Leaders by example

The passing of two Georgia legends should spur reflection on what they accomplished — and how. Doing so should give us added resolve to enact bold solutions for our deep, lingering challenges here.

“Moses My servant is dead. Now therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them … .”

Old Testament book of Joshua.

In one weekend, Georgia and its capital city lost two great servants: former Gov. Carl E. Sanders Sr. and businessman Herman J. Russell.

Their joining of that incessant caravan traveling irrevocably away from this earth first reveals the obvious fact that we are diminished by their passing. They will be sincerely mourned and their contributions greatly missed.

Men and women of their caliber — and thankfully there have been many — have toiled hard and well to make the Atlanta metro and Georgia stand out in an upright, profitable way.

Simultaneously doing good and doing well is highly skilled work that cannot end with great leaders’ final breaths. We owe them far more than that.

Indeed, it’s up to us all now — to first mourn, then return to the never-done work of the living. In so doing, we will gain by first reflecting on what we have lost and then how best to grasp its essence and re-employ it in dutiful service. Then we can more effectively focus on the tasks that leaders such as Russell and Sanders have left to us to see through to completion. A more-sobering realization is hard to imagine.

Yet, the same first chapter of Joshua referenced above may guide us if we can open our ears to hear, and our minds to conceive of what lies ahead: “Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you: do not turn from it to the right hand or the left, that you may prosper wherever you go.”

Let’s first examine that courage part. Gov. Sanders showed that attribute when he helped lead Georgia away from segregation. As a state senator, he pushed for desegregating public schools. As governor, he quietly removed – overnight — Jim Crow’s impediments at the Gold Dome. His low-key approach masked the hefty force behind his low-key dismantling of a stalwart tenet of the Old South.

The wisdom and daring of his moves might be misunderstood or underestimated today, given that Sanders also proved a pragmatic, moderate politician. In a 1962 speech, he mentioned both a segregationist former governor and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in warning that, “I will not tolerate agitators nor permit violence or bloodshed among our citizens regardless of color or creed.” He also declined to put his weight behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying that “I do not believe you can legislate morality.” On balance, unlike others in Georgia and elsewhere, Sanders’ bold actions paved the road toward a better state for Georgians of all races.

While Sanders was leading the state, Herman J. Russell was both building a business empire and buttressing the civil rights movement that was remaking the South and the world.

From advising the giants of the freedom movement to making available money to bail out jailed civil rights workers, Russell worked hard and smartly to assist that noble struggle.

In the realm of commerce, he and his companies earned a place among Atlanta’s greatest entities. His construction operation had a part in erecting many of this city’s iconic buildings.

As he made the American Dream fully his own, Russell never forgot his beginning as a child of the Great Depression. A confidant of U.S. presidents, Russell donated generously to many causes and institutions.

Great men both, Sanders and Russell. But what else can we draw from their passing and apply toward building a greater Georgia?

To start with, great leaders usually don’t flourish – or even remain — in ho-hum places. The relationship between cities and their great doers is a symbiotic one. One fuels the other – or it should. We forget that to our detriment.

Which is to say that the Atlanta metro has greatness woven throughout its DNA, we believe. The trait may go maddeningly dormant at times, but it is there, waiting for the next generation’s audacious visionaries to leap into their destiny.

Atlanta and Georgia are better than our deep challenges. What’s blocking their swift defeat is largely an undersupply of courage, long-term vision, audacity and raw will, we believe. Those things, meritoriously applied, will get us moving toward resolving problems such as transportation, education, water and so on.

It’s not a new reality that great leaders pulverize obstacles beneath their heel. That’s elegantly evident from standing last week inside the quiet greatness that is the hilltop mansion of Alonzo Herndon. Born a slave in Social Circle, Herndon later brought an entrepreneur’s zeal to business ventures that made him Atlanta’s first black millionaire – this a century ago. Like Russell, dividends from Herndon’s capitalistic success benefited many people and causes of his age.

Leaders like these faithful few once showed us how large visions become reality. They were far from the first or only ones to do so. For all our sakes, they certainly cannot be the last.