The sharecropper’s son who helped remake the Georgia Democratic party — twice

Longtime lobbyist and friend Don Cargill (first row left), former U.S. senator Sam Nunn (first row right), former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes (second row left) and senior pastor Dock Hollingsworth leave after a memorial service for Tommy Irvin at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church on Tuesday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

If you wanted to catch a glimpse of a bygone era in Georgia politics on Tuesday, your place was in a pew at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Buckhead.

The memorial service for Tommy Irvin drew a hundred or so mourners. Irvin served as Georgia’s elected agriculture commissioner for more than 40 years, retiring in 2011. He was a lifelong Democrat.

The Republican rulers of Georgia had already paid their respects. Irvin, who was 88, died last week. Gov. Nathan Deal and his wife had visited the family on Saturday.

Gary Black, the Republican who replaced Irvin as agriculture commissioner, attended a Sunday funeral. Irvin now rests comfortably in the north Georgia soil that he and his father once tilled.

No, this Tuesday memorial service was largely about the political legacy left by a six-foot-five Southerner who was first elected to office when segregation still reigned supreme, and still held elected office when  Barack Obama became president.

Tommy Irvin was the man who bridged not one, but two eras of Democratic sovereignty in Georgia, and the pews contained many of the people he’d brought with him over the decades.

Democratic and union officialdom filled one pew. Another held the only group of young people, all wearing deep-blue Future Farmers of America jackets.

Former Georgia congressman John Barrow of Athens had one bench almost to himself. In front of him was Stacey Evans, one of two Democratic candidates for governor. Beside her was former congressman Buddy Darden. And beside him was former state senator George Hooks of Americus, in his trademark lime-green seersucker suit.

One is not supposed to wear seersucker after Labor Day. But global warming has changed that. “It was 88 degrees yesterday,” Hooks said afterwards.

The day’s history lesson was delivered in code, but was there for those who listened closely.

Before he walked the congregation through David’s psalm about the valley of the shadow, grandson Chris Irvin had this to say about his grandfather: “If Georgia ever had a friend, it was Tommy Irvin.”

It was a phrase with precedence. Chris Irvin’s grandfather came into politics as a follower of Gene Talmadge, the populist, anti-integration governor who rose to power in a system rigged to give rural Georgia political control over the state’s growing urban centers — Atlanta, especially.

“The poor dirt farmer ain’t got but three friends on this Earth — God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, and Gene Talmadge,” the self-same Talmadge would thunder.

The Tommy Irvin memorial service was opened by four grandchildren: Clint Irvin (left), April LaHayne, Ryan Collier and Chris Irvin (foreground). HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Irvin was one of those dirt farmers, the son of a sharecropper who never finished high school.

He thrived under the county unit system that fueled the Talmadge machine, and was elected to the state House in the 1950s. Irvin was a man of influence by the time Lester Maddox was elected governor in 1966.

Maddox was an early, Georgia-centric version of Donald Trump — a (segregationist) restaurateur/outsider with little experience in government.

Irvin was named Maddox’ top aide, and charged with helping the governor navigate his strange new waters. In the meantime, Irvin also mentored a young up-and-comer, Zell Miller. (Miller, who has been in frail health, did not attend Tuesday’s service.)

Maddox appointed Irvin as commissioner of agriculture in 1969.

But back to the memorial service. Former U.S. senator Sam Nunn took the pulpit to extol Irvin’s humble beginnings and populist tactics. “Tommy was our state’s most disciplined and successful practitioner of the politics of showing up,” Nunn said.

But Nunn also told of how a budget writer for Gov. Jimmy Carter, who succeeded Maddox, had proposed eliminating the Market Bulletin, a free weekly newsletter originating with the state Department of Agriculture and sent to Georgia farmers. The Bulletin included news, a little gossip, and stock prices.

Irvin called down holy hell upon Carter and the Legislature, and there was a general retreat. “All of us in politics who wanted to be re-elected started including in our speeches a heartfelt statement about how much we look forward to reading the Market Bulletin,” Nunn said.

This, too, was a Talmadge marker. Back in the day, Gene Talmadge had used the Market Bulletin as his personal newspaper, stoked with political messages directed at his fervent supporters. The twice-weekly publication is sacrosanct even today, though the cost has gone up to $10 a year.

After the service, I button-holed former Gov. Roy Barnes in an effort to bring Irvin’s place in Georgia out into the open.

“We’ve always been a two-party state,” Barnes explained. “Before it was Republican and Democrat, it was Talmadge or anti-Talmadge. Tommy was a Talmadge guy, through and through. But he was liked by the other side.”

But there was also the next iteration of the Georgia Democratic party that was ushered in by Carter and those who followed — a biracial alliance that accepted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Irvin would become a part of that, too.

“[Irvin] was one of the first to say, ‘You can’t fight this anymore.’ He moderated everybody. He did bridge the racial gap, and that was the biggest thing — he helped create a coalition that governed the state for over 50 years,” Barnes said. “It was urban blacks and rural whites, and he was the cornerstone of that. And he was brave to do that at the time.”

Barnes, who like Miller counts Irvin as a mentor, had been one of the last to offer a eulogy at the Irvin service. The former governor, now 69, can be terribly funny when he likes, but he was wistful as he looked out onto the pews filled with gray heads.

He closed with this: “We will not see another Tommy Irvin. He was one of a dying breed, I regret to say. I’ll miss him, but I know we’ll all see him in a little while.”

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