Ernest Vandiver was a governor who had a decision to make. Georgia law required that state funds be cut-off from any desegregated school and the federal court system, in 1960-1, was forcing the desegregation of both the University of Georgia, Athens (UGA)
and the Atlanta school system. It was a decision that not only would define his term in office but make him one of the most famous Georgia governors in history.
Born to a wealthy cotton grower (who never owned slaves), Ernest Vandiver could trace his roots back to northeast Georgia during the Revolutionary War. When he was four, the elder Vandiver moved his family from Canon to Lavonia, where young Ernest grew up playing football, basketball and tennis. He was a popular student with average grades whose father just happened to be a major political contributor in local, state and national elections. Ernest, Sr. was invited to attend Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inauguration by then Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge.
After graduating high school, Ernest Jr. attended Darlington Academy in Rome to improve his grades in preparation for the University of Georgia. In college Ernest was once again popular but only average academically.
Graduation from college brought a tour of duty during World War II. He returned home and successfully ran for mayor of Lavonia. On his first date with future wife Betty they got into a political argument; Ernest was a strong supporter of Gene Talmadge while Betty was a strong supporter of Dick Russell, who just happened to be her uncle. Russell and Talmadge had battled for the U. S. Senate in 1936 and Ernest and Betty's first date was a rehashing of that bitter campaign. He married Betty in 1947.
His first step into state politics was as Herman Talmadge's campaign manager in 1948. Ernest proved a valuable asset to the Talmadge campaign. Talmadge supported Vandiver in the 1954 Lt. Governor's race, which Ernest easily won. In 1956 the Lt. Governor came in contact with John F. Kennedy, then campaigning for the Democratic Vice-President slot under Adlai Stevenson.
While Ernest Vandiver was becoming a friend to national politicians, his relationship with Georgia governor Marvin Griffin was deteriorating. They clashed repeatedly, and by 1957 the relationship had grown bitter. Griffin was the loser in the battle. Vandiver began to eye the governorship. Until this time Vandiver had been viewed as a moderate on segregation. Charges to that effect by a political opponent drew a strong pro-segregation stance by Lt. Governor Vandiver.
In spite of efforts by Governor Griffin to derail Vandiver's candidacy, by mid-1958 he was the easy favorite. Charges that the Vandiver campaign had permitted blacks and whites to stand in the same line at a Valdosta barbecue forced the gubernatorial candidate to adopt a "No, not one" slogan, referring to the number of desegregated classrooms that would occur during his administration. Vandiver won a landslide victory in the Democratic primary, guaranteeing his ascendancy to the governorship.
Ernest Vandiver began his term by cutting state expenses by 10% across the board. His appointees began to uncover corruption within the government's executive branch, which they exposed and eliminated. But Vandiver's defining moment began in 1960. Integration (in schools or anywhere) was strongly opposed by most white Georgians. To appease the white power structure the legislature, in the 1959 session, approved bills designed to continue segregated schools in spite of federal court rulings that were ending the practice.
Inevitably, the push for integration came to Georgia. Atlanta city schools were fighting desegregation when a special committee was formed to decide the course of action to take. Under the able guidance of John Sibley, the commission recommended, in April, 1960, to allow Georgia schools to be desegregated rather than close. Vandiver accepted the committee report but wisely refused to call a special legislative session to consider the report's conclusions. It would be ten months before the legislature could act.
Vandiver was a pragmatist. Before endorsing the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960 he met with JFK and secured a promise that no federal troops would be sent to Georgia to force integration. Kennedy agreed and upon returning home Vandiver announced his support of the ticket. Then, in October, a call came to Governor Vandiver from candidate Kennedy.
Martin Luther King had been sent to prison for a parole violation stemming from an agreement made to dismiss a traffic ticket. Kennedy asked Vandiver to intervene. Vandiver never liked Rev. King, whose long battle against segregation had netted positive results, but he made several calls, first ensuring King's safety and good treatment, then working with DeKalb County to overturn the sentence.
Ernest Vandiver had successfully avoided the demon of segregation in 1960. It was going to return in 1961. At the start of the year, Vandiver's appointment to Secretary of the Army was derailed by objections from the NAACP and other black advocacy organizations. On the day after he withdrew his name, news came from Athens, Georgia. Federal judge William A. Bootle had ordered the desegregation of the University of Georgia. Charlayne Hunter and Hamiliton Holmes had applied for the Fall, 1960 session and been refused. They appealed to federal court and won the right to attend class. The white power structure in Georgia was in complete turmoil.
First, Governor Vandiver requested a stay of the desegregation order, since he had to comply with Georgia law and close any school that was federally desegregated. This stay was refused. Realizing that shutting down the University of Georgia would be a disaster of epic proportions, the governor came up with a way to obey the letter of the law while giving himself a few days to come up with a solution. He ordered state funding to the college cut off, effectively closing the college when it ran out of funds. It also gave the governor roughly a week to come up with a solution.
During this time Vandiver got unexpected support - the senator from Young Harris rose on the state senate floor and appealed to keep the University opened, even if it meant "two Negroes going to the University." The senator's name was Zell Miller. Students appealed to the legislature not to close the school. On the evening of January_18, 1961, Governor Ernest Vandiver rose to speak to a special session of the all-white Georgia Assembly, asking them not only to change the constitution but also pass a series of laws to permit Vandiver to deal with the crisis. To make the legislation more palatable, he included a provision that allowed local school districts to close rather than desegregate. It was this provision that sold Georgia moderates on the plan -- but the rabid pro-segregationists bitterly attacked the governor. The bills requested by Governor Vandiver passed the Georgia General Assembly, averting a confrontation.
In March 1962, toward the end of his term, Vandiver faced another crisis. Georgia's county-unit system was declared illegal. The governor convened a special legislative session to deal with the issue by more fairly distributing the votes between the rural and urban areas of Georgia. This was legally challenged and arguments were made before the United States Supreme Court before Vandiver's term ended in January, 1963. The county-unit system, modified or not, was doomed, just as segregation had been.
Ernest Vandiver continued in and out of the limelight. In 1971, after the death of Russell it was widely assumed that former Governor Vandiver would be appointed to fill his position, but newly-elected Jimmy Carter went with another candidate. He decided to run for the seat in 1972, but came in third. Sam Nunn would win the seat in a primary run-off.