Temples of Democracy


Until the early sixties, all Democratic primaries in Georgia were operated under something called the County Unit System. The Democratic primary was the only primary that counted, of course, since the Republican nomination for state office at the time was, as the county politicians would have said, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Under the County Unit System, carrying a county, by whatever margin, gave the candidate unit votes that varied according to the population of the county-the kicker being that the largest county in the state had only six votes and the smallest county had two. There are 159 counties in Georgia, and some of them, it is sometimes said, amount to no more than a courthouse and a speed trap. Even the smallest one had a third the vote of Atlanta. When Gene Talmadge was running for governor, he used to say that he never bothered to campaign in a county large enough to have a streetcar.

The years just before the federal court finally struck down the County Unit System were particularly frustrating for the civic leaders of Atlanta, who were then trying to build the city’s reputation as a progressive commercial center that was, in the words of its mayor, William B. Hartsfield, “too busy to hate”—a slogan I always thought of as Babbittry Over Bigotry. Atlanta boosters were embarrassed at being represented in Congress by a distinctly nonprogressive type named James Davis, who, because of the County Unit System, could win the nomination every two years even without carrying the city. Judge Davis, as he was always called, was not too busy to hate. In fact, he struck people in Washington as the sort of man who would drop anything he happened to be doing if a good opportunity for hating came along.

In 1960, Mayor Hartsfield finally got so irritated at Davis’ continual nomination that he ran an ape against him in the general election. The ape lived in the Atlanta zoo and was himself named Willie B., after the mayor. Hartsfield held a press conference at the zoo to introduce Willie B. and compare his progress on the scale of political evolution favorably with that of Judge Davis. Willie B. actually received a few hundred votes. On election night, a sign in the city room of the Atlanta Constitution said, “Vote for Willie B.-Let Us Begin Again.”

I once attended an auction of land sold for taxes at the Costilla County courthouse, in San Luis, Colorado. Costilla County was settled by Spanish-Americans from around Taos and Chama, in northern New Mexico, who came in the 1850’s as pobladores , or settlers, on something called the Sangre de Cristo land grant. The courthouse, a plain, one-story building of adobe, was built in 1870. Some of its offices have been modernized, but the courtroom, where the land auction was being held, looked pretty much the way it must have looked in the nineteenth century. It did have electricity-a couple of naked lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling by electric cords. The walls of the courtroom were bare except for what seemed to be a large square of upholstery fabric taped behind the judge’s chair-provided, I gathered, so that the judge could, during slow summations, tilt back and lean his head comfortably against the wall.


The county clerk, who was acting as auctioneer, would describe each parcel in some detail, often continuing the description from his own knowledge after he finished reading what was on the official list. Some of the parcels went for as little as fifteen or twenty dollars. I happened to be in Costilla County because of an argument over the use of a 67-thousand-acre tract of land that had been purchased for $500,000-an argument about whether the descendants of the pobladores had hunting and grazing and gathering rights even though an outsider had bought and obtained clear title to the land. The county clerk could also describe that tract without reference to notes. So could the county treasurer. It was all there in the courthouse—the deed and the surveys and the correspondence over assessment disputes and the tax receipts.

Land—real estate—is often at the center of disputes around the country, although normally not as overtly as in the Costilla County controversy. Usually, the argument seems on the surface to be about industrial development or the environment or schools or highway construction, but in the background is often the question of who owns what real estate and how its value will be affected by what happens. The county courthouse keeps score.