melvin Ernest Thompson was born on May 1, 1903 in Millen, Georgia. His mother was Eva Inez Edenfield Thompson and his father, who died in 1905 when M. E. Thompson was two, was Henry J. Thompson. Both of his grandparents were Confederate soldiers; John Thompson died in 1865 in Virginia and H. G. Edenfield survived the war to become a Baptist minister, a Shriner, a Member of the Georgia House of Representatives, and a member of the Georgia Senate. M. E. Thompson graduated from Emory University earning a Bachelors Degree in 1926. He completed almost all of the work for his doctorate degree from UGA, but was not able to complete his dissertation. He began a career in education first working at Emanuel County Institute was a Principal and coach until 1927. From 1927 to 1933 M. E. Thompson worked as a Superintendent for the Hawkinsville Public School System. He was a State School Supervisor from 1933 to 1936 when he was fired by Governor Eugene Talmadge for proposing that public school students receive free textbooks and for advocating that students attend longer school years. He then worked as an Assistant State Superintendent of Schools from 1937-1941 where he wrote Georgia Citizenship, a student handbook that covered basic information a good citizen from Georgia should know.
Thompson officially left the field of education in 1943 when he accepted a position with Governor Ellis Arnall’s administration as Secretary of the Executive Department from 1943 to 1945 and as the State Revenue Commissioner in 1945. M. E. Thompson considered running for State School Superintendent, a campaign position supported by Governor Arnall, but decided to run for the newly created position as Lieutenant Governor. Thompson could not receive Arnall’s support for this campaign because the official support was already promised to Senator Frank C. Gross. Thompson chose to run anyway and won the election to become Georgia’s first Lieutenant Governor. When Governor Elect Eugene Talmadge died in December 1946, M. E. Thompson, as Lieutenant Governor-elect, was the central figure in what would ultimately be called “The Three Governors Controversy.”
The Three Governors Controversy
When Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge died on 21 December 1946, Georgia had no official policy to choose who would become the next Governor. The supporters of Governor Arnall and his government reforms pointed out that Georgia now had a Lieutenant Governor-elect, M. E. Thompson, and that Thompson should become the new Governor. The supporters of Governor Eugene Talmadge believed that the Georgia Legislature had the official authority to choose the next governor, paving the way for the election of Eugene Talmadge’s son, Herman Talmadge. The argument for allowing the Georgia Legislature had a technical flaw which allowed for the controversy. The Georgia Legislature had the authority to choose the next governor provided there was no clear majority in the election. Eugene Talmadge won by a landslide; the Talmadge supporters argued that because Talmadge died, his majority victory did not exist. Governor Arnall took the position that it was his duty to remain in office until the issue of succession was decided and an official governor sworn in. Thus began the 67 day three-ring circus. In the first ring, outgoing Governor Ellis Arnall who refused to relinquish his post and chose to remain in office until an official Governor was approved and sworn into office. In the second ring, Herman Talmadge, son of the deceased Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge, convinced the Georgia Legislature to elect him Governor. In the third ring, Lieutenant Governor-elect M. E. Thompson felt that he should be the next governor because he was elected Lieutenant Governor on the same ticket as Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge. On 3 January 1947, Attorney General Eugene Cook’s ruling allowed Governor Ellis Arnall to remain in office until the governor issue was resolved. However, on 15 January 1947 at 2 AM Herman Talmadge was sworn in as Governor; Governor Ellis Arnall refused to accept Talmadge as Governor. After Governor Ellis Arnall went home for the night, Herman Talmadge arranged for all the office door locks to be changed. When Herman Talmadge took over control of the Governor’s office, he was armed with a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson. When Governor Ellis Arnall returned the next day he was unable to enter his office. He chose instead to set up shop in the information booth outside of the Governor’s office until a Talmadge supporter “bombed” the shack with a firecracker. Talmadge, believing he was governor, appointed people to several positions, but the Ellis Arnall supporters refused to step down from their positions. After the firecracker incident, Arnall and his supporters were rumored to have set up shop in the bathrooms of the capital, but they actually relocated to Arnall’s local law offices. Meanwhile, M. E. Thompson had quietly been sworn in as Lieutenant Governor on 18 January 1947. Attorney General Eugene Cook then announced that Thompson was the Governor of Georgia, so Thompson set up a third Governor’s office in downtown Atlanta. When Thompson made his claim for the Governor’s seat, Ellis Arnall agreed to step down. Talmadge proposed that the two men, Thompson and Talmadge, both resign and run a special election to determine who would be governor. Thompson chose instead to file a motion with the Georgia Supreme court for a final ruling. Sides were then chosen by different government offices for either Thompson or Talmadge. The attorney general refused to accept appointments made by Talmadge. And most comically, the Secretary of State kept the Great Seal of Georgia with him day and night, supposedly sleeping with it, because the seal was necessary for the governor to formalize certain legal documents. During all this whirlwind of activity, M. E. Thompson said, “I went calmly about my business relying on the court’s decision.” The whirlwind ended quietly on 19 March 1947 when the Georgia Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 – 2 voted in favor of Thompson as governor with the provision that a special election occur in two years.
As Governor of the State of Georgia, M. E. Thompson made several important contributions despite being an obvious lame duck. He was able to arrange for 157 counties to get paved roads, including a paved road from Warner Robbins to Perry. Without raising taxes, he was able to raise government spending and provide increases to teacher’s salaries and education spending. His most important contribution to the state of Georgia, “Thompson’s Folly” was the purchase of Jekyll Island for $675,000. According to the State Park Authority, the purchase of Jekyll Island was equivalent to the purchase of Manhattan Island for a handful of beads.
M. E. Thompson went on to face Herman Talmadge in three more elections in 1950 and 1954 for governor and in 1956 for Senate. The highpoint of these three election campaigns was a little speech Thompson made in Unadilla during the 1950 campaign. Herman Talmadge ran a strong white supremacist platform and had the support of the Ku Klux Klan. Thompson chose Unadilla to give a protest speech against the violence in Georgia because this little town was known as a “hot bed of Ku Kluxism.” Thompson’s main statement was “if you want to see more of this cross-burning and night-riding, you vote for Herman Talmadge and he’ll keep on looking the other way. But if you want to put a stop to it once and for all, you vote for me, because when I’m elected your governor we’re going to pass a law that will take the sheets off these Ku Kluxers and their marauding!” After this speech Klan activity stopped and Talmadge still won the election; however his margin of victory was greatly diminished. M. E. Thompson would never consider himself an activist, but his willingness to take a stand against violence given the atmosphere at the time is extraordinary.
When Thompson finished his state political career he retired to the city of Valdosta, GA. Retirement for Thompson was merely a change of caps from one type of public service for another. M. E. Thompson made significant contributions to the city of Valdosta. He was a founding member of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority responsible for “spearheading” the urban planning and development of much of Valdosta and the surrounding area. The Azalea City Industrial Park was developed while he was a member of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Industrial Authority. A street in the Azalea City Industrial Park was named after M. E. Thompson to acknowledge his great contributions to the city of Valdosta. As chairman of the Education Committee for the Trade School Development Committee M. E. Thompson worked very hard to establish the Valdosta Technical College in 1961. The real estate business owned by M. E. Thompson was responsible for numerous developments in and around Valdosta including the building of houses in the Lincoln Park Sub Division and the M. E. Thompson Subdivision. M. E. Thompson served as president of the Valdosta Rotary Club from 1959-1960. He also a member of Kappa Phi Kappa, Kappa Delta Phi, WOW, Civitan, Shriners, a Baptist Sunday School teacher and a Mason. The Boys Club gym was named “M. E. Thompson” by the Valdosta Rotary Club who funded the building project.
By the end of M. E. Thompson’s life, “Thompson’s Folly” became a crown jewel for the state of Georgia. At the time of his death in 1980, the land purchased for $675,000 was valued at $30 - $40 million.
M. E. Thompson died 3 October 1980 and was buried on 5 October 1980 at the Riverview Memorial Gardens. He was survived by his wife Ann, his son Melvin Jr., and five grandchildren.
Written by: Tamara L. Mirabzadeh
This collection contains twenty boxes, and the collection is arranged only partially chronological. The papers are arranged into six sections: county correspondence, 1954 campaign for governor, miscellaneous correspondence, person files, general files, and business files. Most of the documents are original, but some reproductions are included in the material.
County correspondence: Includes letters, telegrams, postcards, photographs, newspaper clippings, and job applications. Most of the correspondence is written to express support for Thompson in the Three Governors Controversy; however, some correspondence expresses opposition to Thompson. Some correspondence request that Thompson address issues such as fire safety after the burning of the Winecoff Hotel, the white primary bill, teachers’ salaries. Thompson replies to most with thank you letters.
1954 campaign for governor: Includes campaign literature, bills, letters, list of contributors and contributions, mailing lists, newspapers clippings, telegrams, list of Georgia schools, and a speech concerning segregation of the schools.
Miscellaneous correspondence: Includes letters, receipts, memos, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, speeches, postcards, and a deed. Also included in this series is a book by the Research Institute. Many of the correspondence in this series also involve real estate and land development particularly the extension of Oak Street in Valdosta, Georgia. Personal files: Includes financial reports, bills and receipts, letters of support, and insurance forms. There are many letters expressing concern for Thompson after surgery.
General files: Includes campaign literature, newspaper clippings, letters, financial statements, job applications, a photograph, a speech, a deed, telegrams, a directory of newspapers, a brochure, and a script concerning the Three Governors Controversy. The oath taken by the Governor is also included as well Thompson’s memoir on politics and the Democratic Party. Also included is a written introduction for Thompson. The sell of Colonel Island is discussed in a legal document as well. Several telegrams record conversations concerning changing the status of Moody Air Force Base form inactive to active.
Business files: Includes letters, financial statements, a bills of sale, a map of land on Colonel’s Island, insurance forms, and brochures.
- Allen Ivan, 1911-2003
- Arnall, Ellis Gibbs, 1907-1992
- Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
- Carter, Jimmy, 1924-
- Georgia -- Politics and government
- Herman E. Talmadge (Herman Eugene), 1913-2002
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP
- Rotary Club (Valdosta, Ga.)
- Rotary Club--Valdosta, Georgia
- Talmadge, Eugene, 1884-1946
- Thompson, M.E. (Melvin Earnest), 1903-1980
- Valdosta (Ga.)--History.
- Archon Finding Aid Title
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- 2020-03-30: Revised for DACS compliance by Douglas Carlson.