The Power of Paper

Taylor County, Georgia, 1997.

US 19 intersects Georgia 64 at Butler, but in 1997 there isn’t much to compel a stop. Only much later do I learn about the plaques in the lobby of the Taylor County Courthouse commemorating the veterans of World War II. There are two of them: one labeled “WHITE,” and one “COLORED.” It’s not the only divisive way in which the War touched Butler.

In 1946, Eugene Talmadge was running for Governor again. He had served in the office twice before, and in 1946 he saw an opening. In Georgia, as in many other southern states, Democratic primaries had been for whites only for decades until shortly before the end of the War. Smith v. Allwright, a 1944 United States Supreme Court decision, declared the practice in Texas unconstitutional. Two years later, in King v. Chapman, before a United States District Court of Appeals in New Orleans, lawyers for the NAACP (including Thurgood Marshall) successfully argued against the white primary system in Georgia.

The 1946 gubernatorial election would be the first time that African-Americans were allowed to vote in the Democratic primaries in Georgia. In “Ol’ Gene” Talmadge’s mind, King v. Chapman was a classic case of Washington interfering with local politics, a textbook example of professional bureaucrats sticking their noses in matters that were none of their business. The enfranchisement of African-Americans was fuel for Talmadge’s staunchly segregationist brand of states’ rights politics, and gave him the opportunity to stir up racist sentiment among his die-hard supporters in rural Georgia.

Talmadge was handsome and dapper, trim and tan in tortoise-shell frames, canvassing the state in the Georgia summer in shirtsleeves and pleated trousers, black-and-white Oxford wingtips, and—never one to play it safe—both suspenders and a belt, gesticulating from festooned rail depot platforms, courthouse steps, town square gazebos, claiming that “Two million white Georgians are being attacked at their strongest point—their determination to survive as a white State—and they will slap down the decadent ‘reformers’ by the greatest avalanche of votes ever seen in this State by voting for Eugene Talmadge on July 17.” 

He wasn’t wrong. He won the election thanks to “county unit” rural votes in places like Taylor County. African-Americans took the new opportunity to turn out at the polls in droves, too, but they did not vote for Talmadge. Over 135,000 African-Americans were added to the voting rolls in 1946, but Talmadge was not about to let that new enfranchisement stand without a fight. He reminded white citizens—and especially sympathetic county registrars—of their legal rights under the Code of Georgia, Title 34, Section 605, to challenge any voter’s qualifications, and to call them out if they were “not of good character,” or unable to read and and offer a reasonable interpretation of any paragraph of the U.S. or state Constitution. As many as 16,000 registered black voters were purged from rolls before the election. In Savannah, polls were closed while thousands of black voters remained in line waiting to cast their ballot. 

Where voter suppression or psychological intimidation was not wholly effective, Talmadge resorted to threats of violence. In a speech in Swainsboro a week before the election, Talmadge openly warned blacks of dire consequences if they tried to vote in Georgia’s primaries. “Wise Negroes will stay away from the white folks’ ballot boxes on July 17,” he said. “We are the true friends of the Negroes, always have been, and always will be as long as they stay in the definite place we have provided for them.” He repeated the threat the next day in Cochran, south of Macon, saying, “I think it would be extremely wise for Negroes to stay away from the white folks’ ballot boxes on July 17, for neither the U.S. Attorneys nor Jimmie Carmichael will have a corporal guard to back them up.”

Outside Butler, Georgia, 1997.

It wasn’t empty political rhetoric. The atmosphere at polling places on July 17th was tense, even where there were separate voting locations for blacks and whites (as African-Americans often requested, out of concern for their own safety). The Atlanta Constitution reported the next day that in Cochran, where Talmadge had spoken four days earlier, “not a dozen Negroes went to the Bleckley County Courthouse to vote but left with their ballots after a crowd of white men ‘gathered around them.’” In Meriwether County between Atlanta and Columbus, white crowds picketed polling stations to prevent African-Americans from voting.

Talmadge’s words carried leaden weight; in Taylor County in 1946, the consequences were deadly.

Maceo Snipes spent two and a half years with the United States Army, and fought in the Pacific Theater in World War Two. He was honorably discharged in 1945, and returned to Taylor County to live with his mother, Lula, and work his late father’s sharecropped farm. On July 17th, 1946, he was the first and only black person to vote in Taylor County.

The next day, during dinner with Lula, four white men, allegedly local Klansmen, drove up to his house in a pickup truck and summoned Maceo away from the table. Outside, he got into a scuffle with Edward Williamson, who shot Maceo in the back. Snipes stumbled back into the house, bleeding from the stomach, and then walked with his mother in search of help. Snipes died later in the hospital, having been refused a blood transfusion because there was “no black blood” on hand.

A jury found Williamson—unsurprisingly—innocent of murder, ruling that he had acted in self-defense. Snipes’ friends and family were apparently warned that if they held a funeral for Snipes, they would end up the same way he did. Snipes was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Butler that his surviving relatives don’t even know how to find. To some of Snipes’s family, his killing was the last straw. They left for Macon, and caught the next train for Ohio.

Whites chose to keep quiet about the whole affair, to bury it along with all the other dark secrets of Taylor County. But others saw the rank hypocrisy of a nation that proudly championed its defeat of fascism in Europe as a sign of national virtue, but which at home could not offer its own citizens of color the dignity and legal protection that whites enjoyed. At least one person wanted to talk about it. Less than three weeks after Snipes’s murder, on the 6th of August, a young African-American student at Morehouse College in Atlanta wrote to the Constitution:

“We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: the right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.”

It was the first piece Martin Luther King, Jr. ever published. It certainly was not the last. When Maceo Snipes of the United States Army voted for the first time in Butler, Georgia in 1946 and was murdered for it, the event represented the confluence of two equally American traditions: a “democratic” election and white supremacist violence. For King, the tragedy of Snipes’s murder was an altar call for Americans to be serious about their commitment to equal opportunity, the right to vote, equality before the law. Or, as King later expressed the challenge to America on the night before he, like Maceo Snipes, became a fatality of white supremacy: “Be true to what you said on paper.”

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