During her brief U.S. House term, Helen Douglas Mankin of Georgia brought national attention to her longtime political cause: advocating on behalf of poor and disenfranchised southern voters. “I earnestly believe that the election of a woman from this State to the House of Representatives will mean to the rest of the country another note of progress out of the South,” Mankin declared after her victory in a February 1946 special election in which she benefited from the support of African–American voters. Mankin’s bid for re–election later that summer, however, revealed the limits of voting reform in the South: the political machine of segregationist Governor Eugene Talmadge blocked her renomination to a full term.
Helen Douglas was born on September 11, 1896, in Atlanta, Georgia, the daughter of Hamilton Douglas and Corrine Williams Douglas. Her parents were teachers who had studied law together at the University of Michigan. Corrine became involved in education when the family moved to Georgia, where state laws prevented women from joining the bar. Hamilton eventually founded the Atlanta Law School. Their home was an intellectual parlor for the likes of reformer Jane Addams and former President and Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft. Helen Douglas attended Rockford College in Illinois, following in the footsteps of her mother and maternal grandmother. She graduated in 1917 with an A.B. degree but interrupted her law studies to join the American Women’s Hospital Unit No. 1 in France, where she served as an ambulance driver for more than a year. When Douglas returned to the United States, she resumed her academic career, graduating from Atlanta Law School in 1920. A year later, the state of Georgia admitted her to the bar along with her 61–year–old mother when the state legislature lifted the bar’s ban on women. For two years, she and her sister toured North America by car before she opened a law office in 1924, specializing in aid to poor and black clients while supplementing her income as a lecturer at the Atlanta Law School.
Her first political experience came as the women’s manager of I.N. Ragsdale’s campaign for mayor of Atlanta in 1927. That year Helen Douglas married Guy M. Mankin, a widower with a seven–year–old son, Guy, Jr. After traveling to several overseas locations following Guy Mankin’s job assignments, the family settled in Atlanta, where Helen Mankin resumed her legal career in 1933.1 In 1935, as chair of the Georgia Child Labor Committee, she unsuccessfully urged the state legislature to ratify a proposed child labor constitutional amendment. The next year she won a seat in the legislature, serving for a decade as a critic of Governor Eugene Talmadge’s administration and as a supporter of constitutional, educational, electoral, labor, and prison reforms. In the process, she became an ally of liberal Governor Ellis Arnall, who had succeeded Talmadge in 1942. In 1945, Mankin and Arnall successfully steered a measure through the Georgia house of representatives to repeal the poll tax, a method southern states frequently employed to disenfranchise African–American voters too poor to pay a requisite tax in order to vote.2
When Georgia Representative Robert Ramspeck resigned from the U.S. House at the end of 1945, Mankin entered the race to succeed him in a February 1946 special election. The only woman in the crowded contest for the three–county district, which included both Atlanta and Decatur, Mankin used a series of radio addresses to talk about the central issue of her campaign: the equalization of freight rates, which varied greatly from section to section of the country and which she believed inhibited southern industry and agriculture. She also used these opportunities to criticize her leading opponent, Thomas Camp, the handpicked successor of Ramspeck, warning voters that Camp was a “railroad employee” and therefore a part of the conspiracy to keep the people of Georgia trapped in poverty. Pledging to support price controls, federal housing programs, and federal aid to education, Mankin won the backing of Governor Arnall, women’s groups, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).3 Her determination to pursue voting reforms, seen in her support for a constitutional amendment to abolish the poll tax, earned her the solid backing of African Americans.4 This bloc of voters was barred from primaries, but not from special elections, and black voters helped Mankin prevail on February 12, 1946. Trailing Camp until the reporting of the final precinct tallies from the predominantly black Ashby Street, Mankin ended up winning the election by nearly 800 votes. Of the 1,039 registered voters in the African–American neighborhood, 963 cast their vote for Mankin.5 The African–American Atlanta Daily World newspaper noted that the election marked the first time in Atlanta history that blacks served as precinct managers and clerks in a congressional contest.
Mankin’s election sent shock waves through segregationist Georgia. Her coalition of minority voters and white liberals caused great unease in the state. When Eugene Talmadge came out of political retirement that fall to run for re–election as governor of Georgia, he inveighed against “the spectacle of Atlanta Negroes sending a Congresswoman to Washington.”6 During his campaign, he mocked Mankin, nicknaming her the “Belle of Ashby Street.” Rather than retaliating, the Congresswoman adopted the title as a point of pride, as if she had invented the name herself.7
During her short term on the Hill, Mankin championed reform in Georgia politics and looked to give African Americans a greater voice in their government. She served on four committees—Civil Service, Claims, Elections, and Revision of Laws—but was not appointed to her first choice, the House Education Committee. Mankin exhibited loyalty to the Democratic Party, voting with the party 92 percent of the time—an uncharacteristic trait for the typically conservative South of the period. As a Representative, she supported price controls, a federal housing program, and the Hobbs Bill directed against the CIO’s Teamsters’ Union. Mankin voted against the Case Anti–Labor Bill, opposed funding for the House Committee on Un–American Activities, and favored an end to the poll tax. “I am a liberal but not a radical,” Mankin said, when opposing plans for national health insurance.8 She also backed an internationalist foreign policy in which the United States played a greater role in maintaining world stability after World War II.9
In the Georgia Democratic primary of July 1946, which the Supreme Court opened to African Americans for the first time, Mankin outpolled her opponent, James C. Davis, by more than 11,000 votes.10 But to offset the African–American vote, state officials, unhappy with Mankin’s liberal voting record, revived Georgia’s county unit system, which had been out of use in the district since 1932. Designed to favor rural precincts and to mitigate the urban vote by awarding the winner of the popular vote in each county a designated amount of unit votes, it was employed—as a former Georgia Representative observed—“to beat Mrs. Mankin, nothing else.”11 The strategy also gave Talmadge, a leading spokesman of white supremacy in the South, a large lead over Governor Ellis Arnall’s endorsed candidate, James Carmichael, in the gubernatorial primary—despite the fact that more than 100,000 African Americans went to the polls.12 Mankin received six unit votes for carrying Fulton County (encompassing much of Atlanta’s suburbs), while Davis received eight for carrying two less–populous counties.
Citing her popular mandate, Mankin declared her intention to run as an independent in the general election. She refused to allow “anybody [to] frisk me out of my victory.”13 A special three–judge tribunal in the U.S. District Court in Atlanta upheld the unit system and rejected the Congresswoman’s petition to annul the primary results.14 Mankin appealed the decision while Governor Arnall and Georgia Democratic Executive Committee members loyal to him made the unprecedented move of putting Mankin’s name on the ballot as a Democrat alongside Davis’s. But Mankin suffered from a series of setbacks in October 1946. First, after Talmadge won official confirmation as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee at the October 9 party convention, he wrested control of the executive committee from Arnall and promptly acted to remove Mankin’s name from the ballot, an effort that succeeded just fours days before the election.15 The Georgia state democratic convention approved a plan to create an all–white primary to exclude blacks from future nomination processes.16 On October 29, in a 6–3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Georgia unit rule, dimming Mankin’s prospects.17 She remained in the race as a write–in candidate, despite threats from white supremacy groups and reports of voting fraud. She won 38 percent of the vote but lost by a margin of almost 12,000 votes to Davis. When she challenged the election results before the House Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Privileges and Elections, the subcommittee rejected her charges.18 Bitterly disappointed when she realized she had no further legal recourse to contest the election, Mankin angrily commented, “I was written in and counted out, they stole my seat in Congress.”19
Mankin mounted one more challenge to Davis in the 1948 election. But by that time, as a proponent of civil rights reforms, she had become a magnet for southern segregationist anger. She lost by a wide margin in the Democratic primary. Mankin returned to her law practice and waged a fight against the county unit system. When she initiated a federal suit (South v. Peters), the U.S. District Court in Atlanta ruled against her, and the decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which would not rule the practice unconstitutional until 1962. She nonetheless remained active politically, volunteering on the presidential campaign of Adlai Stevenson in 1952. On July 25, 1956, Mankin died in College Park, Georgia, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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