Thursday, May 22, 2008

Gifts to History: Bob Short and Georgia Politics in Transition

In 1962 Carl E. Sanders, then a young Augusta attorney who had cut his political teeth in the Georgia Senate, squared off succesfully against Marvin Griffin for the governorship of the state. Griffin, a Bainbridge native who had governed from 1955-1959, was defeated by a combination of factors: the corruption charges that had hung over his tenure as governor, a staunch segregationist platform that didn’t set well with urban voters newly freed of the county unit system (which had effectively disenfranchised them), and the considerable vigor of his opponent.

“That was one of the last great stump campaigns,” Cathy Cox, a Bainbridge native herself and an authority on Marvin Griffin, told me last May when Sheryl Vogt, Director of the Russell Library, and I collected her papers prior to her departure from Atlanta to become president of Young Harris College. The connections and coincidences of curating Georgia politics begin to get interesting at this point, because Ms. Cox had just finished teaching at the UGA School of Law, as Carl E. Sanders Political Leadership Scholar. Marvin Griffin came up in conversation because I was preparing to go to Young Harris to pick up a collection of films: of Marvin Griffin’s 1962 campaign against Sanders.

These kinds of connections and coincidences are dependent to some degree on people like Bob Short, who was donating the Griffin films. Bob had served in various capacities under Governors Ernest Vandiver, Carl Sanders, and Lester Maddox, and had been Jimmy Carter’s campaign coordinator in his 1966 gubernatorial bid. In the late 60s Lyndon Johnson asked him to be regional director of the Federal Office of Disaster Preparedness (one of the offices that would be rolled into FEMA under Jimmy Carter). When Bob left that office, he went on to enjoy a successful career in the private sector while remaining close to, and occasionally advising, Georgia politicians. Bob introduced himself to the Russell Library in the summer of 2006, and since then has donated materials of significant importance, among them: recordings from the late 1950s of the States Rights Council, Governor Jimmy Carter’s weekly radio addresses, and those films of Marvin Griffin’s ’62 campaign.

This is a goldmine for an American political archive. The Griffin films alone, speaking the southern political rhetoric of the era, rife with segregationist sentiment and appealing to rural interests, illustrate the tension and transition that defined Georgia in the early 1960s. Here the gritty substance of fire-and-brimstone Georgia politics on a hot summer’s day finds full expression in black and white (figuratively and literally), and as historical documents of the era the films are invaluable. Bob’s only stipulation in donating the materials: make them available to the public on DVD, CD, whatever…just make them accessible. We love these types of agreements.

But Bob’s generosity has reached beyond the bounds of these donations. Somewhere along the way, Bob was bitten by the history bug, and in 1999 he published the engaging and spirited Everything is Pickrick (Mercer University Press), the only biography thus far of Lester Maddox. When he visited me at the Russell Library in 2006, to donate the initial set of materials, he was also looking for two 30-minute Carl Sanders’ campaign spots from 1970. We had these, but on 2” videotape (read: unviewable). “If you let me use them in a lecture I’m giving, I’ll pay to have them transferred to DVD,” said Bob. We don’t turn these sorts of offers down, and I enthusiastically agreed.

But now he had also piqued my curiosity. I learned that Bob, who lives in Blairsville, was hosting a series of lectures and interviews at Young Harris College, as part of their Institute of Continued Learning program, entitled “Reflections on Georgia Politics.” He had set out on his own to tell the story of Georgia politics in its critical time of transition, focusing on, but not limited to, 1946-1980 (astute observers will note the dates are bookends of Herman Talmadge’s political career), complete with interviews of key actors in the drama and rounded out with his own fly-on-the-wall perspective when he could add it. Among others, Bob has thus far interviewed Joe Frank Harris, Roy Barnes, Betty Vandiver and Jane Kidd, Bert Lance, Johnny Isakson, Saxby Chambliss, Leroy Johnson, Carl Sanders, and his friend since his days as a student at Young Harris, Zell Miller. Bob’s casual style puts his guests at ease, and they are surprisingly candid with him. We offered to partner with Bob for this year’s interview programs, which have included Cathy Cox, David Gambrell, and Bob himself. Bob has also agreed to help the Russell develop Political Parties Oral History series, which will document the rise of two-party Georgia.

Bob Short has given freely, not only of the media he has donated, but of his time, effort, and knowledge, and in so doing he has created a fuller, richer portrait of Georgia’s political history. This is a true gift.

By Craig Breaden
Head, Media and Oral History Unit
Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies

Published in Beyond the Pages, Volume 7, Spring 2008

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