Let There Be Light? FDR Is In the Dark: 1938 (Part 2)
ANNETTE TELLS TALES: Stories from the Past That Resonate with Now, Retold
Continued from Let There Be Light? FDR Is In the Dark: 1938 (Part 1)
Now, where are we?
Barnesville Georgia, August 11, 1938
Back on the football field of Gordon Military College in Barnesville, 50,000 people, apparently an all-white crowd, are listening to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who has come all the way by open-topped car from his second home, the Little White House near Warm Springs. Soon, he will press a button, and affordable electricity will come surging into the homes of ordinary people in Lamar County, thanks to a partnership between FDR’s New Deal agencies in the federal government, and local farmers.
Where are Barnesville’s Black folks today? I don’t know. They're not in surviving photos of the crowds. Likely, they had been made aware that their presence wasn’t welcomed by the powers-that-be.
The President, who although dressed in a tan suit is dripping with sweat in the heat, is, as usual, gripping the podium to stay upright. He does this to disguise the fact that he cannot walk, whether due to polio or, as medical historians have recently suggested, Guillain-Barré syndrome. He is speaking into a forest of radio mics from local stations like WAGA in Atlanta, and national networks like CBS and NBC, as well as the microphone that amplifies his words to the excited crowds standing on the football field in front of him. Among them are Grover Worsham (age 8) and Betty Smith (11), neither of whom understands much of the speech, but who are excited to be in his presence just the same. Everyone is just as excited about the purpose of the President's visit: to bring electricity to ordinary people’s homes for the first time. All is ready, thanks to Roosevelt, his New Deal programs, and, especially, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in Washington, which worked with local people to make this day possible.
Sitting behind the President on the covered stage? The Very Important People: The Governor of Georgia, US Senator Walter George and his junior, Senator Richard B. Russell, US Attorney Lawrence Camp of Georgia, maybe a couple of dozen more dignitaries. Hovering around, Secret Service guys in trilbies and straw hats, and newspaper reporters, including the guy from the New York Times.
Everything is going well until, suddenly, it isn’t. Boos come from the crowd, and they are directed at the most popular president in American history, a man who, until a few minutes ago, had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
Why would anyone boo President Roosevelt? And today of all days? We know about the booing because, in 2009, 83 year old Betty Smith Crawford of Barnesville reminisced to an Associated Press reporter about that day when she was eleven years old, and sold out of Cokes, and President Roosevelt came to Barnesville: “One thing I remember was that they would cheer and cheer and cheer,” she said. “All of a sudden, there were boos.”
In 1938, Felix Belair, Jr, the New York Times reporter who is present, talks about the controversy, but doesn’t mention actual booing of the President. But then there are a lot of things the New York Times and other reporters don’t mention about the President in 1938: The wheelchair. The girlfriends. So maybe this is one of those things.
Did Miss Betty’s memory fail her in old age? Whose doesn’t? But what she said next is verified beyond any doubt: President Roosevelt lost the crowd’s goodwill “ . . . after he asked people to vote for Mr. Camp.”
What on earth just happened? This time, I’m sure I know that’s exactly what FDR is thinking.
On The Honorable Gentleman from Georgia and the Yankee President
U.S. Senator Walter George of Georgia is a Democrat, because of course he is in Georgia in 1938. More surprisingly, he is a “moderate” on race. This means he’s not a closet Klansman. It does not mean that he voted for anti-lynching legislation in the 1920s, because he didn’t.
He didn’t vote for FDR in 1932, either, and even now, he doesn’t care one bit for this New Deal. Oh, the poor men of Georgia love free money from Washington. He understands that all too well: His parents were dirt-poor sharecroppers.
Senator George lives very differently now, of course. And he thinks very differently now.
Senator Walter George does not think it’s the role of the federal government to give handouts or hands up.
Last year, the President tried to get around the Supreme Court, which opposed his New Deal programs to improve life for Americans, as he presented it. He tried to get Congress to agree to allow him to pack the court, to appoint additional judges to end the roadblock. Sen. George definitely didn’t support that. Not at all. The court-packing scheme failed, and with it, the chances for a massive shift in Americans’ standard of living, and their relationship with the federal government.
A Moment in Barnesville, August 11, 1938
Let’s rewind again. Here’s FDR standing on the podium, at the lectern. Behind him, the important people, including Senator Walter George, and Lawrence Camp, the former Georgia Attorney General. Camp is now US Attorney, and he’s running against Senator George this year in the Democratic primary. The primary in Georgia might as well be the general election: Apart from the handful of Black people who can afford the poll tax, there are few Republicans in Georgia. And anyway, you have to be white to vote in the Georgia primary.
FDR’s Speech So Far . . .
The President has reminded everyone that federal government funds from Washington will soon bring new roads to Barnesville:
I am glad to come back to Barnesville and the next time I come to Georgia I hope you will have a good road between here and Warm Springs.
He has flattered Senator Richard B. Russell, who turned against the New Deal once in office, but is not up for election anytime soon, so he might as well make nice to the fellow:
Today is the first time that I learned that Dick Russell came here to college and I must say that it must be a pretty good college.
He has flattered ordinary Georgians and their fair state:
Fourteen years ago a Democratic Yankee, a comparatively young man, came to a neighboring county in the State of Georgia, came in search of a pool of warm water wherein he might swim his way back to health, and he found it. The place -- Warm Springs -- was at that time a rather dilapidated small summer resort. But his new neighbors there extended to him the hand of genuine hospitality, welcomed him to their firesides and made him feel so much at home that he built himself a house, bought himself a farm and has been coming back ever since. (Applause) Yes, he proposes to keep to that good custom. I intend (to keep on) coming back very often. (Applause)
FDR is on a roll now, talking in that rich, resonant voice to his adoring public. Betty Smith Crawford remembered: “he was a dynamic person. If 10- , 12- 13 -year-old kids are interested, you know it’s something special. . . He had charm oozing out of his pores.”
Now he goes all out. He flatters Georgians that they and their state are responsible not only for bringing electricity to Lamar County, but to the entire nation:
In those days, there was only one discordant note in that first stay of mine at Warm Springs: When the first of the month bill came in for electric light (for) in my little cottage I found that the charge was eighteen centers (per) a kilowatt hour -- about four times as much as I (paid in) was paying in another community, Hyde Park, New York. And that light bill started my long study of proper public utility charges for electric current, (and) started in my mind the whole subject of getting electricity into farm homes throughout the United States. And so, my friends, it can be said with a good deal of truth that a little cottage at Warm Springs, Georgia, was the birthplace of the Rural Electrification Administration.
As the crowd applauds, he finishes on an upbeat note:
The dedication of this Rural Electrification Administration project in Georgia today is a symbol of the progress we are making -- and, my friends, we are not going to stop. (Applause)
And soon the crowd stirs expectantly, thinking that FDR will push the red button and turn on the lights. Instead, the President changes the subject.
And this is when things go awry.
FDR starts out promisingly, addressing respected Democratic US Senator and New Deal opponent Walter George, who is sitting right behind him:
. . . Now, my friends, what I am about to say will be no news, no startling news to my old friend—and I say it with the utmost sincerity—Senator Walter George. It will be no surprise to him because I have recently had personal correspondence with him and, as a result of it, he fully knows what my views are.
Let me make it clear—let me make something very clear that he is, and I hope always will be, my personal friend. He is beyond question, beyond any possible question, a gentleman and a scholar (applause)
Okay, this is starting to sound like something from Shakespeare. It sounds, in fact, a whole lot like Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar, in which Antony flatters Brutus, lead murderer of the title character, when he is, in fact, rhetorically stabbing him in the back, just as Brutus himself had betrayed his friend Caesar.
Astute listeners in Barnesville, probably the very few who know their Shakespeare, are realizing that FDR is about to put the knife in. He builds up to the moment. He goes on and on about his friendships with politicians, especially Senator George, men who oppose him, but are still his friends. Then he reminds them that the New Deal, and all its goodies, depends on the firm support of his friends in Congress, even if they quibble over details.
And now the President does it. He goes there.
(D)oes the candidate really, in his heart, deep down in his heart, believe in those objectives? And I regret that in the case of my friend, Senator George, I cannot honestly answer either of these questions in the affirmative.
As for the other two candidates? FDR dismisses out of hand the rabidly racist former Governor, Eugene Talmadge. Instead, he pumps up candidate Lawrence Camp, sitting with him on the stage, and probably both thrilled and embarrassed. And then, in case anyone had missed his point, FDR drives it home with a sledgehammer:
I have no hesitation in saying that if I were able to vote in the September primaries in this State, I most assuredly would cast my ballot for Lawrence Camp.
In 2009, Betty Smith Crawford remembered: “People were saying, “Nobody’s telling me how to vote, They booed and left.”
That’s probably an exaggeration: Plenty of supporters seem to have continued to cheer and applaud. But still.
The speech is over. The President forgot to say “Let there be light!” which was in his script. For whatever reason, he never pushes the button to light up the county. That happens without presidential help. After some awkward conversations, including with Senator George, FDR gets back in the car, and is driven away.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has forgotten the first rule of being a Yankee in Georgia: Don’t criticize or tell all the white people what to do, even if you evidently mean well, and what you’re suggesting is clearly in their own best interests. Don't underestimate white people’s capacity for taking offense. That's what matters in Georgia, not that you have invested time and money in the state. FDR is not a native. He never will be.
A hundred miles away, James Earl Carter, Sr. soon reads about what happened in Barnesville. He resents it. He doubles down in his determination to vote for Senator Walter George.
A month later, on September 14, 1938, Lawrence Camp, running for US Senate for Georgia, came third with less than 23% of the vote. Eugene Talmadge came second, with 32 % of the vote. With 141,235 votes, almost 44%, all cast by white people according to state law, Sen. Walter George won. The result would not be final until the general election in November, but in a one-party state, it was already a done deal.
With Sen. Walter George’s victory in November, and those of other conservative Democrats and Republicans elsewhere, because it wasn’t just what happened in Barnesville that affected the elections, large parts of FDR’s hopes for the New Deal were put on ice. We’ll never know what Americans missed, although the wartime Second Bill of Rights gives us an idea: good healthcare, good housing, good education, a fair market for farmers. To be honest, it sounds like my childhood in postwar England. But things in America took an altogether different turn.
The fate of the New Deal is a moot point right now in 1938. Regardless of what happens in Barnesville or Washington, FDR’s attention is increasingly drawn thousands of miles away. In September, 1938, at the same time as Walter George wins Georgia's white primary, Europe comes to the brink of war, averted only when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain hops a plane to Germany and negotiates an agreement with German dictator Adolf Hitler that Chamberlain claims promises “peace in our time.” We all know how well that works out.
The following month, on November 9, 1938, the night after the general election confirmed that Sen. Walter George will remain senior US Senator for Georgia, Nazis in Germany attack Jewish homes and businesses, and Jewish people in a horrifying night of terror that will become known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass”. War is coming, and it will end the Depression decisively, and at unimaginable human cost.
Unaware of what faraway events will mean for them, of the descent into darkness, the people of Lamar County, Georgia, marvel at their changed lives. They have electricity, now and forever more.
Let there be light.
Surely, eventually, Georgia Power will knock it off, and concede the rural areas of the state to these electric membership cooperatives, as they’re called, these non-profit associations of farmers and other rural people. Then rural Georgians can, at last, enjoy electricity, surely?
No, of course they don’t. In the 1950s, and long after, Georgia Power is still fighting non-profit Electric Membership Cooperatives (or, as Georgia Power and its allies called them, “phantom socialists”. )
If you live in rural Georgia, next time you pay your electric bill, you may find yourself pausing, and looking at who you are paying for your electricity: Excelsior Electric Membership Cooperation, Coastal Electric. Snapping Shoals EMC. Dozens of them, even though a few now use names that hide their New Deal origins. All of them are member-owned and directed co-ops that serve ten million rural Georgians, across 73% of Georgia’s land area.
And all are supplied with electricity by the “phantom socialism” of FDR’s New Deal. Oh. Wait. Not so fast.
Georgia Power won the war in the courts in the 70s. Long story, bottom line: They now control the supply. But if you live in rural Georgia, you own your local electric company, unlike your local hospital that closed two or five years ago. And so long as that’s true, I guess, you can continue to keep the lights on.
Don’t miss out on Non-Boring History:
Once again, here’s your reminder that my work is a peculiar blend of teaching history, journalism, and creative writing, but I do stick to the known facts as closely as possible. If I have something wrong, I ask academic historians (including graduate students) to please get in touch, and also to feel free to draw my attention to your work.
The impact of rural electrification was profound. I thank my subscriber Adam for sending me this beautiful and poetic piece by Richard Brautigan, which sums it up in just a minute.
So many biographies of FDR I haven’t read. I consulted William E. Leuchtenburg’s classic Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (1963), still in print after more than half a century, but there have to be more readable books out there by now. Ask a librarian.
Kaye Lanning Minchew, A President in our Midst: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Georgia (2016) This is what I call a coffee table book with benefits: You can read the well-written extended captions and learn something, or you can just look at the lovely photos, and read only when you get interested. It’s all about FDR’s second life in rural Georgia.
And I also drew from this:
Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, African Americans in the Great Depression and New Deal Published online: 19 November 2020
Visit Warm Springs, and Central and Southwest Georgia
FDR’s Little White House is now a Georgia State Historic Site, with an excellent museum, including FDR’s personal car with adapted controls. They have also recently completed renovations of the Historic Pools Museum, where the President bathed in the supposedly healing waters. Warm Springs is not convenient for many places, but most of the journey from Atlanta takes you straight down the I-75 freeway, and, as FDR predicted, no dirt roads are involved.
You could easily make a weekend of Warm Springs, Barnesville, and Plains, Georgia, where almost the whole town is a museum: Jimmy Carter National Historical Park.
President Carter is not currently holding his public Sunday school lesson for adults at Maranatha Baptist Church, but if that should change, do plan, do turn up very early, do stay for the church service (regardless of your beliefs) and do as you’re told: Miss Jan Williams, who supervises, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which is one reason I locked horns with her when we first met (I can be an absolute fool) and also why I adore her as a kindred spirit. I strongly advise you book the Plains Inn, which is small, simple, affordable, and fantastic. It was personally built and furnished by President and Mrs. Carter, and I do mean personally, like buying furniture and hammering nails. Tell Miss Jan, if she’s the person who answers the phone, that Dr. Annette Laing sent you, but don’t expect her to be impressed: Under that fearsome exterior beats the heart of a marvelous and loveable dragon.
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