Former Gov. Carl Sanders was no longer a household name in Georgia at the time of his death at age 89 on Sunday. Considering the turmoil of the 1960s Civil Rights era during which he served; and considering how the names of so many of his peers across the South are remembered with scorn, his seeming modern-day anonymity was a silent testimony to his ability to deftly lead the state through such troubled times.
The Augusta native and World War II veteran graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law, worked his way up in the state Legislature in the 1950s and first ran for governor in 1962.
Georgia and the rest of the South was in the midst of political and societal turmoil unmatched since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam, but much of the white community was staunchly against dismantling segregation. Unfortunately, too many Southern governors, most notably Alabama’s George Wallace and Mississippi’s Ross Barnett, were eager to pander to the segregationists. Their states and others were wracked with race-related murders, lynchings, burnings, bombings and more.
Sanders ran in 1962 as a moderate in the all-important Democratic Primary against Marvin Griffin, a segregationist former governor. The general election was an after-thought in those days.
As governor from 1963-67, Sanders distanced himself from the segregationists and took what for the time, for a white Southern politician, were progressive stances on race. He was not one to stand in the schoolhouse door or make fiery “Hell No!” speeches. Rather, he took a “pox on both their houses” approach, criticizing both the Klan and “agitators” like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Meanwhile, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., took a similar approach, touting Atlanta as “The City Too Busy to Hate.” As a result, Georgia’s racial temperature rarely reached the boiling point, and the state dodged most of the self-inflicted black eyes suffered by its neighbors.
Sanders walked a tightrope as governor on civil rights: He opposed the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he also removed the “Whites Only” signs from the Capitol’s restrooms and drinking fountains; and later that year named two blacks as members of the state’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention.