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Atlanta Blues

by Blake Seitz

Georgia’s special House election is a bellwether for the GOP

If you were fishing for historical parallels to what is going on in Atlanta politics right now, you might cast back to a special election that occurred in the period immediately after World War II. The February 1946 special election in Georgia’s fifth congressional district, which encompassed all of Atlanta, featured 17 candidates. According to Atlanta chronicler Frederick Allen, the election was supposed to be won by Thomas L. Camp, the heir apparent of outgoing moderate Democrat Robert Ramspeck. Instead, it was won by Helen Douglas Mankin, a former World War I ambulance driver, lawyer, and state legislator whose tomboyish personality and progressive politics made her an unlikely candidate to become the first congresswoman elected in Georgia without having been preceded in the office by her husband.

Mankin benefited from a seismic shift in the district’s electorate. This was one of the first elections in the state open to its sizeable black community, largely as a result of mistakes by the segregationist establishment, which failed, probably through sheer inattention, to organize the then-customary whites-only primary. Mankin was the only candidate of 17 to show up at a town-hall meeting organized by black leaders from both parties. Those leaders endorsed her the night before the election, spreading the news (“Vote for the woman”) by word of mouth to minimize the chance of white backlash. Their support was just enough for Mankin to prevail: She was carried over the top by votes in the last reporting precinct, the black area around Ashby Street.

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