Originally created 09/16/99

Senate class of '63 a breed apart



ATLANTA -- The Georgia Senate class of 1963 produced captains of industry, public service commissioners, mayors, governors, and even a U.S. president.

The class changed the face of Georgia politics for more than a generation. Some of its members are still writing laws today.

But when they got together for a reunion in 1993, the Senate was in the midst of a debate over whether to change the state flag, a proposal raised by one of the class' members -- Zell Miller, a former state senator turned lieutenant governor turned governor.

The reunion was a rare get-together for a class of rare legislators.

On one side of the Senate chamber was Leroy Johnson of Atlanta, the first black senator since Reconstruction; J.B. Fuqua, a well-known Atlanta industrialist; and Harry Jackson, who became mayor of Columbus.

On the other side were wiley political veterans like Culver Kidd, the Silver Fox of Milledgeville, who had been retired by voters the year before; and Enigma's Bobby Rowan, who went on to serve on the Georgia Public Service Commission.

At the head sat the political valedictorians of the class of 1963: Former Gov. Jimmy Carter, who later became president; former Govs. Carl Sanders and Ernest Vandiver; and Mr. Miller, who was then in the third year of his first term as governor.

"It seems like only yesterday," said Augusta's Mr. Sanders, who was considered a youthful, urbane governor when he won election in 1962.

"The 1963 class was truly a great class," added then-Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, who didn't join the state Senate until 1973. "It was truly a turning point for Georgia."

The reunion -- attended by 27 former senators along with Mr. Sanders and Mr. Vandiver -- was the idea of one of the class' two remaining senators: Hugh Gillis, D-Soperton. It coincided with a reception for longtime Secretary of the Senate Hamilton McWhorter, who had recently retired.

"This is a momentous occasion, an occasion we've been looking forward to for many years," Mr. Gillis said at the time.

"This class has given such great service to this state and nation for many years," added state Sen. Paul Broun, D-Athens, the other remaining senator from the class.

The class of 1963 was historic for reasons besides the future political successes of its members. It was the first class elected after the federal courts declared the county-unit election system unconstitutional, a decision that cut into the dominance of rural politicians.

While rural lawmakers still have plenty of power today, it's because of seniority, not the raw numbers of legislators.

The class also was the first representing newly reapportioned state Senate districts.

Such election changes eventually helped pave the way for increased legislative participation by Georgia's substantial black population.

And the class backed Mr. Sanders' initiatives to greatly expand the university system and outlays for public schools, which earned him acclaim as Georgia's "education governor," one of many to earn the moniker.

For Mr. Carter, it was his first major step toward the White House. During the reunion, he recalled qualifying for his south Georgia Senate seat in 1962 on a day Mississippi was torn by race riots.

He reminded the class of the successes of the era in education, of the lessons in race relations he learned from Mr. Johnson, and of a contest he once won for best legs on the Senate basketball team, beating out Mr. Kidd, who died a few years ago.

Mr. Miller, who was a state senator from the north Georgia mountains in 1963, lamented that back in 1963, the governor's bills "went rapidly through this body."

Former state Sen. Frank Downing made the sound of a train-whistle, as if a governor's bill was being railroaded through the Senate, and Mr. Miller added, "As governor, how I'd love to hear that sound."

Mr. Sanders explained how he won cooperation of the Senate's presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Peter Zack Geer.

"I said, `Peter Zack, you see that airplane out there that you get to fly around the state in to make those speeches and trips? And that state patrolman that drives the lieutenant governor around the state of Georgia? Those are wonderful amenities,' I said. `As long as you support my programs, you're going to have those amenities.' "

However, most of the celebrated speakers talked of the comradery that comes from years of politicking together and working as one body for 40 days a session to make the laws of the state.

"We have wells of friendship that run 30 years deep," Mr. Sanders said.

Thirty years after Senate debates on issues of the day, reporters wanted to know about the issue dominating the 1993 session: Mr. Miller's proposal to change the state flag.

Mr. Miller wanted to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag because many black Georgians found it insulting.

His drive began in 1992 about the time he was named a keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention that nominated Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton for president.

The answer from the three former governors -- Mr. Carter, Mr. Vandiver and Mr. Sanders -- was split: one for the change, one against it and one just wanting to get the issue over with.

"I don't have any strong feelings one way or the other," Mr. Sanders told reporters after the reunion. "If they want to change the flag, that's fine. If they don't want to change the flag, that's fine.'

Mr. Vandiver was lieutenant governor in 1956 when the current flag was approved. He said lawmakers made the change to honor Confederate soldiers, not to thumb their noses at desegregation orders.

However, Mr. Vandiver won election as governor in 1958 on a pro-segregation platform.

"There was a lot of racial discussion at the time, but not on the flag," said Mr. Vandiver, who was leaving office when the Senate class of 1963 was coming in. "I think we really ought to keep the flag that honors our grandparents. I would have a problem, as part of a majority, if they take it away."

Mr. Carter, who served as governor from 1971-75 and president from 1977-1981, supported Mr. Miller on the flag issue.

"We should go back to the flag we had before 1956," Mr. Carter said. "Zell Miller is both correct and courageous to bring this up."

Only weeks after the reunion in 1993, Mr. Miller gave up the fight. Polls suggested Georgia voters opposed the change and so did most legislators. Mr. Miller said he knew when he was whipped.

He also knew continuing the fight would only hurt him in 1994, when he ran for re-election. Mr. Vandiver, for one, endorsed Republican Guy Millner over Mr. Miller.

Mr. Miller eventually won re-election, but by a surprising narrow margin. Flag-change bills are still filed nearly every session, but they generally die without a hearing.

Mr. Miller retired this year from the governor's office. He was replaced by a lawyer who was barely high-school age when the class of 1963 took its seat.

Mr. Gillis and Mr. Broun remain in the Senate, the body's last ties to that historic class under the Gold Dome.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.