Calvin Smyre, who started his political career as a community organizer, became one of the most powerful African American politicians in Georgia and has been an important asset for Columbus and west Georgia since he was first elected in 1974 to the Georgia House of Representatives.
Smyre was born on May 17, 1947, in Chattahoochee County to Mildred R. Bass and Carter Smyre Jr., a career army officer. He earned a business administration degree from Fort Valley State College (later Fort Valley State University) in 1970, and later became president of the college’s national alumni association. After college Smyre served in the U.S. Army. He was an early organizer and director of federal War on Poverty programs. He and his former wife had one daughter, Theresa.
Smyre worked for Swift Textiles from 1973 to 1976, when he joined Columbus Bank and Trust Company (later Synovus Financial Corporation). He held high-level management positions at the company before being promoted in 1999 to executive vice president, a position he still holds.
A Democrat, Smyre was first elected to the House of Representatives from a Columbus district in 1974, at the age of twenty-seven, a little more than a decade after the demise of Georgia’s county unit system enabled African Americans to win election to the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. His leadership potential was quickly spotted by powerful Democrats like Speaker of the House Tom Murphy and governors Joe Frank Harris and Zell Miller, who helped Smyre move up the political ladder by choosing him for positions of increasing authority.
Governor Harris appointed Smyre as one of his house floor leaders in 1986, making him the first black representative to hold this position. Smyre was appointed chairman of the house Industrial Relations Committee in 1991 by Murphy and then was named chairman of the University System Committee in 1993. He succeeded Bill Lee as chairman of the Rules Committee in 1999. He has held the chairmanship of the house Democratic caucus since 1999.
Smyre has also played a prominent role in national politics. In 1984 he was the first African American from Georgia elected to the Democratic National Committee. He served as an adviser to Vice President Al Gore during Gore’s campaign for president in 2000. In 2001 he was the first African American to become state chairman of the Democratic Party with his appointment from Governor Roy Barnes.
Smyre was a cosponsor of legislation authorizing the construction of the Georgia Dome, establishing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday, and removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.
Smyre also spoke out for the interests of African Americans during racially charged debates in the legislature. In 1998 Representative Earl Ehrhart, a Republican from Powder Springs, in Cobb County, introduced a controversial bill that would have prohibited affirmative action in Georgia. The bill was stopped when Smyre helped craft a compromise between black legislators and the house’s Democratic leadership.
As chairman of the house Rules Committee in 2000, Smyre kept a bill to change the state flag off the calendar because he did not want it to become part of the political debate during an election year. During the 2001 legislative session, however, Smyre was part of a small group organized by Governor Barnes that worked privately to draft a bill that deemphasized the Confederate battle emblem that had been a controversial part of the state flag since 1956. The bill was introduced and quickly voted out of Smyre’s Rules Committee, then adopted that same day on a vote by the full house. The bill subsequently was passed by the senate, creating the”blue flag” that remained in effect as the state flag for two years.