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Ellis Arnall

Governor of Georgia

Ellis Arnall

Ellis Gibbs Arnall was born in Newnan, Georgia, on March 20, 1907, one of two sons born to Joseph Gibbs and Bessie Lena Ellis Arnall. After graduating from the public schools in Newnan he attended Mercer University, the University of the South (from which he graduated with a degree in Greek in 1928), and University of Georgia Law School (from which he graduated in 1931). After law school he practiced law in Newnan. In 1935 he married Mildred Delaney Slemons, with whom he had two children. Following her death in 1980, he married Ruby Hamilton McCord.

Arnall's political career began in 1932, when the voters of Coweta County elected him to the Georgia House of Representatives. He went on to serve four two-year terms, and was twice elected Speaker Pro Tempore (in 1933 and 1935). In 1937, Governor E.D. Rivers appointed him to fill a vacancy in the Georgia Attorney General's office. Two years later he was named Attorney General; only 31 years old at the time, he became the nation's youngest State Attorney General. He remained as Attorney General after Eugene Talmadge was elected Governor in 1940.

In 1942 defeated Talmadge for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and then won the general election (there was no Republican opponent) to become the youngest Governor in the country (35 years). As Governor, Arnall successfully led efforts to restore accreditation to Georgia's institutions of higher learning (which had been lost due to actions taken by Governor Talmadge), reformed the state penal system, repealed the poll tax, lowered the voting age (to 18), revised the state constitution; established a teachers' retirement system, and paid off the long-existing state debt. In an effort to reduce the power of the governor, he led efforts to create eight constitutional boards. He also created a merit system for state employees and the State Ports Authority, and successfully led the South's fight against discriminatory railroad freight rates, which had hampered the region's industrial development.

Generally a very popular Governor, Arnall suffered his first major defeat when he failed to persuade the legislature to propose a constitutional amendment allowing gubernatorial succession (something which had, ironically, been barred by the same constitutional revisions he had personally fought for). He also lost popularity by leading the efforts at the 1944 National Democratic Convention to renominate Vice President Henry A. Wallace. Most damaging to his political career was his stance on allowing blacks to vote in the state's white primaries. A federal district court held that the state's white primaries were unconstitutional, and Arnall refused to follow the examples of other southern states, which tried to evade the court's mandate.

The most controversial part of Arnall's term did not come until after the 1946 election. Eugene Talmadge was the only candidate on the ballot in the November general election, but he died on December 21, only 23 days before he was to be inaugurated. The state constitution had no provision for succession to the governorship in case of the death of the Governor-elect, so provisions covering the election of the Goveror, dating back to 1824, came into play instead. Those provisions stated that the person having the majority of the popular vote should be elected Governor, "... but if no person shall have such a majority, then from the two persons having the highest number of votes who shall be in life, and shall not decline an election at the the time appointed by the General Assembly to elect, the General Assembly shall immediately elect a Governor viva voce ... ." On December 24, Arnall announced that he regarded Lieutenant Governor-elect Melvin E. Thompson as his rightful successor and would resign in his favor as soon as Thompson was inaugurated. The State Legislature, however, elected Herman Talmadge, Eugene Talmadge's son, who had gotten the second highest number of votes, as a write-in candidate, as Governor. Arnall refused to relinquish the executive offices to Talmadge but was forcefully evicted, after which he set up an "executive office" in a downtown information kiosk. Arnall's term officially ended on January 14, but he did not publicly resign as Governor until January 18, when Thompson was inaugurated as Lieutenant Governor.

Arnall confronts two state troopers guarding the Governor's Mansion, which he had literally been locked out of.
Arnall confronts state troopers at the Governor's Mansion

After finally leaving the Governor's office, Arnall became a successful attorney and businessman in Atlanta. He ran for Governor in 1966, but lost a runoff with Lester Maddox for the Democratic nomination. He died in Atlanta on December 13, 1992, and was buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Newnan.

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This page was last updated on June 09, 2018.