In the second wave of southern industrialization, from the 1940s to the 1970s, James V. Carmichael was one of Georgia’s most prominent business leaders. During World War II (1941-45) he served as general manager of the mammoth Bell Aircraft plant in Marietta. After the war he built Scripto, Incorporated, into an international leader in writing instruments. He took a one-year leave of absence from Scripto in 1951 to become the first general manager of the Georgia division of Lockheed (later Lockheed Martin). A two-term legislator in the 1930s, Carmichael unsucessfully ran for governor in 1946 as the candidate of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Although he never again ran for elective office, he continued to exercise political power behind the scenes and played a role in building a two-party system in Georgia.
James Vinson Carmichael was born in rural Cobb County on October 2, 1910. His parents, Emma Mae Nolan and John Vinson Carmichael, owned a country store south of Smyrna. Just before his sixteenth birthday, the young Carmichael was hit by a car. His spinal cord was almost completely severed, and he needed a year to recover before returning to Marietta High School in a wheelchair. Eventually he learned to walk short distances with a cane, but he endured intense pain for the rest of his life. Refusing to give in to his disability, Carmichael graduated in 1933 from the law school at Emory University and established a successful practice in Marietta with Mayor Leon M. “Rip” Blair. In 1938 he married Frances Elizabeth McDonald. They had 3 children: Mary Emma, James Jr., and Frances Elizabeth.
As county attorney Carmichael teamed with Mayor Blair and Commissioner George McMillan in 1941 to build a Cobb County airport called Rickenbacker Field (later part of Dobbins Air Reserve Base). Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the trio attracted to the site the Army Air Corps and a branch of the Bell Aircraft Corporation. Bell Aircraft’s president, Lawrence D. Bell, first made Carmichael the attorney for the Georgia division and in November 1944 elevated him to general manager of the 28,000-employee plant. By the end of the war Bell Bomber had sold the military some 663 B-29s, assembling them on schedule and testing and delivering them without a single crash.
After the war the U.S. government cancelled the B-29 contract, and Bell was forced to shut down the Marietta plant. Carmichael became a partner in several local industrial ventures and in 1947 assumed the presidency of Monie Ferst’s Scripto pen company, located in downtown Atlanta. Under Carmichael’s leadership the company expanded overseas and became the largest manufacturer of writing instruments in the world.
During the Korean War the U.S. Air Force chose the Lockheed Corporation to reopen Marietta’s assembly plant. Taking advantage of Carmichael’s expertise and local influence, the aircraft giant chose him to serve for a year as general manager, assisted by a senior Lockheed executive, Daniel J. Haughton. After successfully supervising the refurbishing of 120 B-29s and the start of a B-47 project, Carmichael turned the Georgia division over to Haughton and returned to Scripto. He remained on Lockheed’s board of directors, however, until his death in 1972.
In the early 1950s Robert Woodruff, planning to retire from the day-to-day operation of Coca-Cola, courted Carmichael to take his place. Although Carmichael was still in his mid-forties, complications from his severe back injury kept him from accepting the position. By 1964 health problems forced him to step down from the Scripto presidency, although he continued several more years as chair of the board.
Twice in the late 1930s Carmichael was elected to the Georgia General Assembly without opposition. After his law firm took on a major client that did business with the state, the Marietta attorney chose to avoid potential conflicts of interest by not running for a third term. Nonetheless, Governor Ellis Arnall appointed him in 1943 as executive director of the Georgia Department of Revenue and later placed him on the committee that wrote the 1945 Georgia Constitution. Prohibited by the constitution from offering for reelection, Arnall encouraged Carmichael in 1946 to run in his place against two former governors, Eugene Talmadge and E. D. Rivers. A skeptic about New Deal labor and welfare programs, Carmichael was less liberal than Arnall but far more progressive than Talmadge or Rivers. The Cobb County executive represented a business progressive philosophy that championed moderation in race relations, improved public schools, better roads, and whatever it took to attract major companies to Georgia. Running well in urban areas, Carmichael outpolled his rivals, receiving more primary votes than anyone before. Nonetheless, he lost the countryside, especially in south Georgia, where Talmadge managed to gain enough county unit votes to capture the election.
Viewing the county unit system and one-party politics as a deterrent to social and economic progress, Carmichael claimed in an interview a few months later that he favored a two-party system whether it consisted of “Democrats and Republicans [or] Democrats and Loyal Democrats.” In mid-century Georgia, a politician with statewide aspirations risked political suicide by openly favoring Republican candidates, yet Carmichael again championed a “true two-party system” while introducing Richard Nixon during the presidential candidate’s 1960 Atlanta campaign appearance. His philosophy was perhaps best expressed in a 1950 Emory University commencement speech, in which he challenged the graduates to use their talents to bring the South up to national standards. He told the audience, “I sicken of these people who are always waving the Confederate Flag and telling us what a glorious heritage the South has. No one denies this heritage, but too many of our people want to keep on living on who they are and where they came from.” Encouraging Georgians to embrace change, he advocated a meritocracy in which talented individuals would be honored for their achievement in bringing the South into an era of prosperity, power, and cultural influence.
Carmichael’s notable record of public service included membership on the governing boards of Emory University, the Interdenominational Theological Center, the Atlanta School of Art, and the University System of Georgia. He was the first head of the Atlanta Arts Alliance and a Georgia governor of Kiwanis International. The distinguished public servant died in Marietta at age sixty-two, on November 28, 1972.