Talmadge, the Cocking Affair and UGA’s Unspoken Racial Legacy

On Oct. 10, 1941, The Red & Black ran on its front page a blurry photo of what it described as an “innocent looking poster,” which at first glance seemed simply to be offering scholarship opportunities for students contemplating graduate school.

But to anyone who read the document more closely, two things soon became clear: The organization offering these scholarships was the Rosenwald Fund, a philanthropic organization Gov. Eugene Talmadge had recently labeled as a Jewish conspiracy to “bring racial equality to the South,” and even more shockingly, the poster was addressed to both “white Southerners” and “Negros.”

The discovery of such an inflammatory document, ostensibly advertising equal-opportunity scholarships, on the campus of the University of Georgia seemed to confirm the worst of the accusations Talmadge had been spouting over the last several months in his attacks on the university, and specifically on Walter Cocking, the dean of the College of Education, who had been removed by the Talmadge-controlled Board of Regents, over the protests of many students and faculty, that July for advocating “communism or racial equality.”

By the time classes started in the fall, Talmadge’s efforts to purge the university system of anything resembling pro-equality thought had expanded far beyond Cocking. Marvin Pittman, the president of Georgia Teachers College (now Georgia Southern University), also had been removed, along with several other educators, and Talmadge agents were now combing through university libraries for literature that “preached Negro-white equality.”

Though most white publications and universities in Georgia opposed Talmadge’s actions, this opposition rested largely on the fact that his attacks on Cocking and the others were unfounded. They were not attempting to undermine Georgia’s white supremacist institutions, and anyone suggesting otherwise suffered from delusions. A petition from “the student body of the University of Georgia,” which ran in The Red & Black on Oct. 17, echoed the popular opinion: “We honestly state to the Governor and to the state that no racial equality has been taught, advocated, or practiced on this campus… by the students of the University. We feel further that the students and faculty harbor no such ideals of racial equality.”

Of course, more progressive voices existed at the time in Georgia—W.E.B. Du Bois being one of the more prominent ones. He wrote not just in support of Cocking but, more importantly, in support of his purported beliefs in an equal and integrated educational system: “If Dean Cocking stated this as an ideal to be worked toward, he not only has a right to his opinion, but that opinion is shared by every person of intelligence who knows and has studied the South.”

Neither this radical argument nor its tamer cousin moved the Talmadge administration to reinstate the removed faculty, and on Dec. 5, in light of this “political interference,” the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges stripped UGA, along with the nine other state-supported colleges for whites, of their accreditation. It would not be until the relatively progressive Ellis Arnall defeated Talmadge for governor in 1942, in a campaign that centered on reversing Talmadge’s purges, that accreditation would be restored.

Though of massive importance, the events that enveloped UGA in 1941 have largely slipped from popular memory on campus. The university’s full relationship with white supremacy—of which the Cocking Affair is only a small part—needs to be fully examined and dealt with.

Some are hesitant to examine histories of this sort because they are rightfully seen as shameful chapters from our past—ones that place the university firmly in the Deep South, with all the prejudices and stereotypes this entails. A modern Southern university would understandably like to avoid such overly regionalized associations with backwardness and stupidity. However, as an institution in the Deep South, we have a unique responsibility to examine the history we did not fight forcefully enough against, and all too often actively contributed to.

A history of UGA that does not examine the Cocking Affair, does not examine the segregationist Richard B. Russell’s politics (even as we construct new buildings in his honor) and does not openly examine its role in slavery—including our obliteration of enslaved people’s graves—is incomplete and untrue. If we truly want to prove we have learned from the past, we should be willing to engage in these difficult discussions of history, and effectively deal with the issues they raise in the present.

Bernkopf is a UGA student and member of Phi Alpha Theta-Epsilon Pi, the university’s chapter of the National History Honor Society.