Carl E. Sanders, a moderate Democratic governor of Georgia in the 1960s who banished “whites only” signs from the state Capitol and who promoted education and other advances that helped make Atlanta the center of the New South, died Nov. 16 at an Atlanta hospital. He was 89.
The death was confirmed by officials from the law firm that he established, Troutman Sanders. He had complications from a recent fall.
Mr. Sanders was 37 when he was elected governor in 1962 in the first Georgia gubernatorial contest in decades to be decided by popular vote. The old system, which gave preference to rural areas and limited the influence of urban voters and African Americans, had been declared illegal by a federal court.
He won the Democratic primary against a former governor, Marvin Griffin, who ran an openly racist campaign in which he said a vote for Mr. Sanders was “a vote for Negroes next door and on the playing fields of Georgia.” Mr. Sanders was unopposed in the general election after the Republican candidate died.
During his single term in office — Georgia governors were not allowed to serve consecutive terms at the time — Mr. Sanders launched reforms that were considered progressive for a state in the Deep South.
He was hardly in the vanguard of the civil rights movement, but he was pragmatic about racial matters and was an early supporter of school desegregation. In his campaign for governor in 1962, he deliberately included homegrown white segregationists among those he called “agitators” disrupting the civic order — typically, a Southern code word for African Americans or their Northern sympathizers.
In a quiet but bold move soon after he took office in 1963, Mr. Sanders ordered “whites only” signs removed from drinking fountains, the cafeteria and other public accommodiations in the state Capitol in Atlanta.
“The courts had already ruled, saying it was unlawful,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008. “I went ahead and did what I knew the law said to do. And while I was doing that, [Gov.] George Wallace was over in Alabama standing in the schoolhouse door.”
During Mr. Sanders’s four-year tenure, the University of Georgia’s faculty doubled in size, several community colleges opened their doors and a statewide educational television network was started. The state hired 10,000 teachers and added 6,000 school classrooms.
Mr. Sanders helped finance improvements to the Atlanta airport and promoted the building of 50 airstrips around the state that were a considerable boon to business growth. He also played a major role in securing two professional sports franchises — baseball’s Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League — that officially made Atlanta a major-league city.
“He did more for the state than anybody I know,” Zell Miller, a former Georgia governor and U.S. senator, told the Journal-Constitution.
Before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Mr. Sanders was touted as a possible running mate with Kennedy in 1964. He was popular and left the state with a budget surplus at the end of his term.
He was succeeded by Lester Maddox, an arch-segregationist who took office after a disputed election ultimately decided by the state legislature.
Attempting a political comeback in 1970, Mr. Sanders was attacked in the Democratic primary as being too liberal for Georgia. He was beaten by a little-known peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter, who used the governor’s mansion as a steppingstone to the White House in 1976.
Carl Edward Sanders was born May 15, 1925, in Augusta, Ga., where his father was a salesman and county commissioner. Mr. Sanders attended the University of Georgia, where he was a quarterback on the football team. He interrupted his studies to serve in the Army Air Forces during World War II.
Returning to the university after the war, he graduated from law school in 1947 and then returned to his home town to practice law.
Mr. Sanders was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1954 and to the state Senate two years later. In 1959, he defied the state’s political hierarchy by urging the desegregation of state schools, but his progressiveness had its limits.
He opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and declared that the government had “no authority” to ban discriminatory practices by private citizens. When Charlayne Hunter, one the first two African American students at the University of Georgia, married a white man in 1963, Mr. Sanders pronounced it a “disgrace.”
Mr. Sanders was a founding partner of the Atlanta-based Troutman Sanders law firm, which now has more than 600 lawyers at offices throughout North America and Asia. He continued to work at the firm until shortly before his death.
Survivors include his wife of 67 years, Betty Foy Sanders of Atlanta; two children, Betty Botts of Atlanta and Carl E. Sanders Jr. of Augusta; and five grandchildren.
In a 2008 interview with the Journal-Constitution, Mr. Sanders was asked whether there were repercussions when he took down the “whites only” signs at the state Capitol.
“Nothing at all,” he said. “I never did hear a complaint or a word about it.”