In 1966 the General Assembly chose Georgia’s chief executive. Although former governor Ellis Arnall won a plurality in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, he was forced into a runoff with Lester Maddox. Maddox, who had never held public office, defeated Arnall in a major political upset. Since the rise of one-party politics in the state in the nineteenth century, the general election had been a mere formality; the Democratic gubernatorial nominee had always taken the governorship. In 1966, however, for the first time in modern Georgia history, the Republican Party mounted a serious challenge for the governorship in the candidacy of Congressman Howard Hollis “
Ernest Vandiver had served as governor from 1959 to 1963. He left office with a significant list of accomplishments, including successfully leading efforts to clean up the abuses, mismanagement, and corruption that had been associated with the previous governor, Marvin Griffin. While governor, Vandiver had to deal with the issue of school desegregation. Although a segregationist himself and a political ally of two of the state’s leading segregationist politicians, Eugene Talmadge and Herman E. Talmadge, Vandiver refused to close the public schools to avoid desegregation. Under Vandiver’s leadership, Georgia, unlike some southern states, accomplished school desegregation peaceably and without the intervention of federal troops. Vandiver, who was prohibited by the state constitution from succeeding himself in 1963, was considered the leading candidate in the 1966 gubernatorial election, but he dropped out of the race because of health problems.
Arnall, who had served as governor from 1943 to 1947 and was a leader of the anti-Talmadge faction, became the front-runner in the race. His accomplishments as a reform governor included establishing a retirement system for teachers, repealing the state’s poll tax, lowering the voting age to eighteen, and gaining reaccreditation of the University System of Georgia. Arnall had defeated Eugene Talmadge in the 1942 governor’s race. To the dismay of many white Georgians, he had refused to fight the federal courts’ efforts to allow Blacks to vote in the state’s white primaries in 1946. Talmadge supporters never forgave Arnall for those transgressions and for opposing the legislative election of Herman Talmadge in 1947, in the “three governors controversy” that followed the death of his father, Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge.
In 1966 Herman Talmadge, who had risen to the position of U.S. senator, considered but decided against entering the governor’s race after Vandiver’s withdrawal. The segregationist Lester Maddox entered the Democratic primary, though he had never held public office and had been defeated in races for mayor of Atlanta (he lost in 1957 to William B. Hartsfield) and lieutenant governor. Maddox was well known for opposing civil rights and particularly for refusing to desegregate his Atlanta restaurant, the Pickrick. Another conservative businessman and segregationist, James H. Gray Sr., also entered the Democratic primary. Gray, like Maddox, had never held public office. Garland T. Byrd, who had been lieutenant governor under Vandiver, entered the race as well. Finally, Jimmy Carter, who was serving his second term in the state senate, sought the Democratic nomination. Bo Callaway, who had switched to the Republican Party in 1964 and had become the state’s first Republican congressman in the twentieth century, posed a serious threat to Democratic control of the governor’s office.
Arnall, the front-runner, received only 29.4 percent of the votes in the Democratic primary and was forced into a runoff with Maddox, who received 23.5 percent of the vote. Carter came in third with 20.9 percent. In the runoff Maddox won 54.3 percent of the vote and the right to face Callaway in the general election. Dismayed by the choice between two conservative segregationists, some Georgians organized a campaign to write in Arnall’s name in the general election. By preventing either of the party nominees from receiving a majority of the popular vote, they hoped to force the legislature to choose the next governor, with Arnall as one of the choices. The constitution provided that, if no candidate polled a majority in the general election, the lawmakers would pick from the three candidates who received the most popular votes. Although Callaway received a plurality with a margin of 3,039 votes in November, he failed to gain a majority because Arnall received 7.1 percent of the popular vote. The legislature, overwhelmingly Democratic, elected Maddox governor by a vote of 182 to 66, ending one of the strangest gubernatorial elections in Georgia politics.