Carl Edward Sanders, born in Augusta on May 25, 1925, had a special affection for his hometown. His father, Carl Thomas Sanders, of rural Rex, Ga., had come to Augusta as a salesman with Swift & Co. meatpacking, where he met and married Roberta Alley, a cashier at the S.H. Kress Co. on Broad Street.
Young Carl’s character was formed by a Great Depression childhood that was sometimes meager in material possessions but rich in experience – hunting and fishing with his father, playing sports and later serving as a counselor at the YMCA, riding bicycles with his neighbor and good friend Doug Barnard, taking “social” from Mrs. Henri Price, delivering newspapers for The Augusta Chronicle, stocking shelves at a local grocery store and attending church at Hill Baptist.
A PRODUCT OF Monte Sano Elementary School and the Academy of Richmond County, Sanders attended the University of Georgia on a football scholarship, where he was teammates with such greats as Frank Sinkwich and Charlie Trippi, all under the strict guidance of Coach Wally Butts.
Carl wanted to serve his country in World War II, and tried to join the Naval Air Corps, but was rejected because he was still underage. In 1943, upon turning 18, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, signing up at Daniel Field. As a product of the ROTC program at ARC, military discipline was not new, and he moved up quickly. He spent the remainder of 1943 and much of 1944 training to fly. As he and his crew prepared for assignment in Europe flying B-17s, Germany surrendered. His love of flying and understanding of the significance of air transportation would be important for many Georgia communities later.
Mustered out in September 1945, Sanders returned to UGA and in 1946 began law school, passing the bar in June 1947.
By that time, he was in love with Betty Foy, of Statesboro, whom he married in September of that year. Within months of beginning married life, he started his professional career as an attorney in Augusta and his civic work with organizations such as the YMCA, the American Red Cross and Augusta Community Chest, a forerunner to the United Way.
What he was not involved in during the early years was politics. Some Augusta leaders, however, saw great potential in the articulate and hard-working young man, persuading him to accept an offer for elected office.
In 1954, constituents elected 29-year-old Carl Sanders to the Georgia State House and two years later to the state Senate seat. By 1958, he was the floor leader of the Senate and, in 1958, was president pro tem, a meteoric rise for a young man still in his early 30s.
But could a young city fellow aspire to go higher in a state where, thanks to the county unit system, politics remained under the control of rural counties? One unit vote in Georgia’s least populated county represented 938 people; one unit vote in Atlanta represented 92,721 people.
A governor could be elected without ever campaigning in the major population areas. As a result, issues then considered urban, such as education and industrial growth, remained on the sidelines. But in the early 1960s, the United States Supreme Court made several important decisions that affected disproportional methods of voting, including striking down Georgia’s county unit system.
One person’s vote in the city became the equivalent of one vote in the countryside, increasing the political influence of Georgia’s cities.
SANDERS’S ORIGINAL INTENT had been to run for lieutenant governor in 1962. Yet when, under still questionable circumstances, a hitherto unknown Carl F. Sanders entered the Democratic primary for that spot, Carl E. Sanders said, “I guess I’ll have to run for governor.”
It was a bold statement, given that Sanders had done no groundwork for the governorship and would be running against former governor Marvin Griffin and the current lieutenant governor Garland Byrd, who had already lined up the support of many anti-Griffin politicians. Some tried to dissuade him, but with the backing of his family, he set out as an underdog in April. In May, the court decision ended the county unit system, a major setback for Griffin. One month later, Byrd withdrew from the race after a heart attack. Although this made Sanders’s chances better, he was not well-known throughout the state. Griffin was.
In a remarkably short time, the young candidate put together a workable campaign chaired by Wyck Knox Sr. from nearby Thomson. Childhood friend Doug Barnard, himself to later have significant achievements as a U.S. congressman, was a key member of his inner circle, as was Augustan J.B. Fuqua. Sanders used his World War II pilot’s training well, flying to the rural and urban areas throughout the state to meet Georgia’s people. The lack of paved airfields in many small communities meant landings in cow pastures, which jangled the nerves of his uneasy wife in the passenger’s seat. He offered ideas for growth and modernization and promised an honest administration. The citizens responded, electing him by a comfortable margin. He was the first governor from Augusta since the Reconstruction Era and would be the only Augustan in the 20th century to serve in the state’s highest office.
Two years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had said in his inaugural address that the “torch [was] being passed to a new generation.” Carl Sanders embodied that message as he became Georgia’s governor. Hollywood handsome and willing to take the state in the direction of reform, Sanders began Georgia’s transition to a more urban and industrialized state.
IN HIS OWN inaugural address Sanders said: “This is a new Georgia. This is a new day. This is a new era.” He would work hard over the next four years to make it so. Thanks to his push for industrial growth, new job creation topped 200,000, and keeping Georgia’s unemployment far below the rest of the natiown’s. Seeing transportation as crucial to progress, Sanders put money into roads and highways. His love of flying and commitment to air travel paid off for the 70 communities that got paved runways in the four years of his administration – almost triple the number that had existed in 1962. The Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame says that “his vision and perseverance brought Georgia aviation into the modern era …”
Along with the rest of the state, Augusta felt the impact of his leadership in many ways. Several crucial efforts proved of key importance to the governor’s hometown. In the early 1960s, the federal government had decided to move several units of the signal corps to another fort. By this time Fort Gordon had been a fixture of Augusta’s economic and cultural landscape for two decades. Sanders joined the initiative underway by Georgia’s key members of the U.S. House and Senate to keep those units here. Sanders personally visited Washington, where he met with President Kennedy, who at Sanders’s urging rescinded this change. This made it possible for Fort Gordon to become the home of the entire Signal Corps in the 1970s.
A key plank of the Sanders platform in the gubernatorial race was to improve Georgia’s education. As governor, he put his promises into action. Under his watch and through the budgets he presented to the legislature, almost 60 cents of every tax dollar went to education. Thousands more teachers, higher salaries and a master plan for education for Georgia public schools were part of his legacy throughout the state. The Governor’s Honors Program for academically or artistically gifted students was established, creating an intense summer institute in many fields of endeavor that graduates continue to say changes their lives.
His efforts in higher education also led to substantial improvements. Working with the Board of Regents, Sanders supported a network of junior colleges in the state. Four of the then-junior colleges received four-year status – Armstrong in Savannah and Georgia Southwestern in Americus, Columbus and Augusta.
Even while in the Georgia legislature, Sanders had hoped to one day see a four-year college in his hometown. In 1955 Sanders informed local school superintendent Roy Rollins that the arsenal property in Summerville would be sold. He worked with local leaders and national representatives to acquire the property on the Hill for the Junior College of Augusta, which had shared space with Richmond Academy since 1925. After much negotiation and several setbacks, the purchase went through, paving the way for the college’s expansion. As a state Senator, Sanders was on the committee that investigated the need for junior colleges throughout the state, resulting in the Junior College Act of 1958, which made it possible for the Junior College of Augusta to join the University System of Georgia.
Four years later, as historian Edward Cashin wrote in his history of the college, the election of Carl Sanders as governor was a “happy event” for Augusta College. In his campaign, Sanders had supported a change from junior to senior college status for the school. When the Board of Regents agreed to the change, a lack of funds threatened to hold up the conversion. Gov. Sanders made the needed funds available from state surplus funds, and in May 1963 the announcement was made – the Junior College of Augusta was now Augusta College.
The Augusta Chronicle said: “In handing out plaudits, Augustans can turn first to Governor Sanders. He was among the first to see the potential and the need for a four-year college in this city. …”
IN LATER YEARS, when helping achieve the acquisition of Army Reserve property for the college, Sanders said that of his achievements in public office, one of those he was most proud of “was the creation of Augusta College as part of the University System and subsequently its elevation to a four-year college.”
As his term neared its end, Augustans honored their governor with an appreciation day. The Augusta Chronicle headlines proclaimed, “Hurrahs Ring in Augusta for Favorite Son Sanders,” recounting the afternoon when more than 50,000 had turned out to cheer as Sanders led the Christmas parade as grand marshal. When he left office in 1967, Sanders was an extremely popular governor who was not only leaving a legacy of accomplishments internally, but also a better image for the state on the national stage.
While many Augustans hoped he would return to his hometown, Sanders and his family settled in Atlanta, where he built a law firm from the ground up.
Today, Troutman Sanders has 13 offices in the U.S. from coast to coast and in Shanghai, Hong Kong and London. Sanders served as chairman of the firm until 2006 and is now chairman emeritus.
His successes also include business and real estate investments, some in the Augusta area, in addition to untold hours of service to philanthropic, civic and educational organizations.
So when driving the stretch of I-20 between Madison and Augusta that bears the name Carl Sanders Highway or enjoying the many benefits of his efforts, we should remember this native son who rose from modest beginnings and “did us proud.”