As governor of Georgia from 1959 to 1963, Ernest Vandiver proved successful in fulfilling his campaign promise to remove the blight on Georgia, perpetuated by and associated with the administration of his predecessor Marvin Griffin. Under Vandiver’s capable leadership the legislature implemented sweeping changes in Georgia’s segregation policies and revised the county unit system for nominating officeholders. Without increasing the state’s tax base, Vandiver made significant improvements in the areas of services, building programs, tourism, business and industrial development, educational expansion, and mental health. As part of his legacy, Vandiver served as the catalyst that propelled Georgia from the holds of a scandal-ridden “good old boy” network to an administration lauded for fiscal responsibility, honesty, and a progressive framework.
Family and Political Career
Samuel Ernest Vandiver Jr. was born on July 3, 1918, in Canon, in Franklin County. He was the only child of Vanna Bowers and Samuel Ernest Vandiver Sr. His mother had two children by a previous marriage, which ended with the death of her first husband. Vandiver’s father was a prominent businessman, farmer, and landowner in Franklin County. Vandiver attended public schools in Lavonia, as well as the Darlington School in Rome. He graduated from the University of Georgia with A.B. and LL.B. degrees, then served as a bomber pilot in the army air force during World War II (1941-45). He married Sybil Elizabeth “Betty” Russell, a niece of U.S. senator Richard B. Russell Jr. The Vandivers had three children: Samuel Ernest III; Vanna Elizabeth; and Jane Brevard, who as Jane Kidd was elected in 2007 as the chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia.
Elected mayor of Lavonia in 1946 at the age of twenty-seven, Vandiver backed Democrat Eugene Talmadge’s successful gubernatorial candidacy that year. Following the death of Governor-elect Talmadge, Vandiver supported the successful effort of Herman Talmadge to be elected governor by the state legislature in 1947. Governor Talmadge appointed him state adjutant general, the youngest in the nation. Elected lieutenant governor during the administration of Marvin Griffin in 1954, Vandiver was elected governor four years later by one of the largest margins in the state’s history. The leading candidate in the 1966 gubernatorial race, Vandiver withdrew for health reasons. In 1972 he unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate.
Vandiver ran for governor in 1958 by promising to restore the state’s image, which had been tarnished by scandals associated with the administration of Marvin Griffin. As governor from 1959 to 1963, Vandiver successfully led efforts to clean up the abuses, mismanagement, and corruption associated with the Griffin administration. Governor Vandiver’s efficiency in running state government allowed his administration to undertake a significant building program and a major expansion of state services without increasing taxes. Among other accomplishments during the Vandiver administration, the state expanded its port facilities, substantially beefed up its tourism efforts, actively promoted business and industrial development, expanded vocational-technical programs, and improved its treatment of the mentally ill.
In his campaign Vandiver promised to maintain segregation in the public schools and to preserve the malapportioned county unit system of nominating statewide officeholders. He failed to do either. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education held that segregation in state public schools was unconstitutional. In response the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation in the Griffin administration cutting off state funds to any public school that was integrated. Vandiver promised in his gubernatorial campaign to carry out the legislature’s mandate if desegregation occurred in the state’s schools. Soon after he took office Black plaintiffs filed suit to desegregate the Atlanta public school system. In response the legislature created the Sibley Commission, headed by Atlanta banker and civic leader John A. Sibley, to hold hearings throughout the state. In these meetings citizens could express their opinions on the fate of their public schools. The commission ultimately recommended that the voters in each school district be allowed to determine whether their schools would remain open. Before the impending showdown occurred in Atlanta, however, a federal district court ordered the admission of two Black students, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, to the University of Georgia. Despite strong opposition from many of the state’s top leaders who favored closing the school instead of integrating it, Governor Vandiver refused to defy the federal court, and the university was desegregated. The governor then successfully urged the legislature to repeal the state’s antidesegregation legislation. Vandiver concluded that the closing of the state’s schools would be detrimental to the young people of Georgia and to the state’s economic development. Several months later the Atlanta public schools were peaceably desegregated.
A suit had also been brought in federal court against Georgia’s county unit system, which dated back to the turn of the century. The suit was scheduled for decision on April 27, 1962. Vandiver called a special legislative session to convene on April 16 for the purpose of revising the system. In so doing he hoped to keep the county unit system from being invalidated by the Supreme Court. The legislature adopted a Vandiver revision plan, which was based on county population instead of county representation in the lower house. A federal district court held this plan to be unconstitutional. Vandiver refused to continue the fight and directed the state Democratic Party’s executive committee to hold its 1962 primary election on a popular-vote basis.
After leaving the governorship, Vandiver practiced law in Atlanta but eventually moved his business to his hometown of Lavonia. Also a farmer, he served as president of the Georgia Seed Company. From 1976 to 1977 he was president of the Independent Bankers of Georgia.
Vandiver died at his home in Lavonia on February 21, 2005. In 2008 a residence hall at the University of Georgia in Athens was named in his honor.