I did not enter politics. I was shot into it as by a catapult

Posted by | April 25, 2013

“You want to know when l really entered public life.

“I did not enter; I was shot into it, as by a catapult, and I learned politics in front of Gatling guns and Mauser rifles. The foe left nothing undone that human ingenuity could devise or tricky politicians could muster up. As soon as I could get an inkling of their respective political histories, I made it lively for the gentlemen, and it was an unequal but vivacious struggle, with one woman versus some dozens of north Georgia politicians.

“When convict lease politicians attacked Dr. Felton, I searched the records and made the lease and the lessees step around lively. A legislative report, made in 1879 and printed in the proceedings of that year’s General Assembly, gave forth the astounding fact that twenty-five little children, under three years of age, were then in camp, along with their convict mothers, little helpless innocents, born in the chain gang, in the lowest depths of degraded humanity.

Rebecca Latimer Felton, age 75. From frontispiece of "Country Life." Collection University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Rebecca Latimer Felton, age 75. From frontispiece of “Country Life.” Collection University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“These children, according to the report mentioned, were born from convict mothers, were also the offspring of the guards, (employed by the Lessees to punish all offenders,) who had basely used their authority to compel these women to submit to their carnal desires. This state of things was so plainly horrible that I wrote it up in the newspapers at the time this legislative report was published.

“When the state road lessees entered our politics, I posted myself and flung hand grenades until the whole thing got in a blaze.

“The corruption of the judiciary in Georgia has been more than once exposed in legislative investigations, but it is well understood that the “dominant faction” elected the judges at the time when a negro could be sent to the chain-gang for ten years for stealing three eggs or for stealing a bowl of milk, and a negro girl fifteen years old in Atlanta was sent to the penitentiary for five years for snatching fifty cents from the hand of a smaller negro. The dominant faction made a half million annually out of a convict lease, and the judge who could send able-bodied negroes to the pen was well worth electing!

“Whenever the dominant faction showed heads above the ramparts, this sharp shooter in woman’s form deliberately picked them off for public amusement and feminine revenge.

“Did they attack me?

“Yes! Times without number, but I have always been careful to know I was correct in my statements, and then I had nothing to fear. About a dozen years ago I joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. I introduced a resolution pledging the union to a reformatory for youthful criminals and a separate prison for women convicts in April, 1886.

“The organization authorized me to memorialize the legislature on these two reforms that summer. When my petition was read before the legislature the ball opened. Dr. Felton, as a member, championed the reforms, and the whole pack, ‘Tray, Blanche and Sweetheart,’ opened on us both. I heard myself denominated as the political ‘She’ of Georgia.

“I was sneered at as a reformer and vials of wrath were poured out on my spouse, who was helping me in my work as I had so long helped him in his political work.

Chain gang in Atlanta 1895Chain gang from Fulton County, GA working in Atlanta in 1895.

“I sat in the same hall five days later and listened to Dr. Felton’s reply that will never be surpassed for strength and powerful invective so long as the English language exists. I forgot myself in admiration of my defender and his marvelous defense. I saw that audience also forget itself and rise as one man to cheer and shout in praise of the speaker. Such a day as that marks a milestone as big as the Washington monument.

“The reformatory for juvenile convicts had a small beginning and only a woman to start it, but such as it was, I had the responsibility and the honor of agitating and launching the craft into sailing waters. More than six years later I was gratified to find that the convict women were quietly separated into other camps and I felt certain that had Senator Joseph E. Brown lived a few years longer he would have made a reformatory system for the juvenile criminals under his control.”

 

from “Country Life in Georgia 
in the Days of My Youth,” by Rebecca Latimer Felton, 1919, Index Printing Company, 
Atlanta

Until late in her life, Rebecca Latimer Felton saw her career as tied completely to her husband’s. William Felton served three terms (1875-81) in the U.S. Congress. From 1884 to 1890 he served another three terms in Georgia’s state legislature. “Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth” is primarily a record of Rebecca Latimer Felton’s middle years and her husband’s political campaigns.

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