Buford Ellington, Governor

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Earl Buford Ellington

Death: April 03, 1972 (64)
Immediate Family:

Son of Abner Earl Ellington and Cora Grantham
Husband of Catherine Ann Cheek
Father of Private and Private

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Buford Ellington, Governor


Earl Buford Ellington (June 27, 1907 – April 3, 1972) was an American politician who served as Governor of Tennessee from 1959 to 1963, and again from 1967 to 1971. Along with his political ally, Frank G. Clement, he helped lead a political machine that controlled the governor's office for 18 years, from 1953 to 1971. Ellington was also a supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and worked as the Director of the Office of Emergency Planning during the Johnson Administration in 1965.

Early life and career

Ellington was born in Holmes County, Mississippi, the son of Abner and Cora (Grantham) Ellington. He studied religion at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, but eventually had to drop out due to financial difficulties. He edited a newspaper in Durant, Mississippi, for a brief period. In 1929, he married Catherine Ann Cheek, and moved to Cheek's native Marshall County, Tennessee, where he opened a store in the Verona community. He worked as a salesman for American Harvester in the 1930s, and was a supervising salesman with Tennessee Farm Bureau Insurance in the early 1940s.

In 1944, Ellington worked in the campaign of successful gubernatorial candidate, Jim Nance McCord. Two years later, he was the Marshall County manager for Congressman Joe L. Evins's campaign. In 1948, Ellington was elected to Marshall County's seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

In 1952, Ellington managed the successful campaign of Frank Clement, who defeated incumbent Gordon Browning in the Democratic primary for governor, and went on to win the general election. Clement's campaign had the support of Memphis political boss E. H. Crump, who was seeking to regain the influence he had lost after Browning defeated his candidate, McCord, four years earlier. Clement appointed Ellington Commissioner of Agriculture, a position in which he would remain until the late 1950s.


In 1953, the Tennessee State Constitution was amended, extending the gubernatorial term from two years to four years. The new amendments also prevented governors from serving consecutive terms, though a temporary exception was made for Clement, allowing him to successfully run for a full four-year term in 1954 after his initial two-year term.

In 1958, with Clement term-limited, Ellington sought the Democratic Party's nomination for governor. His opponents were Memphis mayor Edmund Orgill, Nashville attorney Clifford Allen, and Judge Andrew "Tip" Taylor. After Crump's death in 1954, the Clement-Ellington alliance became the state's leading political organization. Ellington won the nomination with 213,415 votes to 204,629 for Taylor, 204,382 for Orgill, and 56,854 for Allen. He won the general election by a sizeable margin over several opponents, among them former Governor McCord, who ran as an independent.

During his first term, Ellington continued many of Clement's policies. He was aided by an economic boom, and was able to give teachers and school administrators raises without raising taxes. While he supported segregation, he ordered the state to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education ordering desegregation of the public school system. In 1961, several Tennessee State University students who had participated in the Freedom Rides were expelled after Ellington ordered an investigation into their activities. In response, dozens of protesters picketed the state capitol and demanded a meeting with Ellington, but he refused.

At the 1960 Democratic National Convention, a rift began to appear in the relationship between Clement and Ellington. The former endorsed John F. Kennedy for president, and the latter endorsed Lyndon B. Johnson. Following his first term as governor, Ellington worked as a vice president of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.

In 1965, President Johnson appointed Ellington Director of the Office of Emergency Planning (later integrated into FEMA). During the Selma to Montgomery marches, which took place at the height of the civil rights movement in March of that year, Ellington played a key role in establishing contact and talks between President Johnson and Governor George Wallace of Alabama. In September, Ellington helped organize federal relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Betsy.

Ellington again sought the Democratic Party nomination for governor in 1966. His opponent, John Jay Hooker, was a friend of former Governor Browning, and had been endorsed by the Nashville Tennessean. Ellington was endorsed by President Johnson, Clement, and the Nashville Banner, however, and defeated Hooker for the nomination, 413,950 votes to 360,105. The divide between Clement and Ellington continued to grow, however, as Ellington refused to endorse Clement in his Senate primary against Ross Bass, and Clement attempted to spend the state's budget surplus to ensure the Ellington administration did not inherit it.

By the beginning of his second term, Ellington had shifted his position on segregation, and openly supported an end to the long-standing practice. In 1967, he appointed Hosea T. Lockard to his cabinet as administrative assistant, making Lockard the state's first black cabinet member. In April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, where he was assisting with a strike by sanitation workers. Ellington quickly mobilized the National Guard to prevent rioting in the city.

In September 1967, Ellington signed a bill repealing the Butler Act, the 1925 law that had outlawed the teaching of the Theory of Evolution in state schools.

Later life

Ellington did not seek another office after his second term as governor ended. In the 1970 gubernatorial campaign, he refused to endorse the Democratic nominee, John Jay Hooker, and quietly supported the Republican nominee (and eventual winner), Winfield Dunn. Ellington's press secretary, Hudley Crockett, was narrowly defeated by incumbent Al Gore, Sr., in the 1970 U.S. Senate primary.

Ellington died while playing golf in Boca Raton, Florida, on April 3, 1972. Former President Johnson and former Vice President Spiro Agnew were among those in attendance at his funeral, and President Richard Nixon issued a statement of condolence.

Family and legacy

Ellington married Catherine Ann Cheek in 1929. They had two children: John, a pilot and aviation expert, and Ann, an artist.

The Ellington Agricultural Center, the headquarters of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, is named in honor of Governor Ellington. Ellington's other namesakes include a golf course at Henry Horton State Park and buildings on the campuses of Tennessee Technological University, the University of Memphis, and the University of Tennessee at Martin.

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Buford Ellington, Governor's Timeline

June 27, 1907
April 3, 1972
Age 64