Ben Fortson served as Georgia’s secretary of state for thirty-three years, including playing a pivotal role in the 1947 “three governors controversy.” An energetic and much-loved public servant, Fortson remained in office until his death in 1979. He was customarily known as “Mr. Ben,” especially to the scores of schoolchildren who visited the capitol each year.
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, including maintenance of the capitol and grounds, the governor’s mansion, and Confederate cemeteries. Fortson often said his proudest accomplishment was the construction of the Georgia Archives Building, built in 1965 and named for him in 1982. He initiated a long tradition of schoolchildren visiting the capitol and customarily provided teachers with copies of the U.S. and Georgia constitutions and material on Georgia history, a keen maneuver by a savvy political operative.
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 retired briefly to the Wilkes County home he shared with his wife, Mary Cade, and their daughter, Ann, to recuperate. “I had the pleasure most men miss of being able to spend long hours with my little girl,” he said. He spent hours reading history, poetry, and literature, and when he became stronger, he began to go fishing. According to one of his stories, he pestered his friends so often to take him fishing that they convinced him to run for the legislature to get him out of town for a few months. He later credited politics with saving his life.
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.