November 2019

The Cocking Affair: UGA’s Commitment to White Supremacy

"Cocking accepted his job offer by telegram in September of 1937. A year and a half later, Dean Cocking held a staff meeting so controversial that it led to the state revoking UGA’s accreditation and mobs burning the governor in effigy."

by Kate Dahlstrand, Phd

“Neither I nor any of the eight Regents voting to reelect Dr. Cocking at the hearing on Monday believes in social equality for Negroes and whites. All of us are strongly of the opinion that the policy of segregation of the races must be maintained and that whites and Negroes must be taught in separate schools. We adhere as firmly as anyone to the traditions of our Southland.”[1]

“All members of the Board of Regents as well as the officials of the University System who recommended Dr. Cocking are natives of Georgia and are absolutely opposed to any idea of social equality as well as any suggestion that Negroes and whites be taught in the same schools.”[2]

Harmon Caldwell, president of the University of Georgia [UGA] from 1935 to 1948, kept hundreds of letters and copies of his responses related to his Dean of Education, Walter Cocking. UGA hired Cocking, a white man, as Dean of their College of Education in 1937 and immediately gave him carte blanche to reorganize the school, appoint new faculty, and improve the academic standards of their college program. What happened next illustrated a commitment to white supremacy that outweighed any commitment to higher education.

Cocking was an outsider and a sorely needed educational reformer. He had earned his BA from Des Moines College in 1913, his MA from the State University of Iowa in 1923, and entered the academic job market with a PhD from Columbia University Teachers college in 1928. Upon graduating from Columbia, he began working for Vanderbilt University. It was there that he was approached about applying for a job at UGA. His transcripts reflected an ambition to make a difference at the university administrative level. In his cover letter submitted to UGA, he acknowledged that his primary desire was “to spend the remaining years of [his] professional career in guiding the preparation of young people for the profession of teaching.” Steering the future of education was, in sum, the total of Walter Cocking’s ambition.[3]

Photo of student protesters burning an effigy of Governor Talmadge in response to the Cocking affair. Courtesy of author and the UGA University Archive.

UGA needed Walter Cocking’s perspectives and enthusiasm. In 1937, the College of Education represented little more than a place-holder for locals to acquire credentials to teach in their communities. The pedagogy was stagnant and the college was not a destination program for anyone outside of Georgia. Hiring Walter Cocking indicated the desire to transform the Education program into something new. Cocking accepted his job offer by telegram in September of 1937. A year and a half later, Dean Cocking held a staff meeting so controversial that it led to the state revoking UGA’s accreditation and mobs burning the governor in effigy.

Cocking’s problems grew out of the contempt held for him by Mrs. Sylla Hamilton. Hamilton had worked for the College of Education for years prior to Cocking’s arrival. She had close family connections to the university; she was a cousin of UGA history professor, Robert Preston Brooks, and a distant relative of newly-elected Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge. Hamilton worked as a member of the teaching staff at the College of Education’s practice school. Her immediate supervisor, Superintendent Stanton J. Singleton, recommended Hamilton be moved to another part of the University. President Caldwell, also close to Sylla Hamilton, wanted to find a place for Hamilton to continue her career’s final years. Hamilton, however, was insulted by the removal and blamed Dean Cocking. On March 10, 1939, while she still worked as a staff member for the College of Education, Hamilton attended a staff meeting held by Dean Cocking, wherein he laid out his long-range plans for the development of the College. After her dismissal, she was “very deeply humiliated and quite naturally has ever since that time disliked Dean Cocking.” This sentiment fueled her subsequent charge—she claimed that Dean Cocking “had advocated the establishment of a school near Athens in which white and negro children would be taught together in the same classes. This was to be a Practice School for students majoring in Education.”[4]

The whisper of racial equality was enough to bring down the University System of Georgia. Hamilton used her family and university connections to get a meeting with Governor Eugene Talmadge. A virulent racist, Talmadge proved a sympathetic ear to Sylla Hamilton’s charges against Walter Cocking. No other member of the College of Education staff could corroborate Hamilton’s recollection of the meeting. Cocking’s notes from the meeting report of plans being laid out for updates to the Practice School, but nowhere did he mention the integration or desegregation of Georgia classrooms. He did recommend the creation of two practice classrooms: one for white children and one for Black children. This would ensure that white students attending UGA’s College of Education would graduate fully prepared to teach any child, anywhere. It was the reason UGA had hired him; he sought to make effective educators. Talmadge, however, listened to Hamilton’s account and heard only one thing: a path to desegregation was being forged at the flagship school of Georgia. White supremacy was being threatened. Talmadge called upon UGA president, Harmon Caldwell, to take action.

Harmon Caldwell exemplified a white Georgia native who lived a life of service to his beloved alma mater. He earned a degree at the University of Georgia before attending Harvard Law School. He then returned to Athens, Georgia, where he built a career teaching, researching, and administrating the university he so ardently revered. He taught law at UGA for 3 years before becoming the Dean of the law school. Two years after that, in 1935, Caldwell became president of the university, a position he held until 1948. From 1948 through 1964, Caldwell worked as chancellor of the entire University System of Georgia.

Caldwell was also a devout defender of white supremacy. He actively facilitated a strict conservative agenda committed to keeping Georgia segregated. It was, for him, another way to protect and preserve the mission of UGA. When the president of the University of Georgia threatened to resign in 1941 if Walter D. Cocking did not receive a fair hearing for accusations of promoting integrating Georgia schools, he found himself in a precarious situation.

The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia voted during the items of business portion of the regular monthly meeting on May 30, 1941. Dr. S.V. Sanford recommended the board vote to approve the 1941-1942 personnel list. This happened annually and formalized the payroll of Georgia universities. After the meeting, the results of the vote were sent to the governor as a courtesy. With the formal testimony of Sylla Hamilton, Governor Talmadge demanded an investigation from the board. He charged that Cocking “advocated social equality between the Negro and white races” and demanded Cocking’s firing. Under pressure, the Regents voted again, this time not to retain Cocking. President Caldwell threatened to quit, should the Board not provide the time for Cocking to defend himself in person with a hearing. The Board revoked its action a second time and set the hearing date for the following month. Cocking collected affidavits, character witnesses, and sworn testimonies to demonstrate that he sought to improve education and maintain the social and racial status quo.

Defenders of Walter Cocking made clear his commitment to white supremacy. That was the issue and so that is what his supporters stressed. In a petitioned letter to the Board of Regents, white men from across the state and the country assured the board of “his loyalty to the finest traditions of America and the South.”[5] The June 16th hearing resulted in an 8-7 vote to keep Dean Cocking on staff. Talmadge instigated a smear campaign and sent operatives into Athens to find incriminating evidence that proved Cocking was indeed a race-traitor. At the same time he began firing members of the Board of Regents and replacing them with men sympathetic to the governor’s assertions. A second hearing investigating Cocking was set for July 14th, 1941, and the governor wrote to the dean that “there is some additional evidence offered since the previous hearing.” There was also a majority vote promised in Talmadge’s favor. The “evidence” presented portrayed Cocking as an anti-racist activist.

The governor sent an employee of the State of Georgia, Robert F. Wood, on a “fact finding” mission in Athens to collect evidence against Cocking. Wood obtained a photograph of Cocking attending a luncheon at the local selective Draft Board where he was seated with some Black men from Athens who were in the process of enrolling into the armed forces in support of World War II. Wood insisted the photo demonstrated Cocking’s agenda of racial equality. Wood went on to approach Cocking’s house servant, a Black man named Tommie Banks, and offered him a bribe of $150 if Banks would steal documents from Cocking’s personal records “connecting Mr. Cocking with Negro activities.” When Banks refused, Wood and four other white men took him to the outskirts of Athens and, behind locked doors, interrogated him with a loaded pistol sitting on the table facing him. Under duress and in fear for his life, Banks signed a statement against his employer. Wood also used Dean Cocking’s association with the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a charity organization responsible for building schools across the South in order to enhance education for the Black population. The entirety of evidence Wood collected against Cocking came from deliberate misinformation and coercion in an effort to promote white supremacy.[6]

The second hearing on July 14th, 1941 was, according to Dean Cocking, “a farce.” With new members of the Board of Regents put into place by Governor Talmadge, Cocking lost his job at UGA with a 10 to 5 vote against his reappointment. The University community, to include administrators, staff, faculty and the students, reacted swiftly in defense of Dean Cocking. Days after the vote, the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (SACSS) launched an investigation into the political interference in Georgia state colleges. In October, SACSS voted unanimously to drop UGA from its ranks.[7] In response, more than one thousand students paraded through campus protesting the governor and burning him in effigy. UGA’s Phi Kappa Literary Group threatened to remove Governor Talmadge’s portrait from the walls and replace it with a picture of Mickey Mouse or to paint the spot black where Talmadge’s picture had hung.[8]

Statement of protest penned by supporters of Cocking. Photo courtesy of author and UGA University Archive.

From his office at Atlanta University, W.E.B. DuBois took stock of state government, university opinions, and the actions of SACSS. In an unpublished response to Dean Cocking’s firing, DuBois pointed to “the logical and basic facts” that no one seemed to emphasize. He, like Governor Talmadge, saw Cocking’s efforts to shape Georgia education as a possible point to begin exploring the benefits of educating Black children alongside white children. If what Sylla Hamilton charged Dean Cocking with saying was true, “it was in accordance with the best and wisest thought of the nation and of intelligent persons both North and South.” DuBois concluded, however, that Dean Cocking lost any educational merit when he did not say what his ideas were concerning the future of race and education. Instead of examining the ramifications of Cocking’s proposals, or the accusation of his proposals, Cocking and his defenders focused on redirecting the conversation towards their commitment to maintaining white supremacy throughout Georgia classrooms. “Not only did Dean Cocking himself refuse frankly to state his beliefs,” DuBois argued, “but the City Superintendent of Atlanta Schools made the misleading statement that white children were superior to Negro children in intelligence; and friends of Cocking defended him as a man born of a Democratic family in a Republican state of parents who sympathized with the South when it was fighting for slavery.”[9] The major argument between Talmadge and UGA was nothing more than a fight for who defended UGA’s commitment to white supremacy with greater felicity.

Talmadge lost re-election because of the Cocking Affair. Between the firing of Cocking, the dismantling and reorganizing of the Board of Regents, and the subsequent fallout and discreditation, Talmadge’s actions proved to be “his worst political blunder” and he lost the 1942 gubernatorial race to Ellis Arnall.[10] Walter Cocking moved to New York where he worked as an editor and editorial consultant for educational magazines until his death on January 14th, 1964. State schools, colleges, and universities in Georgia would get their SACSS accreditation back in January of 1943 once newly-elected Governor Ellis Arnall reinstated a Board of Regents that acted independently of state government. White supremacy preserved, UGA would not revisit desegregation again until Black Georgians Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter applied to the university in the summer of 1959. They were admitted in January of 1961.

There is present value in studying the Cocking Affair—the University of Georgia has long struggled with its internalized mission to support white supremacy. From its founding in 1785 by Abraham Baldwin, a member of the Continental Congress who argued for the protection of slavery, through today’s troublesome handling of the discovery of the Baldwin Hall bodies, white supremacy seems to have always outweighed efforts towards equality.[11] Perhaps this is why DuBois never commented publicly on the Cocking Affair. He saw the potential for creating a path towards providing fair access to education for Black Georgians and then realized the moment was lost in an effort to preserve institutional racism.

Kate Dahlstrand is graduating in December 2019 from the University of Georgia with a PhD in history. She studies the history of veterans transitioning back into civilian life, the meanings and manifestations of loyalty, and the influence of historical literacy. When not writing or researching, she spends her time trying new recipes in the kitchen and taking long walks with her dogs. She is an activist historian.

Further Reading

[1] Harmon Caldwell to T.J. Ripley, June 19, 1941 in Harmon Caldwell Papers, University Archives, University of Georgia.

[2] Harmon Caldwell to J.W. Johnson, June 23, 1941 in Harmon Caldwell Papers, University Archives, University of Georgia.

[3] “Cocking Application Packet,” in Harmon Caldwell Papers University Archives, University of Georgia.

[4] Robert Preston Brooks, “The Cocking Case: A Statement by R.P. Brooks,” Robert Preston Brooks Papers, Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, University of Georgia. 

[5] Signed by petition to The Board of Regents, June 9, 1941, in Harmon Caldwell Papers, University Archives, University of Georgia.

[6] Walter Cocking, “A Chronological Record of the Case of Walter D. Cocking in his Ousting from the Univeristy of Georgia,” in Harmon Caldwell Papers, University Archives, University of Georgia. 

[7] “Investigation Purge: They Ain’t in Georgia, Talmadge Says of Top Southern Education Agency,” Atlanta Journal, July 17, 1941; “University of Georgia is Dropped from Raanks of Southern conference by Unanimous Vote; Cocking Ouster Called ‘Political Interference’” Atlanta Constitution, October 14, 1941.

[8] “Gene Blasted at First Meeting of Phi Kappa Literary Group” Red and Black, October 3, 1941. 

[9] DuBois, W.E.B., “The Talmadge-Cocking Affair,” 1941, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. 

[10] James Cook, “Cocking Affair,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed November 22, 2019, https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/government-politics/cocking-affair .

[11] For more information on UGA’s current problems addressing their institutional support of slavery and maintenance of white supremacy please see: Baldwin Hall Controversy in the News.  

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