Arnall, Ellis Gibbs

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Arnall, Ellis Gibbs

(b. 20 March 1907 in Newnan, Georgia; d. 13 December 1992 in Atlanta, Georgia), progressive governor of Georgia from 1943 to 1947.

Arnall was born into a comfortable middle-class northern Georgia family. His father, Joe Gibbs Arnall, owned a small chain of supermarkets, with one store in each of three northern Georgia towns. The future governor’s mother, Bessie Lena Ellis, was the daughter of an Alabama legislator and had been a teacher at a women’s college.

Arnall was president of his high school student body and quarterback of the football team. In 1924 he left Newnan High School without earning his diploma and entered Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, transferring after three months to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Following his graduation from college with an A.B. degree in 1928, he entered law school at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, where he earned his LL.B. and graduated first in his class in 1931.

After practicing law in his hometown of Newnan for a year, Arnall ran for and won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. Within two years he was elected speaker of the house and soon afterward became floor leader for Governor Eugene Talmadge.

On 6 April 1935 Arnall married Mildred DeLaney Slemons; they had two children. In 1939 he was made attorney general of Georgia by Talmadge’s successor, E. D. Rivers, an appointment that was endorsed by popular election in 1940. By 1941 Talmadge was once again the governor of the state. Maintaining that some members of the faculty in the state’s public colleges supported racial integration, Talmadge bullied the Board of Regents into terminating the appointments of ten professors. As a result, the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools revoked the accreditation of most of Georgia’s state colleges. This gave Arnall the issue on which he ran for governor against Talmadge in 1942. He defeated Talmadge in the Democratic primary and went on to win the governorship in the general election.

A popular and energetic reformer, Governor Arnall presided over the modernization of the state’s antiquated constitution. Perhaps the most dramatic of the many other reforms that he instituted was the abolition of Georgia’s notorious chain gang system in which convicts were regularly chained, shackled, and whipped. So infamous was the system that, in 1932, it had been the subject of the celebrated motion picture I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on a book written by Robert E. Burns, a convict who had escaped from one of Georgia’s chain gangs. Additionally, Arnall established a Board of Pardons and Paroles and successfully demanded that juveniles and adults, and first and subsequent offenders, no longer be housed together, and that prisoners receive vocational training. He was also responsible for Georgia being the first state to give eighteen-year-olds the right to vote (which he accomplished by packing the legislature gallery with crippled war veterans under the age of twenty-one). He did away with the poll tax, one of the ways by which the state’s impoverished black citizens were effectively disenfranchised. Under Arnall’s administration, a civil service system replaced cronyism in the hiring of state employees, a teachers’ retirement system was created, and a cap was imposed on the amount of money that could be spent in statewide political campaigns. Many Georgians called him “Benedict Arnall” because of his devotion to reforming and his failure to “uphold the Southern way of life.”

Arnall’s by now national reputation was enhanced by virtue of one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of state politics in the United States. In 1946 Talmadge was once again elected governor, defeating Lieutenant Governor M. E. Thompson and succeeding Amali, who was barred from seeking a second consecutive term by a provision then in the state’s constitution. However, Talmadge died before the scheduled mid-January inauguration date. Simultaneous claims of the right to succeed to the governorship for the remainder of Arnall’s term were then made by Thompson, who invoked a recently enacted constitutional provision; by Herman Talmadge, Eugene’s son, whose claim rested on his appointment by the legislature under a provision of the constitution that Thompson claimed had been superseded; and by Amali himself, whose elected term had not yet expired. The Georgia courts decided in Arnall’s favor and he retained his governorship throughout the sixty-seven-day interregnum leading up to the 18 January 1947 inauguration of the new governor, M. V. Thompson.

For the next five years Amali held a number of important positions both in private industry and in the federal government. His most significant achievement during this period was a series of legal decisions that resulted from a lawsuit he had brought when he was governor and had personally tried before the United States Supreme Court. Known collectively as the “railroad rate cases,” this litigation involved Arnall’s charge that the railroad industry had illegally set freight rates at a higher level in the South and the West than in the North and the East. In a series of precedent-setting decisions that helped expand the powers of the federal government, the Supreme Court held that the government had the constitutional authority to equalize freight rates in interstate commerce.

In 1952 Amali moved to Atlanta, where his legal practice and the pursuit of various business interests absorbed his attention for the next decade and a half. In 1966 he re-emerged on the Georgia political stage in order to oppose Lester Maddox—an arch segregationist whose views were anathema to Arnall—in the Democratic primary for governor. His other opponent in that primary race was a little-known state senator by the name of Jimmy Carter. Arnall led in the primary, Maddox finished second, and Carter was third. Because none of the candidates had attained a majority, a runoff was required. Arnall, confident of victory, barely campaigned during the runoff, and in a stunning upset, Maddox won handily. The general election ended in an impasse. Howard (“Bo”) Callaway, the Republican candidate, received 3,000 more votes than Maddox, but because Arnall received a substantial number of write-in votes, once again no candidate received a majority. It then fell to the legislature to choose between Callaway and Maddox. The overwhelmingly Democratic legislature chose Maddox.

The 1966 election represented Arnall’s last foray into electoral politics. He returned to his legal practice and his business interests. His wife Mildred died in 1980. On 15 July 1981 he married Ruby Hamilton McCord. In 1990 Arnall suffered a massive stroke and was largely confined to a nursing facility in Atlanta, where he died of pneumonia at the age of eighty-five. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in his hometown of Newnan.

Arnall’s personal papers are in the possession of his family. Several oral interviews with Arnall are archived in the William Russell Pullen Library of Georgia State University, in Atlanta. His book The Shore Dimly Seen (1946) presents his views on many social and political issues. For a political biography, see Harold P. Henderson, The Politics of Change in Georgia: A Political Biography of Ellis Arnall (1991). Arnall in the context of the “new South” is discussed in Harold P. Henderson, Georgia Governors in an Age of Change: From Ellis Arnall to George Busbee (1998), edited by Gary L. Roberts. An obituary is in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (14 Dec. 1992).

Jack Handler