The second annual meeting of an early “New South” organization had convened in Atlanta where Duke University President and former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford gave the keynote address.
The organization sponsoring the conference was tell-tale Southern. Its antique name was intended to give comfort to tradionalists, suspicious of change-oriented, progressive groups — the Lucius Quintus Lamar Society.
Invited speakers were asked to bring doable ideas to a conference, which posed the question: The Urban South: Northern Mistakes in a Southern Setting? Gov. Sanford proposed the creation of a Southern Regional Growth Board.
His vision was of Southern interstate compacts creating controlled growth that avoided turning our landscapes into industrial wastelands such as the New Jersey he viewed from the train on an industry-hunting trip to New York.
Sanford’s speech concluded, “The South’s time has come, after a century of being the whipping boy and backward child. The time has come, finally come. The South can lead the nation, must lead the nation – and all the better, because the nation has never been in greater need of leadership.”
The speech came in the context of growing unpopularity of a misbegotten war in Vietnam; a nation, which had borne urban riots, widespread civil unrest, especially in the South, and was presided over by the less than inspiring Richard Nixon, soon to be hounded out of office.
But it also came with full realization that a civilization, the old segregated South, had gone through its death agonies between the Voting Rights Act of ’65 and the elections of 1970, and was irreversibly dead.
The men elected governor that year brought with them a sense of a new civilization aborning that stretched out beyond the horizon, filled with new assumptions and possibilities.
In the ballroom of the old Biltmore Hotel anticipation rose as four of the governors elected in 1970 took their seats on a panel chaired by Sanford. There was tall, angular Reubin Askew of Florida; handsome Dale Bumpers of Arkansas; lean, intense Jimmy Carter of Georgia; and four-square solid John West of South Carolina.
Gov. Carter, speaking without notes, put it most directly: “I think Southerners now have realized that the solution of our problems is our own and that we can no longer berate the federal government, the Supreme Court or any other ‘outside group’ for our own problems, our own needs, our own shortcomings ... the obstacles we have to overcome.”
Never before in the 20th century had so many Southern governors come together, standing on the same stage — facing forward — and saying plainly that the South must turn away from racial rhetoric and begin the serious business of problem-solving.
For most of us in that ballroom, it was a Southern Epiphany.
There was a feeling that more is possible for this generation of Southerners than had been possible for our fathers and grandfathers. No longer would we have to be defensive because we bore the mark of an historic sin. No longer would the South have to starve its talent and imagination by feeding the retarding myths of the past.
What inspired Gov. Sanford to create such a regional structure? Unhappily, I can’t ask Terry how he came up with the idea; he died in April 1998. But we do know that as a student at Chapel Hill in the late 1930s, he fell under the influence of the great regional sociologist, Howard Odum.
Prof. Odum’s vision was similar to but more realistic than that of the Vanderbilt Agrarians. Where they saw the romantic yeomanry in such pastoral creations as the crop-lien system, Odum saw wasted men and women scratching for cotton in fields of dead clay.
He must have planted in the mind of young Sanford the idea that the South could be a laboratory to discover ways to make “a larger regional contribution to national culture and unity.”
Whatever the origin, his idea dominated the conference and was adopted by the Lamar Society as its work project – a redundant act since we knew or should have known that Terry and a small staff would do the serious work.
As president of the Lamar Society, I became vice chairman of a steering committee to put the compact together, thus earning an * in history, a place reserved for anyone who plays vice to Terry Sanford’s chairmanship.
Odum’s vision became a living reality as the Southern Growth Policies Board.
For me it was enough to be present at the birth of an idea formally chartered later in the year, at a time when the region was newly freed, full of energy, confidence, hope and a sense of the possible.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.