During the depths of the worst depression in American history, Martin S. Conner was inaugurated governor of Mississippi on January 19, 1932. “We assume our duties,” he said, “when men are shaken with doubt and with fear, and many are wondering if our very civilization is about to crumble.”
Governor Conner inherited a bankrupt treasury and a $13 million deficit. At age forty-one, Martin Conner was one of the state’s youngest governors, but few had entered the office better trained or with more experience in public service.
Born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on August 31, 1891, the son of a prosperous planter and businessman, Conner earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi and a law degree from Yale University. After opening a law office in Seminary, he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1916 and in his first term, at age twenty-five, was elected Speaker of the House. Conner was a member of the “low pressure” coalition of state legislators who believed in low taxes, balanced budgets, minimum government services, and a “pay-as-you-go” fiscal policy.
After unsuccessful campaigns in 1923 and 1927, Conner was elected governor in 1931. When Governor Conner assumed office, the treasury was exhausted, unemployment was at a record high, and the state’s institutions of higher learning were no longer accredited. To solve the deficit problem, Governor Conner recommended the reduction of state expenditures by cutting back on government services and the number of state employees. To create additional revenue, he proposed a sales tax. Most of his recommendations were enacted and Mississippi became one of the first states in America to impose a sales tax. Governor Conner’s economic policies were very effective and by the time he left office in 1936, Mississippi had accumulated a treasury surplus.
His effort to regain accreditation for Mississippi institutions of higher learning was also successful. After the legislature combined the three existing college boards and provided for staggered terms for board members, Governor Conner persuaded the various accrediting agencies to reinstate Mississippi’s institutions to full accreditation.
To provide new jobs for the state’s unemployed, Governor Conner recommended a policy of tax incentives to attract new industry to Mississippi. That program, which was a revival of Governor Whitfield’s earlier efforts, was later expanded into the Balance Agriculture With Industry plan.
After Governor Conner left office, he twice, in 1939 and 1943, made unsuccessful bids to return to the governor’s office. He was appointed the first commissioner of the Southeastern Conference in 1940, a position he held until his death on September 16, 1950.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1924-1928), 225.
Obituary in Jackson Daily News, September 17, 1950.