Leaders by example, and what they can teach us
“Moses My servant is dead. Now therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them … .”
Old Testament book of Joshua.
In one weekend, Georgia and its capital city lost two great servants: former Gov. Carl E. Sanders Sr. and businessman Herman J. Russell.
Their joining of that incessant caravan traveling irrevocably away from this earth first reveals the obvious fact that we are diminished by their passing. They will be sincerely mourned and their contributions greatly missed.
Men and women of their caliber — and thankfully there have been many — have toiled hard and well to make the Atlanta metro and Georgia stand out in an upright, profitable way.
Simultaneously doing good and doing well is highly skilled work that cannot end with great leaders’ final breaths. We owe them far more than that.
Indeed, it’s up to us all now — to first mourn, then return to the never-done work of the living. In so doing, we will gain by first reflecting on what we have lost and then how best to can grasp its essence and re-employ it in dutiful service. Then we can more effectively focus on the tasks that leaders such as Russell and Sanders have left to us to see through to completion. A more-sobering realization is hard to imagine.
Yet, the same first chapter of Joshua referenced above may guide us if we can open our ears to hear, and our minds to conceive of what lies ahead: “Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you: do not turn from it to the right hand or the left, that you may prosper wherever you go.”
Let’s first examine that courage part. Gov. Sanders showed that attribute when he helped lead Georgia away from segregation. As a state senator, he pushed for desegregating public schools. As governor, he quietly removed – overnight — Jim Crow’s impediments at the Gold Dome. His low-key approach masked the hefty force behind his low-key dismantling of a stalwart tenet of the Old South.
The wisdom and daring of his moves might be misunderstood or underestimated today, given that Sanders also proved a pragmatic, moderate politician. In a 1962 speech, he mentioned both a segregationist former governor and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in warning that, “I will not tolerate agitators nor permit violence or bloodshed among our citizens regardless of color or creed.” He also declined to put his weight behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying that “I do not believe you can legislate morality.” On balance, unlike others in Georgia and elsewhere, Sanders’ bold actions paved the road toward a better state for Georgians of all races.
While Sanders was leading the state, Herman J. Russell was both building a business empire and buttressing the civil rights movement that was remaking the South and the world.
From advising the giants of the freedom movement to making available money to bail out jailed civil rights workers, Russell worked hard and smartly to assist that noble struggle.
In the realm of commerce, he and his companies earned a place among Atlanta’s greatest entities. His construction operation had a part in erecting many of this city’s iconic buildings.
As he made the American Dream fully his own, Russell never forgot his beginning as a child of the Great Depression. A confidant of U.S. presidents, Russell donated generously to many causes and institutions.
Great men both, Sanders and Russell. But what else can we draw from their passing and apply toward building a greater Georgia?
To start with, great leaders usually don’t flourish – or even remain — in ho-hum places. The relationship between cities and their great doers is a symbiotic one. One fuels the other – or it should. We forget that to our detriment.
Which is to say that the Atlanta metro has greatness woven throughout its DNA, we believe. The trait may go maddeningly dormant at times, but it is there, waiting for the next generation’s audacious visionaries to leap into their destiny.
Atlanta and Georgia are better than our deep challenges. What’s blocking their swift defeat is largely an undersupply of courage, long-term vision, audacity and raw will, we believe. Those things, meritoriously applied, will get us moving toward resolving problems such as transportation, education, water and so on.
It’s not a new reality that great leaders pulverize obstacles beneath their heel. That’s elegantly evident from standing last week inside the quiet greatness that is the hilltop mansion of Alonzo Herndon. Born a slave in Social Circle, Herndon later brought an entrepreneur’s zeal to business ventures that made him Atlanta’s first black millionaire – this a century ago. Like Russell, dividends from Herndon’s capitalistic success benefited many people and causes of his age.
Leaders like these faithful few once showed us how large visions become reality. They were far from the first or only ones to do so. For all our sakes, they certainly cannot be the last.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.
Setting the record straight on Gov. Sanders
By Frederick Allen
The Tony Award-winning play “All the Way,” which starred Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson, contained a serious historic inaccuracy involving the late Gov. Carl Sanders of Georgia, who deserves to rest in peace with his honor intact.
The playwright Robert Schenkkan imagines a telephone conversation between Johnson and Sanders, who’s calling from the 1964 Democratic convention. The subject is a highly convoluted plan Johnson concocted to mollify a protest group, the integrationist Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, by seating two of its members as at-large delegates. In the fraught political tension of the time, Johnson’s idea threatened to trigger a walkout by the all-white delegations from Southern states.
In the play, Sanders admonishes Johnson, “Mr. President, you can’t give those people two seats! It makes it look like the n——-s have taken over the convention! Me and my delegation might just walk out ourselves … .”
The playwright then has an angry Johnson challenge Sanders to do the right thing, asking what kind of Christian he is and questioning his manhood in profane terms.
The exchange startled and disturbed me when I saw the play in New York last spring. The Carl Sanders I knew was not one of the knuckle-draggers of his era, but rather a progressive on race. I wondered how he got rounded up with the Ross Barnetts and George Wallaces of the South. So I did some digging, and learned that I could listen online to the actual tape recordings Johnson made of his conversations in the Oval Office.
On Aug. 25, 1964, Sanders was in Atlantic City working with Texas Gov. John Connally, the president’s closest ally, on finding a strategy to defuse the racial crisis in the Mississippi delegation. In a phone call to the president, Sanders did indeed warn that the idea of seating two at-large delegates might trigger a walkout — but he did so in an effort to protect Johnson, whom he supported wholeheartedly in the campaign, and he did not use the N-word included in the play’s script.
In the play, and in the recording, Johnson argues that the days of white-only voting and political power must end: “Carl, you and I just can’t survive our political modern life with these … fellas down there doing things the old way … . They got to quit that!” But the rest of Johnson’s speech, challenging Sanders’ faith and courage, is invented.
In fact, Johnson commends Sanders during the conversation, saying of Mississippi’s refusal to let blacks vote in the Democratic primaries, “That’s just like the old days, by God, when they wouldn’t let ’em in and let ’em cast a vote of any kind — and you put a stop to that in your state.”
My guess is that the playwright interpreted Sanders’ warning as a statement of his own beliefs, rather than a cold-eyed assessment of the political situation. In the end, the two delegates were seated, the Mississippi and Alabama delegates walked out, but the rest of the “Solid South” remained and in November Johnson won a landslide election over Barry Goldwater. A year later, passage of the Voting Rights Act, spurred in large measure by revulsion over the South’s refusal to grant the vote to African-Americans, ushered in a new era.
Carl Sanders was a part of that New South, and I hope to give him his due by setting the record straight.
Frederick Allen is a former political columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
ON THE RECORD
Gov. Nathan Deal, on the death of former Gov. Carl E. Sanders Sr.: “The bond we shared was more than the mutual possession of a public office; Gov. Sanders was a mentor and friend whose bright example of compassionate leadership was unsurpassed. During his tenure as governor, he transformed Georgia by building thousands of classrooms, improving our transportation system, increasing state income and bringing a competitive spirit to the state through the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Braves. But more than anything else, Gov. 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.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, on the death of businessman Herman J. Russell: “Today, the City of Atlanta has lost one of the best men it has ever produced. No words can express the depth of our sorrow or fill the void created by the passing of Mr. Herman J. Russell. He is an exemplar and few men have done more to make our city a place where you can bring and build your dreams. As the founder of one of America’s most successful construction and real estate businesses, Mr. Russell shattered countless barriers creating a path of greater opportunity for all of us to follow. When history catches its breath, Mr. Russell’s life work will place him among the most significant heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Atlanta business community because of his unwavering commitment to the forward progress of our city.”
From Milton J. Little, CEO of the United Way of Greater Atlanta, on both men’s passing: “The philanthropists’ legacies include breaking down barriers that improved civil rights for all citizens in our region and leading efforts that expanded our community to what we now call Greater Atlanta. Carl was instrumental in helping desegregate Georgia’s public schools and Herman – founder of H.J. Russell & Co., one of the most successful real estate development and construction companies in the country – became the first African-American member of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.”