How Carl Sanders changed Georgians’ minds about Georgia

Sixty years ago, he moved the state forward and away from the Jim Crow South.
Former Georgia governor Carl Sanders on Oct. 4, 1984. (AJC file photo)

Credit: Rich Addicks

Credit: Rich Addicks

Former Georgia governor Carl Sanders on Oct. 4, 1984. (AJC file photo)

This year’s elections will surely generate adages such as “Elections have consequences” and “This election is the most important one in history.” Such statements might or might not be true. But we can look back at one election, Georgia’s gubernatorial election of 1962, as one that truly determined the future of Georgia and its capital city of Atlanta. That election also provides important lessons for today.

It was the turbulent 1960s, when the nation was paying attention to how governors in the South were responding to civil rights challenges across the region. At that time, Alabama and Georgia were almost identical states, and Birmingham and Atlanta were almost identical cities. But in November 1962, Alabama elected George Wallace as its governor, and Georgia elected Carl Sanders. Leadership matters.

Most Georgia historians agree it was Sanders’ election and his moderate leadership style at a pivotal time that elevated the nation’s image and Georgians’ own image of our state. That new image and the new tone and tenor he instilled in state government have been key elements in Georgia’s six-decade-long march to regional and indeed international prominence.

We are clearly in a chaotic national political environment today. But it is not the first time. The 1960s were equally chaotic. Yet state government leaders such as Sanders, Atlanta government leaders such as Mayor Ivan Allen, and Atlanta business leaders such as Coca-Cola’s Robert Woodruff worked closely together to move Georgia and Atlanta forward — out of the Jim Crow era and into a new era of improved race relations, unprecedented economic growth, unmatched air and ground transportation infrastructure, world-class higher education, and new professional sports teams.

It remains vitally important that Georgia’s government leaders, Atlanta’s government leaders, Atlanta’s business leaders and the leaders of public interest organizations work closely together to address Georgia’s and Atlanta’s current challenges and opportunities. As a result of some good leadership in all four sectors, this cooperation is currently present and yielding good results. Oftentimes, the political environment can put real strains on the current good relationships. It is crucial that our state, city, business and public interest group leaders remain focused on maintaining the strong relationships they have built.

Credit: handout

icon to expand image

Credit: handout

I was fortunate to be able to work closely with Sanders in his law firm for almost three decades until his death in November 2014. He often spoke in his later years about the 1960s and of the continuing relevance of a multipronged cooperative leadership tradition that should be maintained. He always acknowledged that he was extremely fortunate to have served as governor when Allen was mayor of Atlanta, Coca-Cola’s Woodruff was a commanding presence in business and civic leadership and Ralph McGill and Gene Patterson were attracting national recognition for their leadership at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution newspapers.

Sixty years ago, Carl Sanders was in the second year of his term to which he had been elected with a campaign of moderate and measured words on the issue of race. For that election, a majority of voters rejected a brand of politics tainted with racial rhetoric that had been so successful for so many prior elections and that unfortunately occasionally resurfaces today. May 15 was his birthday, and this year will mark 10 years since his death. He accomplished a great deal during his four years in office. He played an important role in bringing professional baseball, football and basketball to Atlanta. At that time, outside of the five largest cities, there were few airports with paved runways in the state. Because of his experience as a B-17 pilot in World War II, he was particularly interested in building airport facilities throughout Georgia, and about two-thirds of all airports in Georgia today were built in the Sanders administration.

The signature issue of his administration was higher education. He saw education as the key to unlocking economic development. His administration is remembered for its strong support for Georgia’s university system and for establishing a system of colleges then known as junior colleges. Some of those colleges have grown into major units within the university system, including Kennesaw State University. He started the Governors Honors program for high-achieving Georgia students. He established a new dental school at the Georgia Medical College.

The results of his achievements are clearly visible today. But changing and lifting up the tenor of our politics and state government at that pivotal time, and elevating the nation’s image and, most important, Georgians’ opinion of our own image of our state, is his enduring public legacy.

Chuck Palmer is a partner at the Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP law firm in Atlanta.