Ben Fortson (1904-1979)
Born in Wilkes County in 1904, Benjamin Wynn Fortson Jr. attended Emory University at Oxford, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Starke University. After being involved in a car accident at the age of twenty-four, Fortson used a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. He served two terms each in the state senate and house before being appointed secretary of state in 1946 to fill the unexpired term of John B. Wilson, who died in office. Fortson never faced serious opposition in his seven bids for reelection.
Fortson was a celebrated storyteller and relished recounting his role in the infamous three governors dispute. In a 1963 series, "Men in Power," published in the Atlanta Constitution, reporter Celestine Sibley wrote:
Fortson has done more to dramatize for school children and many grownup voters one artifact of state government than any history teacher could hope to do. The great seal of Georgia, which is kept in his office safe, didn't mean much to anybody until 1947, when Eugene Talmadge died before he could take office as governor and his son, Herman, now U.S. Sen. Talmadge, and the lieutenant governor, M. E. Thompson, both claimed the office. Without the great seal neither man's official actions could be properly attested. And until the courts acted nobody could find the great seal. Fortson had it hidden under the cushion of his wheelchair—"sitting on it like a setting of duck eggs," he says.
During his tenure the duties of the secretary of state's office grew to include a variety of responsibilities not originally assigned,
Fortson called the accident that left him paralyzed "the best thing that ever happened to me." Sentenced to a short life of invalidism in 1929,
Fortson was perennially rumored to be a candidate for higher office until he announced his bid for reelection for secretary of state. "Secretary of state is a fascinating job, not like being governor," he was quoted as saying. Fortson died in Atlanta on May 19, 1979, and was buried in Rest Haven Cemetery in Washington, in Wilkes County.
"Body of Fortson Will Lie in Capitol Rotunda Today," Atlanta Constitution, May 22, 1979.
Celestine Sibley, "Men in Power: Politics Saved Fortson from Being an Invalid," Atlanta Constitution, December 2, 1963.
Jean Cleveland, University of Georgia Libraries
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.