Ronnie Thompson

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Ronald John
"Ronnie" Thompson, Sr.

Thompson during the 1960s

Mayor of Macon, Georgia
In office
November 1967 – 1975
Preceded by Benjamin Franklin Merritt, Jr.
Succeeded by Buck Melton

Born July 21, 1934
Augusta, Georgia
Died March 22, 2020 (aged 85)
Macon, Georgia
Resting place Not revealed
Political party Democrat-turned-Republican (c. 1967)
Spouse(s) (1) Nita Thompson (married 1952-1972, divorced)

(2) Linda Duffey Thompson (married 1975; soon divorced)
(3) Gloria Milligan Thompson (married 1976)

Children From first marriage:

Ronita Thompson Caldwell
John Thompson, Jr.
Five grandchildren
Five great-grandchildren

Residence Macon, Georgia
Alma mater Mercer University

University of Georgia
(Warner Robins extension campus)
Woodrow Wilson Law School (defunct)

Ronald John Thompson, Sr., known as Ronnie Thompson or 'Machine Gun Ronnie' Thompson (July 21, 1934 – March 22, 2020), was a former Georgia Republican politician who was the first member of his party to have been elected mayor of Macon. Thompson served two controversial terms from 1967 to 1975. He was also a former gospel and Country music singer known for his highly conservative views on issues.

In 1972, Thompson was a GOP candidate for the United States House of Representatives, but he was defeated by the Democratic incumbent W. S. Stuckey, Jr., scion of a wealthy Georgia family. In 1974, as his party's gubernatorial nominee, Thompson was trounced by Democrat George Busbee. A populist in political philosophy, Thompson was often at odds with his state and national moderate Republican leadership. However, during Watergate he was a staunch defender of embattled U.S. President Richard M. Nixon, no particular favorite of many conservative Republicans.

Buddy Kelly Moore (1951-1998), who completed a Master of Arts thesis on Thompson's career in 1976 at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, determined that the Maconite "shocked and fascinated observers with hard-line approaches to law-and-order, municipal unionism, and race relations." Moore defined Thompson's career in terms of a "predilection for the flamboyant."[1]

Unconventional author Will D. Campbell called Thompson "a harbinger of the New Right", a movement which emerged in the late 1970s to help to elect Republican Ronald W. Reagan of California as U.S. President.[2]

Early years, family, education, business

Thompson was born in Augusta in eastern Georgia near the South Carolina state line to Remus Warren Thompson and the former Mattie Lou Watkins (1910-1997), a southern working-class couple. The family included two older brothers, Kenneth and William Thompson, and a younger sister, Janice. Remus Thompson worked (1) in a cotton mill, (2) for Friedman's Jewelers in Augusta, having risen to the rank of credit manager, and (3) as a firefighter at the Daniel Field air base in Augusta. Mrs. Thompson and Ronnie, while he was still in elementary school, operated a restaurant near the military base.[3]

Originally a segregationist, Thompson said that he had been reared to "believe in separation of the races."[4] He also developed a resentment of the dominant wealth and the power elite. He once said that he could not fully evaluate the overall status of Macon because "I'm from the other side of the railroad tracks."[5]

Situated near the geographic center of Georgia, Macon was chartered in 1823 and named for the North Carolina statesman, Nathaniel Macon. The city contributed volunteers to the Texas Revolution. It was a temporary capital of Georgia after the sacking of Milledgeville in 1864 by the army of General William Tecumseh Sherman.[6]

Friedman's transferred Remus Thompson to Macon in 1945. Ronnie, then eleven years old, went on to complete grammar school and graduated in 1951 from Lanier High School. He then attended Southern Baptist-affiliated Mercer University in Macon, the University of Georgia extension campus at Warner Robins, and the since disbanded Woodrow Wilson Law School in the capital city of Atlanta,[7] but only for a quarter in each institution. Instead, he concentrated on his job at Friedman's, and at twenty-three, he became general manager for thirty-three stores in four southeastern states.[8] Meanwhile, Thompson in 1952 married a young woman named Nita; they later had a daughter named Ronita and a son named Johnny. The couple separated in 1972, and a divorce followed in 1974.[9]

Early political campaigns

Thompson's first political venture was an unsuccessful race on September 27, 1961, to fill a vacancy on the Bibb County Commission. Earlier, he had left Friedman's and opened his own jewelry business in Macon. Thompson reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that publicity from a campaign would generate new customers to his fledgling business. He finished fourth in a field of six but had been bitten by the political bug. The winner of the race, Andy Watson, polled nearly twice as many votes as Thompson.[10]

Acting on the advice of his then friend, former Mayor Benjamin Franklin Merritt (1906-1985), a commander of the Georgia National Guard, Thompson in 1963 ran for alderman on the then nonpartisan ballot and unseated the incumbent Bert Hamilton, a Mercer University professor. Merritt, meanwhile, was elected mayor, having previously served from 1953-1959. On the council, Thompson took a particular interest in aviation, used his aldermanic pay to finance flying lessons, and soon earned his pilot's license.[11]

On the council, Thompson differed with Mayor Merritt on many issues. The crime rate in Macon soared; municipal finance problems were so severe that the city had to borrow regularly; there were still 150 miles of dirt streets; city services were needed for newly annexed areas.[12]

Election as Macon mayor, 1967

Thompson was named one of "Georgia's Five Outstanding Young Men" by the state Jaycees, of which he was an active member. Members of the organization were believed to have played some role in Thompson's initial political success.[13]

Though Thompson had in 1964 supported Barry Goldwater for the presidency over Lyndon B. Johnson, he did not declare himself a Republican until he ran in the first ever GOP primary for mayor in 1967. His intraparty opponent, Royce F. Hobbs, was an official at Mercer University and the favorite of the party establishment. Thompson polled more than 7,000 votes, compared to barely 1,300 for Hobbs. Thompson then faced incumbent Mayor Merritt, who had initially encouraged him to run for the city council and with whom he had quarreled as an alderman. Thompson's legitimacy as a candidate was enhanced by open endorsements from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, and then Governor Claude Roy Kirk, Jr., of Florida. Thompson used the slogan "Make a Change for Progress" and called Merritt a "do-nothing mayor" who engaged in "bossism" and "machine politics".[14] He called Merritt "a desperate man who will do anything to stay in office" and a "flip-flopper like his ideal, Lyndon Johnson."[15] When Merritt reminded voters that he had served on Eisenhower's staff during World War II, Thompson replied: "It is true that President Eisenhower doesn't know me. [But] that's the very reason that [he] has publicly endorsed me, because he does know Mayor Merritt."[16]

Thompson unseated Merritt, 14,732 votes (53.1 percent) to 13,002 (46.9 percent). He lost seventeen of thirty-two precincts, including the boxes in the African American community. However, the black turnout dropped in the general election compared to the Democratic primary in which Merritt had to go to court to qualify for the ballot. Blacks then constituted some 38 percent of Macon's population. In the 2000 census, however, blacks were 63 percent of the municipal population. Thompson's greatest strength was in the blue collar section of south Macon. The Republican organization came on board in the last two weeks of the campaign and may have spelled the difference between victory and defeat for Thompson. It is also believed that Thompson benefited considerably from the unpopularity of President Johnson in Georgia.[17]

The law required Thompson to take office the day after the election. He faced a divided City Hall, as twelve of the fifteen aldermen were Democrats. The Macon power structure considered him an intruder. A number of municipal records were removed from the mayor's office on election night and burned though Merritt denied any collusion in the act. As a result, Macon passed an ordinance which requires municipal papers to be filed permanently.[18]

Thompson and African Americans

Thompson chaired the Macon City Council Library Committee, which quietly opened services to African Americans. "Not a word was said about it. We just did it. No big to-do. No press releases to inflame folks. and we started putting branch libraries in different neighborhoods. Nothing racial about it," Thompson recalled.[19]

Most African Americans in Macon, however, opposed the Thompson administration. In 1969, Thompson blocked the popular boxer, Muhammad Ali, from fighting at the Macon Coliseum, which Thompson had helped to complete, because Thompson objected to Ali's Conscientious Objector status during the Vietnam War.[20]

When racial rioting broke out in Macon on June 20, 1970, Thompson issued "shoot-to-kill" orders to police to stop looting. He drove a National Guard tank onto a Macon elementary school campus to intimidate would-be criminals. He authorized billboards in Macon warning that armed robbers would be "shot on sight".[21]

In the midsummer of 1971, a racial crisis erupted when a black city employee was shot and killed by a white policeman, who a month later was cleared of involuntary manslaughter.[22] Mayor Thompson imposed a 36-hour curfew after several suspected fire bombings. He fired a carbine in the air, heard over police radio, while he accompanied a police patrol.[23] He further angered liberals by publicly discussing the "best type of bullet" to use against the criminal element. Critics called him "Machine Gun Ronnie," a sobriquet to which he did not object though he never handled a machine gun. In fact, he paid for his campaigns by selling memorabilia containing the name "Thompson" on model machine guns.[24]

The Reverend Julius Caesar Hope (born 1932), a Macon black minister and the president of the Georgia NAACP, contended that African Americans in Macon were tired of living with unfulfilled promises for so long.[25] Hope viewed Thompson as ambivalent toward blacks: "I think Mayor Thompson was a politician of expediency. I really don't think deep down within Ronnie Thompson was a racist."[26] Macon lawyer Virgil Adams, who was a teenager at the time of the Thompson administration, alleged that Thompson "damaged Macon's image. When it got dark, you (blacks) needed to be off the street. Parents wouldn't let us out of the house at night for fear of being locked up, beaten by police, or shot."[27]

Thompson, however, defends his mayoral record on race relations. "Race wasn't an issue until my opponent brought it in. My administration built three new hospitals. Jet airport, firehouses, integrated the police department, had black personnel in every department. We went eight years without a tax increase or bond issue. I had a biracial committee[28] that met every month. Things like doctor's offices. Black patients had to go in a back door. We got it stopped. And the newspapers had a different edition for black subscribers. My committee talked to them, and they stopped it."[29]

In a 1971 speech to the Macon Optimist Club, Thompson urged blacks to work hard. He noted that he is descended from "a laboring family from a mill town." Thompson said that he understands the discrimination of poverty and declared that "the best way that I know to fight poverty is to go to work." The speech brought a standing ovation from the Optimists. Thompson declared that the city would fight for its citizens and businesses.[30]

Thompson's tough stance on crime was lauded by the national radio commentator Paul Harvey.[31]

Nerve gas and unionization

Thompson was the subject of national attention in August 1970, when the United States Army transported nerve gas from Alabama and Kentucky through Macon en route for disposal in the Atlantic Ocean off the North Carolina coast. Thompson tried to have the shipment diverted around Macon. Democratic Governor Lester Maddox, meanwhile, sided with the Army and vowed that he would be willing to ride with the shipment when it passed through Georgia to demonstrate the safety of the mission. Ultimately, the Army met with Thompson to try to allay his fears, and the gas reached its destination, but there was an unexpected delay in Macon caused by the malfunctioning of an air brake hose.[32]

In 1969, during Thompson's first term, municipal sanitation workers asked the city to organize through the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union. Thompson rejected unionization as a concept and declared that the City of Macon was already paying employees all that tight budgets would permit. Workers went on strike, and Thompson dismissed them and used city prisoners to collect the garbage. After some five weeks, the strike ended, and Thompson rehired many of the workers on his own terms.[33]

School busing

Thompson emphatically opposed school busing to achieve racial balance as affirmed in 1971 in the United States Supreme Court decision Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education..[34] He blamed President Nixon for directing the machinery of the administration toward achieving school integration. He accused Nixon of having advocated "socialistic trends" in housing and welfare, of leniency toward "hippies and revolutionaries", and with failure to end "forced busing."[35] In Macon, a court-ordered desegregation plan in 1970 transferred many students to different schools. When Thompson's 12-year-old son, Johnny, was among those relocated, he continued to take his son to the previous school, as did other parents. He was threatened with contempt of court, and despite boycotts by angry parents, the desegregation plan was implemented.[36]

Thompson went to Washington meet with Nixon, whom Thompson said "told me positively, face to face, there would be no busing to meet racial quotas. . . . " As the busing continued, Thompson remained livid with Nixon.[37] Watergate, however, prompted Thompson to defend Nixon and to attack the three national television networks for their comparable anti-Nixon coverage. In time, Thompson called on Nixon to surrender the White House tapes because Thompson expected the information to exonerate the President. Despite Nixon's resignation, Thompson said that he would always hold the former president "in the highest esteem". Thompson said that he never hesitated to take on politically impractical and unpopular causes.[38]

Reelection in 1971

In 1971, Thompson faced a Democratic opponent who was expected to give him a tough race: Bibb County Commissioner F. Emory Greene, a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives. In the primary, Greene defeated Bill Laite, who then sat out the general election campaign. Greene questioned Thompson's militant use of the police, the "shoot-to-kill" order during the 1970 racial unrest, and the nerve-gas matter. He also claimed that Thompson's campaign organization compensated Laithe for the remainder of his debts in return for neutrality in the general election campaigns. Greene said that Thompson must be defeated to avoid four more years of "radicalism, noise, confusion, and publicity-seeking maneuvers which leave the city standing still."[39]

Thompson defeated Greene 19,329 (58.2 percent) to 13,881 (41.8 percent), having received strong support once again from blue collar white voters.[40] Thompson polled a bare majority of affluent whites. Virtually all of the black voters sided with Greene despite what Thompson saw as his considerable assistance to the minority community.[41] Thompson's reelection as mayor came ten months after Jimmy Carter, whom Thompson opposed, became Georgia's new Democratic governor.

Rallying behind the military and the police

Thompson enlisted in the United States Air Force after his high school graduation. He served in the intelligence unit during the Korean War until a football injury resulted in his discharge in 1952 and disqualified him from pilot training.[42] Thompson was a strong proponent of the American troops who were assigned to block the expansion of communism in the Vietnam War. He traveled to South Vietnam and went into the combat areas. He returned to Macon with numerous hand-delivered messages from the troops for their families. The sight of the American flag inspired staunch patriotic feeings in Thompson. "I always get a thrill when I see the flag go by or hear the Star-Spangled Banner, said Thompson, who contends that his maternal family is descended from Francis Scott Key.[43] Thompson established the label "Flag City U. S. A." for Macon, where on Poplar Street are fifty-four flagpoles which fly the emblems of each state, the U.S. flag, and the standards of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.[44]

Thompson said that he felt compelled to protect the students of Mercer University, which he had briefly attended, from subversive speakers brought to the campus. He once vowed to arrest the antiwar activist and actress Jane Fonda were she to speak at Mercer.[45]

He also rallied to the defense of U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel William Calley|William L. Calley, Jr., a fellow southerner who was convicted in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. Thompson even offered Calley employment when the officer was paroled. Like Thompson had in his earlier years, Calley thereafter earned his livelihood in the jewelry business, but in Atlanta.[46]

As he had with the troops in Vietnam, Thompson declared himself a strong supporter of the police. He recorded "A Policeman's Prayer" in the venue of John Wayne's patriotic The Green Berets.[47]

Thompson's singing career

Thompson's father originally sang in a quartet in Augusta, and Ronnie developed similar interests at a young age in part to please the senior Thompson. After he had left the Air Force, Thompson himself sang with a gospel quartet at Robins Air Force Base, and by 1955, having created his own quartet, he was heard on local radio in Macon. In time, he drifted into Country music and made his first such record in 1958.[48] In 1960, Thompson took over several radio and television programs for Friedman's Jewelers. His television show was broadcast in Macon, Augusta, and Asheville, North Carolina. An observer said that the telegenic Thompson "projects sincerity, with a seductive overlay of devotion, patriotism, and simple honesty. He is a pleasing public speaker, and he comes across beautifully on television."[49]

Thompson's singing style was described as "pleasant Country-Western baritone-bass, with a hard 'r' twang."[50] Thompson once admitted that he wonders what might have happened had he stuck to music as a potential career and insists that "I would have been successful had I stayed in the music business."[51]

Thompson was in a line of southern politicians who had been musicians: Governor and U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, Governor W. Lee O'Daniel of Texas, and Governor Jimmie Davis of Louisiana. Davis, immortalized for his song "You Are My Sunshine"[52] once told Thompson, "If you want to have any success in politics, sing softly and carry a big guitar," a play on an old Theodore Roosevelt adage.[53]

In Thompson's last year in office, he commissioned a portrait of the African American singer Otis Redding (1941-1967), best known for "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay." He offered the portrait to Governor Busbee for use in the state capitol, but it remained in Macon until late in 2007, when it went missing in the transition between Mayor C. Jack Ellis, Macon's first black chief executive, and current Mayor Robert Reichert, a Democrat former member of the Georgia House. Thompson, through his career in gospel singing, had been personally friendly with Macon's well-known musicians, including Redding, James Brown, Little Richard, Wayne Cochran, and the Allman Brothers.[54]

Mental depression

In 1972, Thompson was a passenger in a private Piper Comanche airplane. During a downdraft, Thompson's head crashed into the door latch, a concussion resulted, and there was serious internal bleeding. He spent a week in Macon Medical Center. On returning home, he collapsed, possibly a result of powerful medications. A neighbor had allegedly seen him shooting a pistol in his backyard. A woman called a radio talk show and claimed that Thompson had been seen nude in his backyard. Thompson sued the radio station for $2.36 million.[55]

After the collapse at home, Thompson was again hospitalized and was pronounced clinically dead. Miraculously, physicians revived him, and he lay unconscious for three days. After a ten-day stay, he returned to his office, but was soon rushed to College Street Hospital, a psychiatric facility. Diagnosed with mild depression, Thompson remained in the psychiatric hospital for three weeks and received electroshock treatment. His mental health problems seriously damaged his political career. So did after effects of the firefighters' strike, for blue collar white voters, Thompson's traditional base, were generally sympathetic to the firefighters. Rumors circulated that Thompson had been unfaithful to Nita and had been injured, not in the airplane mishap, but by the husband of a mistress. Such rumors, apparently baseless, hurt Thompson among "Bible Belt" fundamentalists. The divorce from Nita made the moralistic, gospel-singing mayor seem hypocritical in the eyes of such voters.[56]

Congressional campaign, 1972

Mayor Thompson was unopposed for the Republican nomination for the Eighth Congressional District seat, whereas W.S. Stuckey defeated two intraparty opponents, State Representative Mitch Miller (no relation to the entertainer of the same name) and Harry Powell, a newspaper publisher from Dublin, who was active in the anticommunist John Birch Society. (John Birch grew up in Macon.) Stuckey declined to discuss Thompson's mental breakdown, for fear of evoking sympathy for the mayor. Thompson's announcement that he had been offered $50,000 by an undisclosed person in Stuckey's organization to withdraw from the race reinforced questions of mental stability in the eyes of many voters.[57]

Campaign issues in the race were similar to those in other districts: the status of the Vietnam War, forced busing to achieve school integration, welfare, inflation, and taxation. Thompson stressed "law-and-order," his most familiar mantra. Stuckey said that "Ronnie and I were agreeing on most of the issues in that campaign. . . . He wanted the job that I had."[58]

Stuckey and Thompson conducted mobile campaigns and went from town to town to shake hands. Stuckey distributed pencils; Thompson serenaded voters with his rendition of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" or "Have A Little Talk with Jesus".[59] Stuckey repeatedly refused Thompson's request for a television debate. Thompson called Stuckey "a rich playboy" who "socializes with the Kennedy crowd in Washington". Thompson described himself as a "cotton-sock Republican running against a silk-stocking Democrat."[60]

The national GOP steered clear of Thompson either because of his perceived ultraconservative philosophy or the mental depression episode. When Nixon visited Atlanta, Thompson was not invited to ride in the parade. Vice President Spiro Agnew journeyed to Augusta and Columbus but never mentioned Thompson or the Eighth District race.[61] Thompson was overwhelmed in fund-raising, having spent about $16,000 in the race to Stuckey's $250,000. Thompson disliked asking potential donors for contributions and instead depended on the sale of machine-gun pins for funding his campaign, insufficient as such sales proved to have been.[62]

Thompson received 33,539 votes (37.8 percent) to Stuckey's 55,247 votes (62.2 percent).[63] Thompson found a unique way to justify his defeat in Macon: city voters who repudiated his congressional candidacy had decided that Thompson should remain mayor. Thompson said that black voters who overwhelmingly backed Stuckey were "voting to keep Machine Gun Ronnie in Macon. I hope they realize that."[64]

Gubernatorial primary, 1974

In 1974, Thompson cross-filed in both the Republican and Democratic parties for governor, a practice then allowed in Georgia but not used by previous candidates during the state's long period of Democratic hegemony. Thompson said that his cross-filing was intended to increase his name identification and propel him to the leading position among four Republican primary candidates.[65] After the election, the state law permitting cross-filing was repealed in the Busbee administration. California similarly had a cross-filing law in the 1950s, used by then Governor Earl Warren. Thompson had considered running once again for U.S. representative or for lieutenant governor but instead filed for governor. He expected to face then Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox of the Atlanta metro area, a former governor known nationally for his past appeals to segregation. Thompson called Maddox "a counterfeit conservative" and challenged the former governor to a head-to-head debate, which Maddox promptly rejected.[66]

Thompson also clashed with J.B. Stoner, a self-avowed white supremacist, who ran as a Democrat for lieutenant governor to succeed Maddox. Stoner, the former attorney for James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., placed a controversial advertisement on the side of a bus of the Macon Transit Company. Thompson had the sign removed, and Stoner sued successfully in federal court to have the sign returned though it was seen as hostile to blacks. Stoner even urged blacks to support Thompson for governor, a recommendation he made tongue-in-cheek.[67] Stoner received more votes in his race for lieutenant governor—73,449 or 9 percent of the total—than were cast for all candidates in the Republican gubernatorial primary.[68]

In the gubernatorial primary, Thompson faced four opponents, W.M. Coolidge, Harold Dye, Harry Geisinger, and George Lankford. Dye (born 1917) of Atlanta is a retired brigadier general who was a former member of the United Nations Military Armistice Commission and an official in the Georgia Department of Industry and Trade. Coolidge and Lankford were county commissioners in DeKalb and Cobb counties, respectively. Geisinger, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, years later was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives from Roswell, Georgia and served in the House Republican leadership.[69]

In the August 14 primary, held five days after the resignation of Richard Nixon as president, Thompson led with 17,830 votes (41 percent); Harold Dye finished second with 9,870 ballots (23 percent). Thompson received 21,848 Democratic votes, presumably at the expense of Lester Maddox, who led his party ballot with 277,921. Busbee finished second with 167,811, barely above the total of banker Bert Lance, who would in 1977 become President Carter's first director of the Office of Management and Budget.[70]

Runoff primary, 1974

In the runoff primary campaign, State GOP Chairman Bob Shaw of Atlanta, himself a gospel singer, approached Thompson in a debate and questioned the likelihood of Thompson being indicted as a result of an investigation into gambling in Macon. Thompson was subpoenaed for three hours before a grand jury but was not indicted.[71] Thompson called for the resignation of Shaw and the entire sixty-seven members of the state executive committee.[72]

Thompson only narrowly prevailed in the second Republican primary balloting, 22,211 (50.6 percent) to Dye's 21,669 (49.4 percent).[73] Considering the ongoing schism, Dye and other party leaders refused to endorse Thompson in the general election. In the Democratic runoff, Busbee easily defeated Maddox, who was said to have appealed more broadly to the same bloc of voters who were partial to Thompson. Maddox declared that the race with Busbee was "the ugliest thing I have ever been involved in."[74]

General election issues

Thompson advocated decentralization of Georgia state government: He proposed the relocation of the Georgia Department of Health to Augusta to be near the state medical college and the moving of the Department of Public Safety to Macon in the center of the state. He proposed a state takeover of the City of Atlanta if the capital did not reduce the crime rate within six months of his inauguration. He favored standardized testing of school teachers to remove the incompetent. He proposed legalization of bingo and parimutuel betting by local county option.[75]

Thompson continued his hard-line rhetoric against crime. He said that he would offer condemned criminals the possibility of a firing squad or hanging in lieu of the electric chair. He proposed that police use Teflon-tipped flat-headed bullets which expand once inside the body, even though such ammunition would appear to violate the Geneva Convention. It was not clear to all whether Thompson was being serious or facetious.[76]

Thompson could make little traction in the race against Busbee, who refused the Republican's repeated call for debates. He alleged that Busbee was tied to the Georgia Power Company, milk interests, and International Telephone and Telegraph and that the bulk of Busbee's funding was from "special interests".[77] Busbee was so far ahead in public opinion polls that he could ignore Thompson. And it was a heavily Democratic year nationally in the aftermath of Watergate.

A striking defeat

In the general election, Busbee was a runaway winner, 646,777 (69.1 percent) to Thompson's 289,113 (30.9 percent). Thompson ran nearly 10 percentage points below Carter's 1970 Republican opponent, the late Hal Suit, a former Atlanta-area broadcaster who had opposed capital punishment. Thompson had considered filing as a write-in candidate in the 1970 general election against both Carter and Suit, whom he considered a liberal Republican, but did not follow through. His undermining of Suit's candidacy subsequently led to hostility to Thompson within the party's largely Atlanta-centered Republican establishment.[78]

Thompson claimed that the Republican leadership which repudiated him was more concerned with control of the party apparatus than in electing a governor. The GOP hierarchy, while it could not win many elections, could still influence federal grants and appointments. Thompson said that he could "never fit into that organization" and because he was "threatening the power structure", the leadership turned on him.[79] Newt Gingrich, the future Speaker of the United States House of Representatives who made his maiden but unsuccessful congressional race in 1974, supported Thompson and hailed the nominee for refusing to adhere to the wishes of the "big shots" in the party. Still, many observers thought that Thompson's intraparty conflicts made him appear unstable and unwilling to accommodate minor differences.[80] The party schism was discussed in Washington, D.C. All state gubernatorial nominees except Thompson were invited to the White House for a meeting with new President Gerald R. Ford, Jr.[81]

On election night, disgruntled Thompson supporters attacked chairman Shaw at the candidate's state headquarters in Atlanta. Shaw, who denied that he had ever undermined Thompson's candidacy and had indeed voted for him, sustained a deep gash in his forehead. Thompson said that he would "reconstruct" the GOP, vowed to tour the state to revive the party's sagging fortunes, but he never did so. Thompson did work to replace Shaw as chairman with Mack Mattingly, who six years later in 1980 would win election to the U.S. Senate from Georgia in the same election in which the state voted once again for Jimmy Carter as president, rather than the national winner, Ronald Reagan.[82]

Thompson's defeat may have contributed to the loss of five Republican seats in the state legislature, as the GOP numbers fell from twenty-nine to twenty-four. In addition, the defeat of conservative Republican U.S. Representative Ben Blackburn by Democat Elliot Levitas in the Atlanta suburbs made the Georgia congressional delegate once again all-Democratic, as it had been prior to 1965.[83]

A Democrat succeeds Thompson

Thompson could not seek a third term as mayor. Republicans nominated Sydney Pyles to run in the 1975 general election. Democrats conducted a runoff primary between Buck Melton and the minister, Julius Caesar Hope, the first African American to have sought the mayoralty. Melton, an easy winner over the Reverend Hope, then overwhelmed Pyles, 18,778 (68.1 percent) to 8,783 (31.9 percent).[84] A Republican elected to the city council that year, George M. Israel, III (born 1949), would emerge four years later in 1979 as the second and thus far last Republican to have served as mayor of Macon. Israel served two terms, with his service concluding in 1987.[85]

Nita Thompson had walked out of the marriage during the congressional campaign in 1972. In Thompson's words, "She got tired of the threats of violence, people throwing bricks at the car with her in it, the children not being able to go any place in peace, the police living in our house . . . She wanted me to get out of politics. I told her I would remain in it until I accomplished the things I set out to do. The day that I qualified for Congress, I came home, and she's never been back since."[86] In 1975, Thompson hastily married then twenty-six-year-old Linda Duffey, but the union lasted only a few months. In 1976, he married the former Gloria Milligan.[87]

Thompson's accomplishments as mayor

Thompson's mayoral accomplishments abounded despite the political controversies. He promoted industrial expansion, airport improvements, the upgrading of hospitals, and the completion in 1968 of the $4.5 million 14,000-set Macon Colisuem.[88] Buckner Melton said that Thompson, despite his many critics, "had the vision to support the proper restoration of this great old building."[89] Libraries and city recreational programs were expanded. Seventy-seven miles of streets were paved, and nondiscriminatory hiring practices were instituted by the city. Thompson pushed for upgrading the Macon police and fire departments, with the number of police having increasd from 168 to 242 and firefighters from 181 to 297. Thompson pushed for civil defense and created "one of the best programs in the state."[90] His accomplishment were not accompanied by a bond issue or an increase of ad valorem taxes. Yet, his positive accomplishments were overshadowed by his flamboyance and his hard-line positions on law-and-order and municipal unionism.[91]

Thompson's last act as mayor was to release all prisoners from city jail. He then wrote a column for the weekly Macon Herald and hosted a radio talk show before such exchanges were commonplace on the airwaves.[92] Subsequently, he wrote for the Macon News until 1983, when it merged with the Macon Telegraph. In a column about the newspaper consolidation, Thompson said "the most permanent thing known to mankind is change."[93]

Thompson is a featured artist on the CD America Speaks from the Heart by Centurion, a tribute to the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the American military personnel in the War on Terror.[94]

In recent years, Thompson was a counselor at the River Edge Behavioral Health Center in Macon.[95]


  1. Buddy Kelly Moore, 'Machine Gun Ronnie' Thompson" A Political Biography, Georgia College at Milledgeville, Master's thesis, August 1976, p. vi
  3. Moore, Thesis, pp. 1-2.
  4. Roger Williams, "What Makes Ronnie Run", Atlanta Magazine, January 1971, p. 94.
  5. Margaret Shannon, "Can a Gospel Singer Find Happiness as the First Republican Mayor of Macon?" Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine, May 25, 1969, p. 16.
  6. Ida Young, Julius Gholson, and Clara Nell Hargrove, History of Macon, Georgia (Macon: Lyon, Marshall, & Brooks, 1950), pp. 43, 48, 62, 88, 278.
  8. Williams, "What Makes Ronnie Run," p. 94.
  9. Moore Thesis, p. 4.
  10. Buddy Moore, Thesis, p. 11
  11. Buddy Moore, Thesis, pp. 11-12.
  12. Macon Telegraph, September 1, 1964, p. A14; February 16, 1966, p. A13; June 29, 1966, p. A1.
  14. Macon Telegraph, October 28, 1967, p. 4A; November 5, 1967, p. A1; Williams, "What Makes Ronnie Run," p. 96.
  15. Macon Telegraph, November 2, 1967, p. A23.
  16. Moore, Thesis, p. 22.
  17. Billy Watson and Eric Welch, "How Did Thompson Topple Merritt?", Macon Telegraph and News, November 2, 1967, p. A8; Shannon, "Can a Gospel Singer?", p. 18.
  18. Shannon, "Can a Gospel Singer?", p. 19; Eric Welch, "Mayor Says Some City Files Empty," Macon Telegraph, December 6, 1967, p. A1; Macon Telegraph, January 17, 1968, p. 18A
  22. Robert Friedman, "City Votes to Pay Officer's Defense," Macon Telegraph, June 30, 1971, p. A1; Grant Jackson, "Mayor to Keep Beck on Duty," Macon Telegraph, June 30, 1971, p. A3; Jackson, "Beck Case Dismissed by Jury," Macon Telegraph, July 16, 1971, p. A1.
  26. Buddy Moore, Thesis, pp. 34-35.
  32.,9171,909552,00.html; Buddy Moore, Thesis, pp. 29-32
  33. Bill Maynard, "108 Public Works People on Strike", Macon News, March 12, 1969, p. A1; Shannon, "Can a Gospel Singer?", p. 19; Ronnie Ellington, "Union Criticizes Prisoner Use for Garbage Collection," Macon Telegraph, March 14, 1969, p. A1; Ellington, "Boycott Hinted in Strike Here," Macon Telegraph, March 13, 1969, p. A1.
  35. Williams, "What Makes Ronnie Run," p. 75.
  36. Williams, "What Makes Ronnie Run," p. 99
  37. Williams, "What Makes Ronnie Run", p. 75.
  38. Macon Telegraph, May 8, 1974, p. A3; Randall Savage, "Nixon Still Gets the Mayor's Respect", Macon Telegraph, August 9, 1974, p. A3; Moore, Thesis, p. 88
  39. Buddy Moore, Thesis, pp. 32-33.
  40. City of Macon, Election Statistics, Bonnie Smith, 1-478-784-9774
  41. Moore, Thesis, p. 35
  42. Buddy Kelly, Thesis, p. 4
  43. Williams, "What Makes Ronnie Run?", p. 90
  44. Macon Telegraph, November 14, 1975, p. A4.
  46. Moore, Thesis, p. 86
  48. Don Rountree, "Alderman Finding Success in Popular Song Field," Macon Telegraph, April 19, 1964, p. A6
  49. Williams, pp. 75, 96.
  50. Shannon, Gospel Singer, p. 18.
  51. Christopher Bonner, "Thompson: Whatever Else, His Reign Was Never Dull," Macon Telegraph and News, December 7, 1975, p. A8.
  52. Robert Sherill, Gothic Politics in the Deep South (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1968), p. 31.
  53. Eric Welch, "Gospel-singing Jeweler Is 'Country' Candidate,",Macon Telegraph, August 26, 1967, p. A1.
  54. Williams, What Makes Ronnie Run?, p. 92.
  55. Macon Telegraph, July 27, 1973, p. A1; Randall Savage, "Thompson Names WBML in $2.36 Million Law," Macon Telegraph, April 12, 1974, p. A3.
  56. Max Haggard, "Thompson Recalls Health Crisis," Macon Telegraph, December 31, 1972, p. A4; Buddy Moore, Thesis, p. 102.
  57. Moore, Thesis, pp. 110-111
  58. Moore, Thesis, pp. 111-112; Grant Jackson, "Taxes, Inflation: Issues in Eighth," Macon Telegraph and News, October 29, 1972, p. D1.
  59. Archie McKay, "Stuckey-Campaign Style: A Handshake and a Pencil", Macon Telegraph', October 10, 1972, p. A3; McKay, "Law and Order, Songs Mark Thompson Style," Macon Telegraph, October 17, 1972, p. A3.
  60. Bill Montgomery, "Thompson Plans Stay in Politics," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 12, 1972, p. A21; Max Haggard, "Foe 'Socializing', Thompson Claims," Macon Telegraph, September 6, 1972, p. A1; Jackson, "Mayor Describes Illness," p. 1.
  61. Selby McCash, "GOP Holds Mayor at Arm's Length," Macon Telegraph, October 29, 1972, p. D3.
  62. Buddy Moore, Thesis, pp. 114-115.
  63. Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections, U.S. House, 1972
  64. Christopher Bonner, "Thompson: Whatever Else, His Reign Was Never Dull", Macon Telegraph and News, December 7, 1975, p. 9.
  65. Buddy Moore, Thesis, p. 116
  66. Selby McCash and Randall Savage, "'Bring on Maddox,' Mayor Says," Macon Telegraph, August 14, 1974, p. A1
  67. Randall Savage, "Stoner's Signs Removed from Buses," Macon Telegraph, May 23, 1974, p. A3; Richard Harris, "Council Bans Political Ads from Buses," Macon Telegraph, July 18, 1974, p. A3; Macon Telegraph, June 28, 1974, p. A3
  70. Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections, Georgia Gubernatorial Primary Returns, 1974.
  71. Macon Telegraph, September 7, 1974, p. A.1
  72. Macon Telegraph and News, September 2, 1974, pp. A1-2; Selby McCash, "Thompson Party Rift Widens", Macon Telegraph, September 11, 1974, p. A1
  73. Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections, 1974 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary runoff results
  74. The New York Times, August 1974
  75. Randall Savage, "Mayor Favors Relocation of Agencies," Macon Telegraph, July 25, 1974, p. C1; Rex Granum, "Thompson Says He'd Ask General Assembly Control of Atlanta, Atlanta Constitution, September 27, 1974, p. A6; Linda Wilson, "Thompson Would Support Winning GOP Opponent," Macon Telegraph, July 12, 1974, p. A3.
  76. Wilson, "Thompson Would Support"; John Grimond, "Georgia's Vote: A British View", The New York Times, November 10, 1974, sect. IV, p. 3.
  77. Selby McCash, "Busbee Fears Open Debate, Thompson Charges," Macon Telegraph, September 25, 1974, p. A.; Hopkins, "Thompson Not Invited", p. 8
  78. Macon Telegraph, October 2, 1970, p. A1
  79. Moore, Thesis, p. 125
  80. Selby McCash, "Macon Mayor v. The "Big Shots'," Macon Telegraph and News, October 27, 1974, p. C1
  81. Sam Hopkins, "Thompson Not Invited by Ford", Atlanta Constitution, September 25, 1974, p. A8.
  82. Selby McCash, "Revamp of Party Vowed by Mayor," Macon Telegraph, November 6, 1974, p. A1; McCash, "Thompson Plans," p. 1; Moore, Thesis, p. 128.
  84. City of Macon, Election Statistics, Bonnie Smith, 1-478-784-9774.
  85. List of Macon, Georgia, mayors.
  86. Buddy Moore, Thesis, pp. 102-103
  87. Randall Savage, "The Last Hours," Macon Telegraph, December 10, 1975, p. B1.
  90. Christopher Bonner, "Thompson Abandons Third Term Bid," Macon Telegraph, August 15, 1975, p. A8.
  91.,+Georgia)+&source=web&ots=KPPbEuQE4r&sig=IlUX9zhB85ZK8CnXkB4WwgTvuD0&hl=en; Moore, Thesis, pp. 136-137
  92. Moore, Thesis, pp. 137-138.
  95. Confirmed at 478-751-4519.