Former Gov. Carl E. Sanders Sr., who sought during the mid-1960s to lead Georgia away from its segregationist past, died on Sunday. He was 89.
As a young man, Sanders gave up his role as a quarterback at the University of Georgia to go off to a war. He learned to fly a bomber, which he named in honor of his home state. He dated a Hollywood starlet. He became a lawyer, then a lawmaker, then the state’s 74th governor — all by the age of 37 — then went on to become a leading business figure.
As a state representative, Sanders beat a segregationist political machine, bringing a moderate Democrat’s voice and vision to Atlanta.
As a state senator, he urged then-Gov. Ernest Vandiver to desegregate Georgia’s public schools.
As a governor, he shepherded Georgia through a population explosion, underscored by the growing demands of an increasingly urbanized state. Schools and airports flourished during his tenure. Big-time sports — the Atlanta Braves and Falcons — came to Atlanta while he was in office.
As a leader, Sanders helped bring a progressive government to Georgia, which had been dominated by lawmakers from rural areas. He sought to create a New South.
And as a businessman, he and two partners took about $300 and launched a law firm that now employs about 600 attorneys in offices from Atlanta to Hong Kong.
As word of his death spread, Sanders’ allies and opponents recalled a man who led Georgia when the state needed a strong hand.
“Carl Sanders was an outstanding governor of Georgia, a champion of education, and a courageous proponent of ending racial segregation in our state,” former President Jimmy Carter said in a statement. In 1970, Carter beat Sanders in a rancorous, racially tinged primary for governor.
Said Gov. Nathan Deal: “He wasn’t one of those who just made speeches and had nothing to show for it. He had a lot of accomplishments, and that’s certainly something all of us need to learn.”
Zell Miller, a former governor as well as a U.S. senator, wasted no words describing Sanders in a 2006 interview.
“He did more for the state than anybody I know.”
Athlete, pilot, ‘luckiest fellow’
Sanders was born May 15, 1925, in Augusta, the eldest of two sons. His father, Carl T. Sanders, was a salesman and later a member of the Richmond County Commission. His mother, Roberta Sanders, worked at a dime store.
He was a rangy kid, recalled Doug Barnard, who served as Sanders’ executive secretary, and, later, as a congressman from Augusta. Barnard, who grew up with Sanders, remembered a boy who was fast and strong.
“Carl emerged as the best athlete in the school,” Barnard said in a 2006 interview.
Sanders parlayed that athletic ability into a scholarship at UGA, where in 1942 he was a left-handed quarterback on the freshman football team.
The next year, he surprised coaches and friends when he left Athens to join the U.S. Army, which trained him to pilot B-17 bombers. He named his airplane “Georgia Peach.”
Sanders sent letters to his boyhood pal from his base on the West Coast. The young flier, Barnard said, found an enviable way to spend his off-hours. “He was dating a starlet,” Barnard said. “I said, ‘Damn, Carl, you’re the luckiest fellow I’ve ever known.’”
Sanders never flew the “Peach” over Europe; World War II wound to an end by the time the young pilot was ready to deploy. He returned to UGA in 1945, where one night, hanging around outside a sorority, he bumped into a girl from Statesboro. He and Betty Foy married in 1947, the same year he finished law school. He was admitted to the state bar in 1948.
The newly minted lawyer went to work at an Augusta law firm. He also began eyeing the political landscape.
In 1954, Sanders ran for the state House against a candidate from the Cracker Party, a segregationist organization that controlled most of the political machinations in Augusta and Richmond County. Recalling the victory, decades later, still pleased him.
“We broke them,” he said.
In 1956, he was elected to the first of three terms in the state Senate, representing Richmond, Glascock and Jefferson counties. There, he caught the eye of Vandiver, then the lieutenant governor.
Two years later, the pair went after corruption in the administration of Gov. Marvin Griffin. Sanders served as chairman of a Senate investigation into the administration’s road projects deals, and the resulting publicity was so bad that Griffin’s handpicked successor declined to run for governor.
Vandiver assumed the governorship in 1959. Sanders became his floor leader, then the Senate’s president pro tem.
In 1961, another lawmaker — Miller — joined Sanders in the Senate and was immediately impressed by the Augusta legislator.
“He was so distinguished,” Miller recalled.
‘A generation of illiterates’
Sanders was distinguishing himself beyond the Capitol, too.
In 1959, a federal judge had ordered the Atlanta Board of Education to submit a desegregation plan. A statewide commission also recommended the repeal of segregation laws as a “local option.” Georgia, like other Southern states, was in turmoil.
Vandiver called 60 advisers to the Governor’s Mansion to discuss the state’s options. Desegregate, per court order, or close? Fifty-eight, according to historic accounts, urged the governor to defy the government and close schools. Two — House Floor Leader Frank Twitty and Sanders — recommended desegregation.
Closing the schools, Sanders said, “would have created a generation of illiterates.”
Vandiver listened to the minority, shutting schools long enough to allow a special legislative session, during which lawmakers amended segregation laws.
A lifelong Baptist, Sanders said he decided to run for governor after asking for divine guidance. It came in 1962, when the Legislature was in a special session studying the state’s county unit electoral system, which critics said unfairly favored rural areas over urban centers.
After working out at the downtown YMCA, Sanders said he paused to pray over his political plans before returning to work. After conferring with the Almighty, Sanders, who’d originally declared to run for lieutenant governor, set his sights a notch higher. He would run for governor.
Those were anxious days. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been sentenced to jail for attempting to desegregate public buildings in Albany. Griffin, the former governor and an ardent segregationist, was running again in the Democratic primary. The issue of race was an undercurrent never far from the surface.
In a 1962 speech, Sanders declared, “Whether it be Marvin Griffin or Martin Luther King, I will not tolerate agitators nor permit violence or bloodshed among our citizens regardless of color or creed.”
Sanders easily won the 1962 primary and the general election. He was 37.
Sanders, Miller recalled, “was the last governor to so totally dominate the Legislature.”
When he took office in 1963, the state constitution forbade governors from succeeding themselves, meaning he had only four years to put his agenda into effect. Apparently, that was long enough.
The Sanders administration built 6,000 classrooms, added 10,000 teachers and raised annual teacher salaries by an average of almost $1,500 — no mean amount five decades ago. A commission he appointed oversaw changes in the state’s prisons, mental health programs, merit system and the Highway Department. Sanders also got lawmakers to increase the tax on alcohol and tobacco. When Sanders left office, the state had a $140 million surplus.
“I did things rather promptly,” he said.
A major league city
Sanders recalled getting a 1963 telephone call from Pete Rozelle, then the commissioner of the National Football League. Atlanta, Rozelle said, was ready for an NFL franchise. Did the governor know of anyone capable of ponying up $4 million to create a team?
Sanders called a college buddy, Rankin Smith, and asked him whether he’d be interested. Smith said yes, and the Falcons landed in Atlanta.
Baseball, too, flourished; the Milwaukee Braves became the Atlanta Braves during Sanders’ tenure.
Stories about Sanders’ legislative acumen and arm-twisting abound. Sanders once called a balky legislator into his office and delivered a barely veiled threat: Stick to my legislative priorities or watch funding for your district dry up. Shaken, the lawmaker returned to the House and said he’d seen the light; he was firmly in the governor’s camp.
And when the chairman of a House committee pocketed a bill that would have allowed mixed drinks in Atlanta, effectively killing the legislation, Sanders acted quickly: He had the State Patrol pick up the lawmaker. Thus did mixed drinks — and a booming convention business — come to Atlanta.
Reminded of those incidents, Sanders chuckled. “I now look back and wonder how we got so much done.”
Sanders had a chance to stand firmly behind the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 but did not. After Congress passed the act, he issued a statement:
“Now that the civil rights legislation has been signed into law, let me reiterate my previous statement that I do not believe you can legislate morality. I hope that the enforcement of these laws will never be needed in Georgia. And so long as mutual respect among all citizens continues, there should never be a need for this type of law.”
Decades later, Sanders held steadfast to that belief.
“I don’t believe you can legislate morality,” he repeated.
A Carter rivalry
In 1970, Sanders ran for governor again. His opponent: Jimmy Carter of Plains.
The Democratic primary was brutal. The Carter camp called Sanders “Cufflinks Carl,” a big-city type beholden to urban interests. Carter said he was the conservative Democrat — Sanders, the liberal. And Carter’s supporters distributed photos of Sanders being doused with champagne by black Atlanta Hawks players, a picture that infuriated segregationists.
The tactics worked. Carter won the primary and general election, which helped spring him to the Oval Office in 1976.
That 1970 campaign, Sanders admitted, never lost its sting. “He (Carter) is not proud of that election, and he shouldn’t be proud of it,” Sanders said.
The election finished, Sanders turned his attention to business, focusing on a law firm he’d established with two partners in 1967. “I don’t think we had $300 between us,” he said.
That soon changed. The firm secured, among others, Georgia Power and the Southern Co. as clients. Today, the law firm, now called Troutman Sanders, has more than 600 attorneys.
Sanders and his wife reared their two children in an Atlanta house that once belonged to golfing great Bobby Jones. A bust of Jones rests in a downstairs room.
“I go down there every now and then and wait for him to help me” with some golf tips, Sanders said. “He hasn’t shown up yet.”
Sanders spent his final working years looking at the Atlanta skyline from his 52nd-floor office. On clear days, he could easily see Stone Mountain. He had a harder time discerning his legacy.
“Georgia is a different place today,” Sanders said in that 2006 interview. “In some ways, it’s better; in some ways, it’s not.”
Sanders paused, looking at Stone Mountain, looking back over the years.
“Unto those to whom much is given, much is required,” Sanders said, paraphrasing Scripture. “I’ve been given so much.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.