Setting record straight on Gov. Sanders

Frederick Allen is a former political columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Tony Award-winning play “All the Way,” which starred Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson, contained a serious historic inaccuracy involving the late Gov. Carl Sanders of Georgia, who deserves to rest in peace with his honor intact.

The playwright Robert Schenkkan imagines a telephone conversation between Johnson and Sanders, who’s calling from the 1964 Democratic convention. The subject is a highly convoluted plan Johnson concocted to mollify a protest group, the integrationist Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, by seating two of its members as at-large delegates. In the fraught political tension of the time, Johnson’s idea threatened to trigger a walkout by the all-white delegations from Southern states.

In the play, Sanders admonishes Johnson, “Mr. President, you can’t give those people two seats! It makes it look like the n——-s have taken over the convention! Me and my delegation might just walk out ourselves … .”

The playwright then has an angry Johnson challenge Sanders to do the right thing, asking what kind of Christian he is and questioning his manhood in profane terms.

The exchange startled and disturbed me when I saw the play in New York last spring. The Carl Sanders I knew was not one of the knuckle-draggers of his era, but rather a progressive on race. I wondered how he got rounded up with the Ross Barnetts and George Wallaces of the South. So I did some digging, and learned that I could listen online to the actual tape recordings Johnson made of his conversations in the Oval Office.

On Aug. 25, 1964, Sanders was in Atlantic City working with Texas Gov. John Connally, the president’s closest ally, on finding a strategy to defuse the racial crisis in the Mississippi delegation. In a phone call to the president, Sanders did indeed warn that the idea of seating two at-large delegates might trigger a walkout — but he did so in an effort to protect Johnson, whom he supported wholeheartedly in the campaign, and he did not use the N-word included in the play’s script.

In the play, and in the recording, Johnson argues that the days of white-only voting and political power must end: “Carl, you and I just can’t survive our political modern life with these … fellas down there doing things the old way … . They got to quit that!” But the rest of Johnson’s speech, challenging Sanders’ faith and courage, is invented.

In fact, Johnson commends Sanders during the conversation, saying of Mississippi’s refusal to let blacks vote in the Democratic primaries, “That’s just like the old days, by God, when they wouldn’t let ‘em in and let ‘em cast a vote of any kind — and you put a stop to that in your state.”

My guess is that the playwright interpreted Sanders’ warning as a statement of his own beliefs, rather than a cold-eyed assessment of the political situation. In the end, the two delegates were seated, the Mississippi and Alabama delegates walked out, but the rest of the “Solid South” remained and in November Johnson won a landslide election over Barry Goldwater. A year later, passage of the Voting Rights Act, spurred in large measure by revulsion over the South’s refusal to grant the vote to African-Americans, ushered in a new era.

Carl Sanders was a part of that New South, and I hope to give him his due by setting the record straight.