They shook hands and patted backs, pressed elbows and chatted from the royal red pews of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. Lawyers, statesmen, devoted family members and former governors were among the hundreds who came Saturday to celebrate the life of Carl E. Sanders, who held each of those roles for a time and left the state better for it.
Sanders, Georgia’s governor at a critical time in the state’s history, died last Sunday. He was 89.
As Georgia’s top executive from 1963 to 1967, Sanders oversaw a dramatic expansion of the state’s education system, and he helped desegregate the state’s Capitol. He also helped bring two professional sports teams to the capital while painting Georgia as the heart of the New South, where business grew and racial disparities diminished.
Even before he was governor, Sanders left a mark on the state that helped establish it as a place of peace in the region during a turbulent time. He was one of the few advisers to Gov. Ernest Vandiver who pushed to keep the state’s schools open when it was pressured to close them rather than desegregate.
Friends and colleagues described an indomitable will and decisive nature that allowed Sanders to fit the work of many lifetimes into a single term of four years as governor.
“Every day he made a list of what he intended to do,” said Norman Underwood, who worked with Sanders for 47 years at his law firm, Troutman Sanders. “He could not, would not, go home — much less go to bed — before he checked each one off.”
After World War II, the South emerged as the nation’s growing epicenter of manufacturing and development. But by the ’60s, no city or state had taken on the mantle of the New South’s capital. Birmingham, with its steel mills and central location, seemed a good bet to assume that role.
In 1962, both Alabama and Georgia elected new governors. Alabama chose George Wallace, whose inaugural address contained the infamous creed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Georgia selected Sanders, who struck a peace-first chord with voters.
“Whether it be Marvin Griffin or Martin Luther King, I will not tolerate agitators nor permit violence or bloodshed among our citizens,” he said in a 1962 speech. “Regardless of color or creed.”
Sanders refused to oppose or support the law set by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying he didn’t “believe you can legislate morality,” but he continued to oppose discrimination against blacks.
“So long as mutual respect among all citizens continues, there should never be a need for this type of law,” Sanders said.
When Alabama became a hotbed of racial violence and discontent, businesses flocked to the Peach State. Today, the Atlanta metropolitan area includes more than 5 million residents and is a major hub of economic development in the South.
“Know that that was because of an election,” former Gov. Roy Barnes said, speaking at Saturday’s memorial. “And it was because of the leadership of Carl Sanders.”
Each aspect of Sanders’ life was reflected in the public memorial less than a week after his death.
Ponce de Leon’s former pastor spoke from the same pulpit where sermons were delivered and Sanders listened each Sunday before sitting at the governor’s desk on Mondays. The man who beat him in a fierce Democratic primary for governor in 1970, the now 90-year-old former President Jimmy Carter, sat in the first row. Rebecca White, the dean of the University of Georgia School of Law, to which Sanders committed much of his time and money, gave a stirring account of the former UGA quarterback and proud graduate.
Sanders’ wife, Betty, was ushered in with the help of a walker. Their marriage of more than six decades was Sanders’ most professed accomplishment, a recurrent topic from the campaign stump to the Governor’s Mansion to his law offices.
“Betty, for the 67 years of your marriage, he was sustained by you,” Troutman Sanders’ Underwood said. “I heard him say it in so many interviews over the years, ‘The most important day of my life was the day in Statesboro when I married the prettiest girl at UGA.’”
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.