SAVANNAH, Ga. — Former Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge unflinchingly defended segregation in the 1930s and ’40s, and infamously proclaimed a black man’s place was “at the back door with his hat in his hand.”
Now the mayor of Savannah and its city council say the towering suspension bridge that fills the city’s riverside skyline is the wrong place to display Talmadge’s name. A resolution approved unanimously on Thursday calls for renaming the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge, as the span crossing the Savannah River has been known for six decades.
Mayor Eddie DeLoach called for stripping Talmadge’s name from the local landmark soon after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists rallying in support of Confederate statues clashed with counter-protesters.
While other cities moved to take down monuments to Civil War figures, Savannah took aim at the honor bestowed on a racist, Jim Crow-era governor in a city where 54 percent of residents are black and tourism is a $2.8 billion industry. Now the question is whether state lawmakers will honor the request to change the name to The Savannah Bridge.
“If they don’t vote in favor of this, then it’s a shame on them,” said DeLoach, who was sworn in last year as Savannah’s first white mayor in 20 years after defeating a black incumbent. He said the bridge should “no longer be named for a man who divided us.”
Talmadge, a populist Democrat, ruled Georgia politics during three terms between 1933 and 1942 with a style that mixed profanity-laced stump speeches, pocketbook populism and unabashed racism. Typifying the Southern demagogue, Talmadge blasted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for offering blacks hope of economic parity with whites. He promised to preserve the Democratic Party’s whites-only primary elections in Georgia.
“I like the (black man),” Talmadge once said, using a racial slur that he often deployed to rile crowds at his political speeches. “But I like him in his place, and his place is at the back door with his hat in his hand.”
In 1941, Talmadge orchestrated the firings of college administrators suspected of supporting integration. The move cost Georgia’s 10 all-white colleges their accreditation — making their degrees practically worthless. Outraged voters ousted Talmadge when he sought re-election in 1942.
Talmadge made a comeback in 1946, winning a fourth term as governor, but he died before he could be sworn in.
In 1956, the State Highway Board of Georgia voted to name the Savannah bridge at the Georgia-South Carolina line in Talmadge’s honor. The late governor’s son, Herman Talmadge, had just finished a full term in the governor’s mansion and later that year would win election to the U.S. Senate.
Georgia replaced the original Talmadge bridge in 1991 with a taller suspension bridge with plenty of headroom for cargo ships to pass underneath to reach the Port of Savannah. State lawmakers voted to keep the name.
Georgia law says only state lawmakers can name or rename state roads and bridges. A similar effort to strip Talmadge’s name was launched in 2013. It fell flat after Talmadge’s descendants lobbied hard at the state Capitol in Atlanta to oppose the change.
“They were just very emotional about the issue,” said state Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican who tried to get the bridge renamed four years ago. He said they were “pretty frank in their conversations that they didn’t want this thing touched and we needed to have a backbone and walk away.”
Murphy Talmadge, a great-grandson of Eugene Talmadge, works as a lobbyist in Atlanta. He did not return phone and email messages seeking comment. Herman Talmadge III, another great-grandson and a former county commissioner in metro Atlanta, did not return messages to a phone number he listed years ago on social media.
Stephens said he suspects the Republican-controlled Legislature will be even less inclined to rename the Talmadge bridge so soon after Charlottesville. A Democratic candidate for governor is calling for removal of the giant carvings of Confederate officers on Stone Mountain. Stephens said Republicans are resisting any such changes.
“It’s a touchy subject. Once you start down that slippery slope, where do you stop?” said Stephens, who nevertheless pledged to push the Talmadge change again. “There’s folks all over the state outside of Savannah that will fight this thing kicking and screaming.”