Wednesday, December 17, 2014

“I do not belong to any organized party”: Making Sense of the Democratic Party of Georgia Records

Note: In February of this year, the Russell Library embarked on a one-year project to process the records of the Democratic Party of Georgia (Georgia Democrats) and the Georgia Republican Party (GAGOP), funded by a generous grant of up to $58,777 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). Project archivist Angelica Marini has been providing a series of short articles throughout this year highlighting various aspects of the records as she works to organize, describe and make them available. In this blog post for the project, Angelica provides an introduction and overview of the records of the Democratic Party of Georgia, which are scheduled to open for research in January.

Governor-elect Jimmy Carter (left) and
David Gambrell, at the State Democratic Convention
in Macon, Georgia, 1970. 
In 1970, newly elected Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter appointed David Gambrell to the position of state Democratic Party Chairman. To celebrate the appointment, Democratic friends gave him a cake in the shape of a donkey. Written across the donkey in icing was Will Roger’s infamous quote about Democratic Party politics: “I do not belong to any organized party. I am a Democrat.”

This satirical Will Rogers quote unintentionally reflects some of the major problems I faced as I began making sense of the DPG’s records. When the party donated its records to the Russell Library, they were not especially disorganized, but it took considerable time to determine how the records were arranged and used by the party. What I discovered is that the DPG records document the party’s actions and work more than political plans, elections, and campaigns.

The Democratic Party of Georgia Records (1962-2007) cover an historic period of Democratic domination in state politics. The DPG records offer researchers an inside look at a strong and powerful organization but also one that was minimally organized. While the party was organized centrally at state party headquarters, they exercised their political power with a very lean organizational structure. The bulk of the collection (1968-1990) is comprised of records created and accumulated by officials and staff of the DPG. The records are arranged in seven series that represent the functions and organization of the party: I. Administrative, II. County and District, III. Financial, IV. Committees and Conventions, V. Campaigns and Elections, and VI. Photographs and Ephemera, and VII. Audiovisual Materials.

Prior to the Civil Rights movement and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the DPG was a racially conservative party committed to the system of segregation. The Civil Rights movement changed the predominantly white Democratic Party into an organization that better reflected the racial dynamics of the state. In the 1970s, the formerly conservative party aligned with more liberal national policies and platforms; it was a party in transition.

In 1975, the Democrats weathered major organizational changes and convened its first ever Charter Convention, where they codified policies, outlined new goals, and drafted new rules for delegate selection. Some of these changes created greater access for minorities as affirmative action became an effective way of including those who were formerly excluded by law and tradition. These kinds of changes were common for Democratic parties in southern states after the Civil Rights movement as engrained ties to Jim Crow were systematically transformed through legislation as well as in the regional political culture.

In the late 1970s, all county committees were charged with reorganizing according to the rules of the new state charter; other changes loosened the ties to state government and the role of the governor in the party. These changes created greater diversity within party politics but also in the electorate at large. The records of the DPG document some of the most important political transitions specific to the state but also to region-wide changes that affected the national political landscape.

The earliest records in the collection, which date from the 1960s, are primarily financial and administrative, documenting the party’s involvement in county, state, and national politics. The day-to-day activity and function of the state party are reflected in administrative correspondence. Letters to and from the Chairmen and Executive Directors relate to a number of topics including finances, organization, and membership. The financial records also tell part of the administrative story as fundraising records show a party bankrolled by major events like the Dollars for Democrats campaign and the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

The largest series of records, Committees and Conventions, document the work of local and statewide committees and the conventions that party members attended. The Democratic Party was an organization with power dispersed throughout the state. The major work of the party was done at the local level and the interactions between the state party staff and their county, district, and regional committees and chairs and these records reflect a party in action. The State Democratic Executive Committee, the State Democratic Committee of Georgia, Standing Committees, Special Committees, Democratic County Committees, and Precinct Coordinators all had important roles in making the party function in power. Committees and conventions may seem like two separate organizational functions, but the records they produced were inseparable; most of the committees’ work was made official through convention dialogue and voting.

Congratulatory cake, featuring quote by Will Rogers,
for David Gambrell, Chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, 1970.
Overall, The Democratic Party of Georgia Records are an important source for understanding the historic and dramatic changes in the political landscape of the state and region. The records document the active work carried out by the party rather than the strategy and deliberation behind political platforms and policy planning. The DPG, as it existed in the late twentieth century, was the political power in the state and, as a result, did not generate the kind of political plans that the GAGOP did in their formative years. What these records demonstrate instead is how the party operated throughout the state. Administrative and financial records reflect an existing system of political activity related to fundraising with minimal interference from state headquarters. County and district materials reflect the power of distinct groups within the state party. Notably, the records also have a significant digital component, which you can read about in an earlier blog post, Let’s Get Digital!: Electronic Records Day 2014.

Post by Angelica Marini, Project Archivist, Russell Library

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