Monday, May 10, 2010

Thompson Papers Open

The Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies is pleased to announce that the M. E. Thompson Papers are now open for research. The collection documents important moments in the life of Melvin Ernest (M. E.) Thompson, Georgia’s first lieutenant governor and participant in the famed “Three Governors Controversy.”

M. E. Thompson was born in Millen, Georgia on May 1, 1903. Growing up in rural Georgia, M. E. faced many challenges to getting an education. In the seventh grade he had to leave his one room school for two years to help on the family farm. Thompson was able to return to school for the eighth grade when his grandfather, Reverend H.G. Edenfield, offered to pay his tuition at the school in nearby Millen. Upon graduation from high school, Thompson attended Piedmont College and then transferred to Emory University taking on part time jobs to make ends meet – selling Fuller brushes, waiting tables, and working as a night clerk in a small Atlanta hotel. In 1926 he married his high school sweetheart, Ann Newton, and settled into a teaching career in Emmanuel County, Georgia

Thompson’s career in education began at the Emanuel County Institute in Graymount-Summit, Georgia. He moved through the administrative ranks quickly, first becoming the principal and athletic coach at the high school in Hawkinsville and then, at age twenty-four, becoming superintendent of Hawkinsville Public Schools. After five years as superintendent, Thompson assumed the position of state school supervisor in the Georgia Department of Education. In 1937 Governor E.D. Rivers appointed Thompson assistant state school superintendent.

After working his way to the state capitol, M. E. Thompson threw his support to Ellis Arnall in the 1942 gubernatorial campaign. Once Arnall defeated incumbent Governor Eugene Talmadge, he appointed Thompson as his executive secretary and in 1945, as state revenue commissioner. In 1946, Thompson set his sights on the office of state school superintendent but as election season approached, he decided instead to run for lieutenant governor – a new position created by the 1945 state constitution. Without aligning himself with any of the candidates for governor, Thompson won the race.

Below: Thompson and wife Ann in the Governor's Mansion, 1948.

Shortly after the election, governor-elect Eugene Talmadge died suddenly. With no precedent to follow and no specific direction outlined in the state constitution, three men claimed rights to the office of governor – creating what came to be known as the “Three Governors Controversy.” After weeks of indecision and infighting, the court upheld Thompson as the rightful governor until a new election could be held in 1948.

Amidst trying conditions, M. E. Thompson fought hard to make progress on the goals of the Democratic Party’s platform. During his brief tenure as Governor he increased spending for education, expanded the construction of roads and bridges, and improved the state’s park system. And, thanks to an increase in state revenue, he achieved all these improvements with no new taxes.

Below: Thompson on the campaign trail, ca. 1950.

After Thompson lost to Herman Talmadge in the 1948 Democratic gubernatorial primary, he regrouped and prepared to challenge Talmadge in the race for a full gubernatorial term two years later. Though unsuccessful in 1950, Thompson continued to pursue a life in politics, campaigning for Governor again in 1954 and for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1956. After defeat in both races, Thompson retired from the campaign trail and settled in Valdosta, Georgia where he began a successful career in real estate.

A collection of correspondence, speeches, photographs, memorabilia, and audiovisual materials, the M. E. Thompson Papers offer a glimpse into the private life of a dedicated educator, businessman, and politician. More than 200 photographs illustrate Thompson’s childhood, family life, and gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns, with memorabilia documenting his civic achievements, career and commitment to public education. Highlights from the collection include a campaign brochure outlining Thompson’s platform in the 1948 Gubernatorial race, platform statements issued on various topics during the early 1950s, speech cards, and telegrams from Thompson’s supporters. Perhaps the most revealing items are six television campaign advertisements featuring Thompson’s views about the county unit system and education are a particular highlight of the collection; these films are now available for viewing online right here on the Russell Library Blog:

The Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies is open for research Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 4:30pm. For more information, please visit or call (706) 542-5788.

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