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Bo Callaway, 1927-2014

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Howard “Bo” Callaway, who in 1965 became the first Republican congressman from Georgia since Reconstruction, died last week at the age of 86. A West Point graduate and Korean War veteran, Callaway was the scion of a wealthy Georgia family—his parents were founders of the Callaway Gardens resort near Columbus—and as secretary of the Army (1973-75) he presided over the transition to an all-volunteer force. In later years he moved to Colorado, where he served as chairman of the state Republican party and ran unsuccessfully for the Senate.

Bo Callaway

The memory of Callaway as a New South GOP businessman-politician, respectable but obscure, seems fixed: The Washington Post ran a 200-word wire service obituary, beside the former Sierra Leone president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, under the heading of “Deaths Elsewhere.”

You would never know that, nearly a half-century ago, Bo Callaway had dominated the political headlines across America for several weeks. That’s because, in 1966, he was the Republican nominee for governor of Georgia and, after a contentious Democratic primary, the favorite to win. The Democrats had been sorely divided among a former governor (Ellis Arnall), a retiring state senator (Jimmy Carter), and an unreconstructed segregationist named Lester Maddox, owner of the Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta, who had become famous for chasing black patrons away from his business with an axe handle.

In the Democratic primary, Carter drew enough votes away from Arnall to force a runoff, which Lester Maddox won. Arnall, in turn, chose to stay in the race as a write-in candidate. In theory, this should have divided the anti-Maddox vote, thereby depriving Callaway of a popular victory. But on Election Day in November, Callaway won a plurality among Georgians with 453,665 votes to 450,626 for Maddox—and 52,831 ballots for Arnall. 

The problem for Callaway was that, under the provisions of the Georgia constitution at that time, if the winner of the popular vote in a gubernatorial contest failed to gain a majority, the legislature would select a governor between the two candidates with the most votes. By any reasonable measure, that choice should have been Howard Callaway, especially since Arnall’s votes were basically a protest against Maddox. But in 1966 the Georgia legislature was overwhelmingly Democratic, and its members voted accordingly: Lester Maddox, of Pickrick Restaurant/axe-handle fame, became governor of Georgia.

Bo Callaway and the Georgia Republican party pursued legal challenges, but to no avail: Early in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not dictate the way states choose their governors—although a dissenting justice, Abe Fortas, declared that “if the voting right is to mean anything, it certainly must be protected against the possibility that victory will go to the loser.” Bo Callaway, for his part, accepted his lost victory with equanimity. 

The Scrapbook recalls this extraordinary episode in political history partly as a tribute to Callaway’s gentlemanly conduct—he never publicly complained about the rank injustice he suffered—but largely to recall the fact that, for most of its history, and up until comparatively recently, the Democratic party, especially in the South, was the party of slavery, and tolerance for Jim Crow and inequality. The actual story behind the success of New South conservatives like Howard Callaway, and the emergence of the Republican party in the South, is often forgotten.

Shortly after taking up residence in the governor’s mansion, Lester Maddox was visited by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who pronounced him a “good Democrat” and exclaimed to reporters afterward that “the Democratic party is like a big house. There’s room for a lot of folks!” Good Democrat, indeed: By 1971 Maddox was Governor Jimmy Carter’s lieutenant governor; and in subsequent years, President Carter never had anything nice to say about his rival in the 1966 governor’s race, Howard Callaway. About Lester Maddox, he’s breathed barely a word. 

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