Monday, March 16, 2015

Marge Thurman: Rock of Georgia

Photograph of Marge Thurman from
The Georgia Democrat, 1974
Carl Sanders called her the “Rock of Gibraltar.” Ted Kennedy said that she walked with the wind. And Jimmy Carter, despite their long-running feud, said that she would be remembered for her dedication and leadership. Marge Thurman’s premature death in 1982 drew an outpouring of sympathy from state and national Democratic leaders in support of the woman who had led the Democratic Party of Georgia for almost a decade.

In 1974, Governor-elect George Busbee appointed Thurman the Chairman of the state party, shepherding Democrats through an important transition period for the party, state, and nation. She led the party as they initiated democratizing reforms that reflected major changes in the social and political landscape. Some of the most important and modernizing changes included the creation of an affirmative action committee, the adoption of the first state party charter, and the revision of the delegate selection process for national nominating conventions.

Thurman between Lt. Governor-elect Zell Miller
and Governor-elect George Busbee on the cover
of The Georgia Democrat, 1974

Before she became the Democratic Party of Georgia’s Rock of Gibraltar, Thurman was a youthful and enthusiastic political activist. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Emory University and, at 21 years old, earned a Master’s degree from the Atlanta Law School. In 1956, she joined an all-female law practice in Atlanta and got her first exposure to politics as a Fulton County Young Democrat. A year later, Thurman began her affiliation with the state party when she served as a Young Democratic Committeewoman. That same year, she was elected as general counsel for the Young Democrats of America -- the first woman to hold the position.

Governor Carl Sanders appointed Thurman to the position of Democratic National Committeewoman in 1963. In 1972, however, Governor Jimmy Carter removed her from that position, presumably because she supported Sanders over Carter in his 1970 bid for governor. It was said that after Carter attempted to have her removed, she not only refused but brought boxing gloves to the press conference to indicate her willingness to fight! The heated exchanges continued even after Carter became President. Thurman was said to have removed Carter from the program at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in 1981 because Carter had her dropped as a delegate to the DNC in 1980. The feud between Carter and Thurman lasted for over a decade and is illustrative of how colorful Georgia politics could get.

Though she originally had been appointed by Governor Busbee, changes in party procedures found Thurman elected by party members in 1978, confirmation of her decisive leadership and long-term commitment. She was said to have been the first Chairman to have “earned the job through years of grassroots party work” (The Georgia Democrat, 1974). Her dedication secured her status as a loyal, dependable and determined Georgia Democrat. One anecdote in particular became the stuff of legend. During the 1960s, every four years the party held its state convention in Macon. In 1966, when Thurman discovered at the last minute that her driver’s license had expired, she hailed a cab from her home in Atlanta and calmly instructed the driver to take her to Macon. She had a state convention to attend and she was going to get there, no matter the individual cost.

Marge Thurman stands with Col. Charles W. Scott
at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in 1981. In the
back, from left, stands Walt Bellamy and an
unidentified man. 
In 1981, Thurman was elected to serve as president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs. Had she lived, she likely would have been elected to a third term as Chairman.

Thurman was a major figure in state and national Democratic politics and was mourned by many upon her death at age 59. Obituaries for Thurman quoted several national political figures, such as Charles Manatt, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who recalled debating with her when they were both Young Democrats. In one article following her death, Henry Topel, president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, remarked that “When it came to civil rights for minorities, to equal opportunity for women, to the Democratic Party principles of help to the poor, she stood second to none. It was said in Georgia that her heart was as big as her hairdo and that was true for us all.”

The Democratic Party of Georgia Records include a significant amount of material --  memoranda, correspondence, planning documents, committee records, convention files, and speech materials -- directly related to Marge Thurman and her tenure as Chairman. The records show a Chairman involved in all aspects of the state party organization. She supported her team and led reform efforts during a transformative period. Once researchers begin to explore these records, they will yield much new information and historical insight into this era, Georgia politics, and women in politics.

Post by Angelica Marini, Project Archivist, Russell Library

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