- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2005

ATLANTA — Former Georgia Gov. S. Ernest Vandiver Jr., who won office vowing that “no, not one” black child would sit in a Georgia classroom with whites yet went on to preside over the peaceful desegregation of public schools, died Feb. 21 after a long illness. He was 86.

Mr. Vandiver was elected in 1958 on an anti-integration platform, but at a critical moment, persuaded lawmakers to desegregate the state’s schools rather than close them.

His stand was credited with sparing the state the turbulence that swept much of the rest of the South, but cost him political support.

After leaving office when his four-year term expired, his career was finished. Keeping the schools open was “my political suicide,” he said years later.

“Governor Vandiver will be remembered as an honest and conscientious leader and for his strong commitment to public service,” Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said.

Mr. Vandiver easily won the 1958 gubernatorial election over a weak field, but the “no, not one” phrase would come back to haunt him. It was devised by his strategists to counter the liberal label that a Democratic opponent sought to hang on him after a speech in which Mr. Vandiver had said integration of Georgia’s schools should “evolve.”

Years later, he acknowledged that the comment probably was unnecessary, because he was virtually assured of election.

Hoping to concentrate on correcting the abuses and reported corruption of a previous administration, Mr. Vandiver quickly found himself facing an even bigger challenge when a series of federal court rulings forced the integration first of Atlanta public schools and then of the University of Georgia.

Integration was inevitable, but that meant the schools would be closed, thanks to a 1955 statute that required state funds to be cut off to any college or school that admitted a black student.

George Busbee, a young legislator at the time who later served as governor, told historians in a videotaped interview that it was an era of inflamed passions.

“If the people in Georgia could have voted at that time, they would’ve voted to close the schools,” said Mr. Busbee, who died in July.

Mr. Vandiver appointed Atlanta banker John Sibley to head a commission that held public hearings and forced angry parents to face facts: School integration was the law of the land. The commission eventually recommended that voters in each district be allowed to determine whether their schools would remain open.

The Sibley commission had had the intended effect of providing a cooling-off period, Mr. Busbee said.

In the meantime, Mr. Vandiver was stricken with a heart attack. While the Sibley commission toured Georgia, he lay in a hospital bed and then at home at the governor’s mansion.

In January 1961, the integration issue shifted to the University of Georgia when a federal judge ordered the school to admit two black students.

Mr. Vandiver, obeying state law, initially ordered the university to close but quietly convened a top-level meeting at the governor’s mansion. Although many recommended unyielding resistance, Mr. Vandiver came to the view that public schools had to remain open.

Ten days later, he called a special nighttime session of the General Assembly and urged lawmakers to repeal the anti-desegregation laws and to adopt the Sibley commission’s recommendation. With only a few dissenting votes, the package passed.

That was “my political suicide,” he recalled later.

“I never thought the majority of the people fully supported our [open schools] position, but I figured I was through in politics anyway.”

Born in 1918 in Franklin County, Ga., Mr. Vandiver attended the University of Georgia, served as an Air Force pilot in World War II and then returned to the university to earn a law degree. He became mayor of Lavonia in 1946 and was named state adjutant general after managing Herman Talmadge’s gubernatorial campaign in 1948.

After leaving the governor’s office, Mr. Vandiver served as chairman of a Lavonia bank and farmed cattle in northeastern Georgia. He and his wife, Betty, lived at Twin Hollies, a two-story Lavonia mansion that they purchased in 1952.

Survivors include his wife, Betty, the niece of former U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell; a son, Samuel Ernest “Chip” Vandiver III; two daughters, state Rep. Jane Vandiver Kidd and Vanna Elizabeth Vandiver; and four grandchildren.

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