Upon learning of Martin Luther King’s proposed move to Atlanta in December 1959, Georgia’s Governor, Ernest Vandiver, declared that King was disruptive to the state’s “good relations between the races” and vowed that the civil rights leader would be kept under surveillance. Vandiver claimed that “wherever M. L. King, Jr., has been there has followed in his wake a wave of crimes including stabbings, bombings, and inciting riots, barratry, destruction of property, and many others” (“Vandiver Says”).
Vandiver was born in Canon, Georgia, on 3 July 1918. After graduating from Darlington Preparatory School in Rome, Georgia, he earned both his AB and LLB degrees at the University of Georgia. Vandiver served during World War II and, after returning to Georgia, he was elected mayor of Lavonia, Georgia, in 1946. Utilizing his father’s connections to the Talmadge family’s Democratic Party political machine, he then moved on to other positions within state government. In 1948 he managed Herman Talmadge’s successful gubernatorial campaign, and went on to become both adjutant general and state director of selective service of Georgia. Vandiver was elected lieutenant governor under Marvin Griffin in 1954, and subsequently ran for and won Griffin’s office in 1958.
Once elected, Vandiver proposed successful legislation requiring the withdrawal of state funds from public schools ordered to desegregate by federal courts, and preventing local property tax revenue from funding integrated schools. In January 1961, upon word that Vandiver planned to enforce Georgia law and close the University of Georgia, an additional federal injunction prevented him from doing so. At a special joint session of the Georgia Assembly, Vandiver urged the legislature to alter state law to authorize local communities to integrate or close their own public schools, warning that the issue would otherwise “blight our state.… Like a cancerous growth, it will devour progress … denying the youth of Georgia their proper educational opportunity” (Sitton, “Vandiver Offers”).
Tensions between King and Vandiver peaked upon news of King’s relocation to Atlanta in early 1960. Vandiver expressed his discontent publicly, maintaining that King was not welcome in Georgia. In response to the governor’s statement that King’s arrival would bring violence to Atlanta, King wrote to a supporter: “Why Governor Vandiver made such an extreme accusation I do not know, other than the fact that he probably felt the need to appeal to some of the reactionaries who vote to keep him in office” (King, 23 December 1959).
Following King’s arrest in October 1960 for his participation in a sit-in at a department store restaurant in Atlanta, Democratic Party presidential candidate John F. Kennedy made a phone call to Coretta Scott King expressing his concern for her jailed husband. Publicly, Vandiver told reporters: “It is a sad commentary on the year 1960 and its political campaign when the Democratic nominee for the presidency makes a phone call to the home of the foremost racial agitator in the country” (“King Hurt Demos”). Privately, Vandiver had suggested to Robert F. Kennedy that he make the personal phone call to DeKalb County Judge J. Oscar Mitchell, which led Mitchell to free King on bail. Vandiver’s tactical recommendation was kept quiet.
Georgia’s restrictions on serving consecutive terms forced Vandiver to leave office in 1963, and a heart attack during his 1966 reelection campaign forced him to withdraw from the race. Vandiver resumed his legal practice, and in 1971 served as Governor Jimmy Carter’s adjutant general. He later held leadership positions with several institutions, including Atlanta’s Rapid Transit Committee and the Lavonia Development Corporation. Vandiver died in 2005 at the age of 86.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Bradford Daniel, “Martin Luther King says: ‘I’d Do It All Again,’” Sepia, December 1961.
Henderson, Ernest Vandiver, 2000.
King, Address at NAACP Mass Rally for Civil Rights, 10 July 1960, in Papers 5:485–487.
“King Hurt Demos, Vandiver Asserts,” Atlanta Journal, 31 October 1960.
King to Lee Peery, 23 December 1959, MLKP-MBU.
Claude Sitton, “Vandiver Offers Integration Plan,” New York Times, 19 January 1961.
“Vandiver Says Rev. King Not ‘Welcome’ Here,” Atlanta Daily World, 2 December 1959.