Fast forward to 1970. After serving as Georgia’s governor from 1963 to '67, Sanders ran again. In those days a governor could not serve consecutive terms. In the campaign, he was subjected to a barrage of racist attacks, including criticism for having attended the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. His opponent? Jimmy Carter, the eventual winner. Sanders said wistfully, “I guess I started him on the road to the presidency.” No good deed goes unpunished. The governor said he has made peace with Carter’s nasty campaign. I have not and never will.
I went to visit Sanders recently. Now 88, the governor has lost maybe a step or two since he was a left-handed quarterback on the University of Georgia’s 1945 Oil Bowl championship team, but he has lost none of his aura.
Sanders served Georgia during a tumultuous time of civil rights upheaval and helped guide the state safely to our better side, unlike governors across the South who were posturing in schoolhouse doors and defying the U.S. Supreme Court. His moderation helped vault Atlanta ahead of Birmingham as the Capitol City of the South, where it remains today despite its dysfunctions.
I wondered how he was able to avoid the actions of neighboring governors, who played to the racist instincts of their constituencies.
“When I became a lawyer,” he said firmly, “I swore to uphold the law and I was not going to disobey it. It’s that simple.” I won’t dispute the man but I lived through those days. It wasn’t simple. Those were tough times, but Sanders’ obedience to the law kept federal troops out of our schoolhouses.
It helped, he said, that he was not a part of Georgia’s good ol’ boy network, a machine dominated at that time by rural politicians.
“I was the ‘new guy,’” he said, “not beholden to anyone. Most of that crowd was hanging on to a sinking ship.”
Sanders was governor when the position had almost total control of state government. He could appoint legislative committee chairs or remove them.
“I had control of the budget,” he said, “After it passed, I would let the Legislature play some games with it but not much.”
Sanders expressed sympathy for current Gov. Nathan Deal.
“He seems to be trying to do the right things, but he has to spend a lot of his time dealing with the Legislature,” he said.
Sanders admitted he could be a bit autocratic. Sanders recalled the day he called a legislator off the floor in the middle of a speech opposing one of the governor’s pet projects. After “explaining things” to the recalcitrant legislator, the chastened fellow returned to the rostrum and asked his colleagues to forget what he had said previously. He had decided he was wrong.
In addition to confronting the civil rights challenges, Sanders is equally proud of his success in economic development and his efforts to improve education in Georgia.
“When I was running for governor,” he recalled, “I flew around the state in a private plane and landed in cow pastures and on mountain tops. I decided we needed to build airstrips, and we did when I got in office. Prospective companies didn’t have to circle the Atlanta airport for hours to go visit a piece of property. They could go straight to the site.” Sanders built 50 airstrips around the state, which he said brought $1 billion of new industry to Georgia.
After a visit to California, Sanders decided to emulate its education system and created more than a dozen junior colleges around the state to make college more accessible to the populace.
“I wanted our young people to stay in Georgia,” he said. One of those junior colleges is now Kennesaw State University in Cobb County, the state’s third largest university.
Over lunch, I asked Sanders how he would like to be remembered.
“I would like to be known as a good governor who did good things and made this a better state as a result,” he said.
I assured him that his legacy is secure. He was the right governor at the right time for Georgia. And, I might add, he didn’t have to compromise his integrity to get the job.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Ga. 31139.