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Carl Edward Sanders: Bringing Georgia into the Modern Age

November 18, 2014
Painted portrait of Carl E. Sanders

Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta Braves. Urban candidate. Youngest Governor in the nation. Desegregation in Georgia.

The list could go on and on. We lost a great man on Sunday, Nov. 16.

Born in Augusta, Ga., on May 15, 1925, Carl Edward Sanders accomplished much in his 89 years of life.

His career in the spotlight started at a young age as the left-handed quarterback for the University of Georgia in the 1940s. However, times were tough as World War II raged on. At 19, Sanders left college and enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943. After the war, he returned to school and finished his law degree.

With a new wife, 2 kids and a few years of practicing law under his belt, Sanders headed to the General Assembly. In 1954 he won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. Two years later, he moved to the Georgia State Senate, where he served as president pro tempore for another 2 years.

In 1962, Sanders outran former Governor Marvin Griffin in the Democratic primary and ultimately won the seat of Georgia Governor. He was 37-years-old, thus claiming the title as the youngest Governor in the United States. This election held another first as Sanders became the first modern Georgia Governor elected by popular vote after the termination of the county unit system.

This election shifted the votes from the rural areas that had dominated the state for decades. He was the first urbanite elected since the early 20th century. This foreshadows the transition Sanders represented as he moved Georgia from its traditional agrarian economy to a more urban and industrial economy.

Sanders is typically famous for his contribution to sports in Georgia. He helped bring the Falcons to Atlanta and worked to have the Milwaukee Braves become the Atlanta Braves. After his term as Governor, he even helped Atlanta developer Tom Cousins bring in the Atlanta Hawks.

Politically, he accomplished leaps and bounds in his 4 years as Governor. Sanders had 2 major categories at the top of his agenda as Governor: Education and government reform.


During Sanders’ Governorship, he improved much in Georgia education:

  • Distributing about 60 cents of every tax dollar to education
  • Increasing the number of public schools
  • Setting the minimum standards for public schools
  • Expanding vocational training
  • Hiring more teachers
  • Administering raises to college and university faculty
  • Creating the Governor’s Honors Program
  • Increasing funds for higher education
  • Reorganizing the Board of Education
  • Establishing the first Georgia Council of the Arts and Humanities

Government Reform

As the first urban Governor in decades, Sanders worked endlessly to eliminate corruption and redundancy in the government and to bring Georgia into the modern age:

  • Created a commission to observe how to make state agencies more efficient
  • Reorganized the departments of Highway, Welfare, Health and Revenue
  • Reorganized the prison systems
  • Reapportioned the Georgia House of Representatives, the Georgia State Senate and the 10 congressional districts

Civil Rights

In addition to education and government reform, Sanders played a major role in implementing civil rights laws in Georgia — another attempt to modernize Georgia. He cooperated with presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson on civil rights laws.

With the reapportioning of the Georgia House, Senate and 10 congressional districts, he gave more opportunity to African American voters — taking control away from the small number of rich rural areas that had run the state for so long and giving a more equal and balanced representation of Georgia. Sanders helped Leroy Johnson become the first African-American to serve in the Georgia State Senate. They then worked to remove the aftertaste of the Jim Crow laws in Georgia government, which in turn helped Sanders appoint the first African Americans in the Georgia State Patrol, Governor’s Commission to Improve Education and to the Georgia delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

Life after Governor

Sanders did not run for reelection immediately. He took a few years off to start a law firm in Atlanta, turning down countless offers from President Johnson for federal positions and focusing on his practice. In 1970 he campaigned for Governor again, but fell a few votes short, allowing State Senator Jimmy Carter to prevail. 

In response to Sanders’ passing, Former President Carter said, "Carl Sanders was an outstanding Governor of Georgia, a champion of education, and a courageous proponent of ending racial segregation in our state. I was proud of his service when I was in the state senate, and continued to pursue many of his notable policies when I became Governor. Rosalynn and I extend our sincere condolences and prayers to his wife, Betty, and to his family and friends."

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal counted Sanders as more than an advisor.

"Sandra and I are greatly saddened by the passing of Governor Carl Sanders," Deal said. "The bond we shared was more than the mutual possession of a public office; Governor Sanders was a mentor and friend whose bright example of compassionate leadership was unsurpassed … Governor Sanders showed true leadership and character by supporting civil rights for all during a time when many were not. It is this legacy that I remember with a heavy heart today, and his lasting positive impact on our state will be felt by many future generations of Georgians. We will continue to pray for the Sanders family during this difficult time."

Sanders’ memorial service will be held at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church (2715 Peachtree Rd., NE) on Saturday, Nov. 22 at 11 a.m. At the request of his family, donations in memory of Governor Sanders can be made to either the Metropolitan YMCA or the University of Georgia Law School.

(Photo courtesy of the Georgia Archives and the Georgia Capitol Museum, University System of Georgia, 1992.23.0068)

About the Author

Bethany McDaniel is the Editorial Director for GeorgiaGov. She graduated from Berry College in Rome, Ga., with degrees in Visual Communication and History.


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