The Night a Southern Governor Quietly Desegregated His Capitol

The Night a Southern Governor Quietly Desegregated His Capitol

By Nick Fouriezos


Because being on the wrong side of history can be costly.

By Nick Fouriezos

George Wallace’s lips quivered and his voice shook in the January cold. Yet the newly elected governor of Alabama managed to draw a warm response from the crowd — and to send chills down civil rights campaigners’ spines — by declaring at his 1963 inauguration, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” 

A little more than 150 miles away, the newly minted executive of another Dixie state was choosing a different approach. State Sen. Carl Sanders had just been elected Georgia’s governor, and while the Atlanta-based lawyer also came from a segregationist background, he plotted a quieter course of acquiescence to federally mandated integration. Wallace’s and Sanders’ decisions in the early ’60s eventually helped determine which state would became the industrial center of the Deep South. 

George Wallace was over in Alabama standing in the schoolhouse door.

Georgia Gov. Carl Sanders

In the early 20th century, Birmingham, Alabama, had been the manufacturing center of the former Confederacy, with iron and steel fueling the Yellowhammer State’s largest city like a runaway train. Its economy and population boomed, earning it the nicknames “Magic City” and “Pittsburgh of the South.” City planners promised that a major airport would establish Birmingham as an international icon, relegating Atlanta — and its crisscross of railroad tracks — to a mere afterthought. But that was before Birmingham became a hotbed of racial violence, scaring off investors and developers. 

Atlanta’s politicians, meanwhile, struck a fragile compromise with its African-American base. Behind the scenes, Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield tried convincing local business leaders to open their doors to Black patrons. “The idea was that if one business did integrate, and others didn’t, they would lose their white base,” says Laura T. McCarty, president of the Georgia Association of Historians. So Hartsfield encouraged them all to ease up, with progress proving slow but steady. The bus lines were integrated in 1959, and department stores followed suit in 1961. By 1963, movie theaters, spurred by a Black boycott, eliminated seating by race.

Despite shifts elsewhere, Georgia’s Capitol still had restrooms and drinking fountains labeled “white” and “colored,” its gallery balconies were similarly split, and its cafeteria, the staging ground for a number of student sit-ins in the ’50s, remained separate and unequal. Such was the case in 1963, when Leroy Johnson, a 34-year-old attorney and Morehouse graduate, was elected as the first Black state senator in more than 50 years. Folks thought “the ceilings would fall and the seats would crumble,” because he was there, Johnson recalled while talking to historians at the University of Georgia in 2007 (the 87-year-old wasn’t able to be reached by OZY after multiple attempts). “For the first 40 days, not one senator spoke to me except those in my delegation.”

Yet Johnson found ways to lead a nascent civil rights movement from within state chambers. He drafted Black pages and told them to use the white-only restrooms and drinking fountains. “None of this was done with a news camera [nearby],” he said, and indeed the measures seemed to favor change, not spectacle. Security guards were alerted and took the message to newly elected Gov. Sanders. A showdown could’ve been ugly, but Sanders chose instead to deal with the issue once and for all. That night in January 1963, he quietly ordered that the “white” and “colored” signs be removed throughout the Capitol. “I went ahead and did what I knew the law said to do,” Sanders said later. Meanwhile, he added, “George Wallace was over in Alabama standing in the schoolhouse door.” 

That certainly wasn’t the end to racial strife in Atlanta: Black legislators were still treated differently, segregationist lawmakers and even governors were elected, and it took until 2014 for one Georgia school to hold its first prom for both Black and white students. And just “how much [Sanders] was a proponent of social change is a question,” says historian Tim Crimmins, author of Democracy Restored: A History of the Georgia State Capitol. Sanders recognized that federal law and cultural tides would force integration, and his decision to desegregate the Capitol was more politically savvy than brave. But he did try to make the necessary changes quietly to avoid a “huge white backlash,” Crimmins says. 

Back in Birmingham, meanwhile, officials set fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights activists just months later. From there, the two states and their landmark cities went in wildly different directions. In September 1963, a bomb blasted through a Birmingham church, killing four young Black girls and sparking outrage. Once Birmingham’s reputation was tarnished by the violence, McCarty says, “that turned things around for Atlanta.” The international airport was ultimately built in Atlanta, not Birmingham, and Georgia now has 20 Fortune 500 businesses, while Alabama has only one — all of which helped Atlanta become known as “The City Too Busy to Hate.”