Carl Sanders is best remembered as Georgia’s first New South governor, a Democrat who provided progressive leadership for the state from 1963 to 1967. By implementing an array of reforms during a turbulent period, Sanders greatly enhanced Georgia’s national image. In addition to his political achievements, he had successful careers in both business and law.
Born in Augusta on May 15, 1925, Carl Edward Sanders was the eldest of Roberta Alley and Carl T. Sanders’s two sons. He excelled in athletics in high school and attended the University of Georgia on a football scholarship. World War II (1941-45) disrupted his education, and he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1943. At age nineteen Sanders was commissioned to pilot B-17 heavy bombers. After the war he returned to Athens, where he completed his bachelor’s degree and earned a law degree. While in law school, he met Betty Bird Foy of Statesboro. They were married in 1947 and had two children, Betty Foy and Carl Edward Jr.
Settling in his hometown of Augusta, Sanders practiced law and began his political career in 1954, easily winning a seat in the Georgia house. Two years later he advanced to the state senate, where he quickly emerged as a leader. After a stint as Governor Ernest Vandiver’s floor leader, he served two years as president pro tempore of the senate.
The ambitious and urbane Sanders defeated the folksy former governor and arch-segregationist Marvin Griffin in the 1962 Democratic primary to become, at age thirty-seven, the nation’s youngest governor. Sanders’s election marked a turning point in Georgia’s political history. With the demise of the county unit system, he became the first modern Georgia governor elected by popular vote and the first urbanite elected since the 1920s.
Agenda and Accomplishments
Ideally suited by training and temperament to direct the affairs of a state in transition—shifting from a traditional agrarian economy to a more complex urban and industrial economy—Sanders was committed to a major reform agenda and had the political skills to carry it out. A strong governor, he selected the Speaker of the House and the committee chairmen, wrote the budget, initiated most legislation, and totally dominated the legislature, which enacted his entire program.
Governor Sanders put education and governmental reform at the top of his agenda. Under his leadership, the state saw a vast increase in the number of public schools built and teachers hired. Minimum standards were implemented at all levels of the school curricula, and the Governor’s Honors Program was established. Funding for higher education in the state dramatically increased as well. College and university faculty received substantial raises, and more funds were appropriated for campus construction projects than the university system had received in more than thirty years.
Sanders pushed equally hard to modernize state government through streamlining its operation and structure, and to end the corruption that had tainted several areas of government in previous administrations. He appointed a commission to study ways of making state agencies and departments more efficient and followed through on their recommendations with significant reorganization and reform of the departments of highway, welfare, health, and revenue, as well as the state Board of Education and the prison system.
Equally as important an achievement was Governor Sanders’s creation of a more moderate racial climate in the state during the turbulent later years of the civil rights movement. Though he himself was a segregationist, he was realistic enough to recognize the futility in continued resistance to federal legislation and court rulings and to refrain from the inflammatory racist rhetoric of his predecessors. He cooperated with the administrations of U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in insisting on compliance with the new civil rights laws. From his campaign on, Sanders stressed progress and worked to change Georgia’s image as a backward, racist, and rural state.
Another means of achieving that end came with Sanders’s efforts in reapportioning legislative and congressional districts to more fairly represent the state’s electorate. Spurred by a federal court order, he led a massive effort to reapportion both houses of the General Assembly and the state’s ten congressional districts. Along with the banishment of the county unit system in 1962 (of which he had been a beneficiary in his gubernatorial race), this reconfiguration provided further representation to the state’s cities, and thus Black voters, than had earlier been the case.
The Sanders term saw considerable economic development for Georgia. The governor actively courted foreign trade and investments and brought a billion dollars’ worth of new industry to the state. He worked closely with Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr. to bring professional football and baseball teams to the city, along with a new convention center that helped cement Atlanta’s position as the New South’s premier metropolis.
Leaving office at the crest of his popularity, Sanders seemed poised for national leadership. Although President Johnson offered him several federal positions, he rejected all of them and instead established a new law firm in Atlanta. In 1970, when again eligible to serve, he sought a second term as governor, but he waged an ineffective campaign and lost to state senator Jimmy Carter. Embittered by his first political defeat, Sanders never sought public office again. Maintaining a keen interest in politics, however, he worked behind the scenes and raised funds for the Democratic Party and its candidates, including George Busbee and Zell Miller.
Continuing to reside in Atlanta, Sanders directed his talents and energies to the practice of law, numerous business investments, and civic activities. His law firm grew steadily until it became one of Atlanta’s largest and most prestigious. Through expansion and mergers, the firm of Troutman Sanders eventually employed more than 500 attorneys and opened offices in London, England; Hong Kong; and Virginia. Sanders relinquished day-to-day management of the firm after twenty-five years of service, but he continued as chair emeritus and partner until his death.
Long associated with the Augusta businessman J. B. Fuqua, Sanders expanded his business investments after leaving the public arena. As he did in both politics and law, Sanders achieved impressive success in business, especially in real estate and banking. He served on numerous corporate boards and was a longtime board member for the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta.
Sanders died in Atlanta on November 16, 2014, at the age of eighty-nine.