Former Georgia Gov. Carl Sanders died last week at the age of 89. He lived a long life and was able to experience the fulfillment of his vision for Georgia. He rose to the governorship in 1963, the same year that Alabama Gov. George Wallace declared in his inauguration speech, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
While Mississippi’s Gov. Ross Barnett was spending much of his time in 1962 attempting to thwart James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi, Sanders, in late 1961, was lobbying Gov. Ernest Vandiver to allow two black students, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, into the University of Georgia rather than shut the school down as many Georgians wanted to do. Sanders didn’t buy into the interposition and nullification efforts of segregationists.
Sen. Johnny Isakson said, “Carl Sanders came forward as a governor -- wanted to bring people together, wanted to help to bring Georgia, and bring the South, through a turbulent time to see to it that African-Americans rose to equality -- not just in the way they were recognized, but in the way laws were treated. In fact, it was Carl Sanders who came to Washington in 1964 to meet with Lyndon Johnson and helped form the foundation of the civil rights laws that passed later in the 1960s.”
How important was Sanders’ stance to Georgia’s future? In 1963, Alabama had a population of 3.2 million, and Mississippi had 2.1 million. Georgia had 3.9 million. Georgia has almost tripled in size to 9.9 million while Alabama has only grown to 4.8 million and Mississippi a paltry 2.9 million. Atlanta has 35,000 more residents than Birmingham and Jackson -- those states’ largest cities -- combined.
In the 1960s, governors were limited to one term. After Sanders left office in 1967, he sat out four years. When he attempted a comeback, he was defeated in a campaign he described as mean and dirty. Many Georgians remember that 1970 race as it tugged on racist and segregationist heart strings. His opponent? The future president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.
Sanders also can be credited with creating a university system that also sparked the growth of the state. What was then called the junior college system opened the doors to higher education that had been closed just because of proximity. Sanders started the push to have a junior college within 30 miles of every Georgian.
On Thursday from the floor of the Senate, Sen. Isakson said, “He contributed greatly to our state and greatly to the future and the prosperity of the people of the state of Georgia. It is with a great sense of sadness but a great sense of pride that I pay tribute today on the floor of the United States Senate to a great governor of Georgia, a great citizen of our country and a great American.”
People such as Sanders who come along at just the right time with the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing are few and far between. Sanders was just the governor we needed at the time we needed him.