Ernest Vandiver

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Vandiver on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I got a call from then-Senator John Kennedy. This was during the campaign. He said, “A judge down in Georgia has incarcerated Martin Luther King. Is there anything that you can do to help get him out? Because it will be helpful to my career.” You may or may not know that Daddy King was supporting Nixon at that time. . . . So I called my brother-in-law and a close friend of mine who had been secretary of state when I was lieutenant governor. His name was George Stewart. George Stewart went out and talked with Judge Mitchell. Judge Mitchell agreed, and I do not know what George told the man. He might have told him that he would get him appointed federal judge or something. Anyway, he agreed that if either Senator Kennedy or Bobby Kennedy would call him personally and ask him to release Dr. King, that he would release him. I called Bobby Kennedy and relayed the message that George Stewart had brought back to me. Bobby Kennedy called Judge Mitchell, and Martin Luther King was released from jail.

Ernest Vandiver, Saving The Soul of Georgia : Donald L. Hollowell and the Struggle For Civil Rights

Vandiver changed from his "No, not one" stance on segregation. Those urging him to change included Ivan Allen Jr. (later mayor of Atlanta), banker Mills B. Lane, Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff, Griffin Bell (later a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and the United States Attorney General under U.S. President Jimmy Carter), and many others. [6]

Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vandiver said, "All the world is shocked and grieved at the death of our President. I am certain that all Georgians join together in sending our condolences to the grieved family." [7]

Under Vandiver's administration, a United States District Court ordered the admission of two African-American students, Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, to the University of Georgia. Despite his past support for segregation, Governor Vandiver did not resist the court order, [8] sparing the University of Georgia the national publicity associated with the opposition stands taken in 1962 by Governor Ross Barnett at the University of Mississippi and in 1963 by Governor George C. Wallace at the University of Alabama. After the desegregation of the University of Georgia, [9] Vandiver successfully urged the Georgia General Assembly to repeal a recently passed law barring state funding to integrated schools. [10] He also appointed banker John A. Sibley to head a state commission designed to prepare for the court-ordered school desegregation. [1]

He pledged to maintain the County Unit System, a type of electoral college that had been employed to elect Georgia governors, [11] but it was struck down by a decision of the United States Supreme Court as unconstitutional. He then ordered the Democratic State Central Committee to conduct the 1962 primary by popular vote. [1]

Vandiver's efficiency in running state government permitted a building program and the expansion of state services without tax increases. The state expanded its ports, encouraged tourism, promoted business and industry, expanded vocational-technical education, and authorized programs for the mentally ill. [1]

Later career

In 1966, Vandiver was initially a candidate for governor and had been expected to compete with another former governor, Ellis Arnall. However, Vandiver withdrew for health reasons. [12] When the Democratic nomination went not to Arnall but to the Atlanta businessman Lester Maddox, a strong segregationist, the Democrat Vandiver endorsed in the general election the Republican nominee, U.S. Representative Howard "Bo" Callaway, then of Pine Mountain. Maddox was ultimately elected by the Georgia legislature after election returns failed to produce a winner by majority vote. [13]

Had Vandiver's health permitted him to run for governor in 1966, Callaway would have instead sought reelection to the U.S. House. When Vandiver looked like a potential Democratic nominee, Callaway asked William R. Bowdoin Sr. (1913–1996), an Atlanta banker and civic figure who had chaired a commission on state government reorganization, to run as a Republican gubernatorial candidate. Oddly, Carl Sanders, the term-limited governor, asked Bowdoin to run that year as a Democrat. [14]

In 1972, at the age of fifty-four, Vandiver ran for the United States Senate for a full term to replace his wife's uncle, veteran Senator Richard Russell Jr., who had died in office in 1971. Vandiver finished third behind Sam Nunn and appointed Senator David H. Gambrell in the Democratic primary election. Nunn defeated the Republican Fletcher Thompson, an Atlanta-area U.S. representative even as Richard M. Nixon was sweeping Georgia in the presidential election against the Democrat George S. McGovern.

In his final years, he would express regret at his earlier segregationist positions. "I said a lot of intemperate things back then that I now have to live with," he said in 2002. "All I can say now is that you are of your time." [2]

Marriage and the Russell family

Vandiver was married to Betty Russell, a niece of Senator Russell, who had also served earlier as governor. Russell was popular and powerful in Georgia and helped to promote his nephew-in-law's career.

Vandiver was a son in law of Judge Robert Lee Russell and grandson-in-law of Judge Richard Russell Sr. For information, see Russell family.


Ernest Vandiver died on February 21, 2005, at the age of eighty-six at his home in Lavonia, Georgia. In addition to his wife, he was survived by three children: Samuel Ernest "Chip" Vandiver, III; Vanna Elizabeth (named for her paternal grandmother and mother) Vandiver; and Jane Brevard Vandiver, who as Jane V. Kidd was elected as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives from Athens and in 2007 as the chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party. [1]


The stretch of I-85 through Franklin County, Georgia, is named "Ernest Vandiver Highway" in his memory. Vandiver had worked to make sure the highway traversed Franklin County, instead of proceeding further north as originally planned.

On September 26, 2008, the University of Georgia dedicated a residence hall in the East Campus Village to Vandiver.

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "Ernest Vandiver Jr. (1918-2005)". Retrieved April 28, 2012.
  2. 1 2 Gettleman, Jeffrey (December 22, 2002). "South's leaders in pre-civil rights era reflect on records with regret". SFGate. Retrieved November 11, 2012.
  3. Novotny, Patrick (Fall 2004). "John F. Kennedy, the 1960 Election, and Georgia's Unpledged Electors in the Electoral College". Georgia Historical Quarterly. 88 (3). Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  4. Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1994, 2002), p. 28)
  5. Daniels, Maurice Charles (2013). Saving the Soul of Georgia : Donald L. Hollowell and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Athens: University of Georgia Press. p. 118. ISBN   9781306117685.
  6. Young, Neely (June 2015). "An Old, Sweet Song". Georgia Trend. 30 (10): 8. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  7. Murphy, Reg (November 23, 1963). "Governor Leads All Georgians Into Deep Mourning". The Atlanta Constitution.
  8. Rasmussen, Patty (2005). "Right Man, Right Time". Georgia Trend. 20 (7): 18. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  9. Pratt, Robert A. (2002). We Shall Not Be Moved : The Desegregation of the University of Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN   9780820323992 . Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  10. "Grace in Georgia". Time. Vol. 77, no. 5. January 27, 1961. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  11. Henderson, Harold Paulk (2000). Ernest Vandiver, Governor of Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press. p. 40. ISBN   978-0820322230 . Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  12. "Georgia and the Pursuit Of Reasonableness". New Republic. Vol. 155, no. 14. October 1, 1966. p. 11. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  13. Billy Hathorn, "The Frustration of Opportunity: The Georgia Election of 1966", Atlanta History: A Journal of Georgia and the South , XXI (Winter 1987–1988), pp. 42, 47
  14. Atlanta History, p. 44
Ernest Vandiver
Ernest Vandiver (1962).jpg
Ernest Vandiver (1962)
73rd Governor of Georgia
In office
January 13, 1959 January 15, 1963
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Lieutenant Governor of Georgia
Succeeded by
Governor of Georgia
Succeeded by