Bo Callaway Is The GOP’s Past That Needs To Be Its Future

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Bo Callaway was laid to rest a couple of weeks ago in Pine Mountain Georgia, home to his family’s namesake Callaway Gardens.  To younger Georgians and those who have recently arrived, the Gardens are likely how they know the Callaway name.   To those who were around several decades ago, he was a transformational figure in Georgia politics and the patriarch of the modern Republican Party.

In 1964, Callaway became the first Republican elected to Congress since reconstruction in Georgia.  In 1966, he chose to run for Governor instead of standing for re-election, winning a plurality of the vote.  By law, the election was settled by the Georgia legislature in absence of a majority of votes.  Callaway lost the legislative vote to Lester Maddox.

Callaway went on to become the Secretary of the Army under Presidents Nixon and Ford, owned and operated the Crested Butte Ski Resort, and became as much a part of the Colorado Republican Party as he was of Georgia’s before returning home.  And home to Bo Callaway was the gardens in Pine Mountain.

Callaway’s death came during the final days of this year’s legislative session, allowing for some official tributes.  I regret that I was out of the House press gallery when Rep Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta began his, and will admit I had to do a double take when I heard him speaking glowing praises of Georgia’s first Republican Governor and what he meant to him, his family, and the civil rights movement.  Then, sadly, I had to remember that it was a party line Democratic vote that installed Lester Maddox as Governor, and the perception of the Republican Party with regards to minority outreach was very different back then.

Callaway’s efforts in the civil justice arena didn’t end when his bid for governor was redirected by the legislature to the segregationist candidate.  As Secretary of the Army, he prioritized the promotion of minority officers, noting the great disparity between the percentage of minority enlisted troops to the number of those promoted to officer ranks.

On a personal note, it was the legislature’s decision to award the election to Maddox that moved my family into the GOP’s ranks.  My Grandmother talked often of how the family’s Representative voted for Maddox despite his district voting overwhelmingly for Callaway.  She never forgot, and it angered her every time the subject was brought up even decades later.

The decades did pass.  Callaway served as Gerald Ford’s re-election campaign manager, ran for Senate in Colorado, and eventually took more of an advisory role to people like Newt Gingrich.

The decades passed for Georgia as well.  It was 36 years between Callaway’s election and when the first Republican governor got to occupy Georgia’s governor’s mansion.  By that time, wholesale partisan realignment had come full circle, with African Americans generally voting with the party of Maddox, not the party of Callaway.

It would be easy to look back at the gap in time and missed opportunities and simply lament the current GOP’s standing with minority voters.  The GOP has allowed itself to lose a voting bloc that frankly, with its history, it should not have.

But Callaway was not a man to obsess over the past, missed opportunities, or unpleasant realities.  He understood reality, but he looked forward. He found solutions.  And he never gave up, especially when he knew what was right.  His party should not either.

With the legislature done, I’ve had the opportunity to begin to move about Georgia again.  I was honored to be invited to the 14th Congressional District Tea Party Leaders’ Summit in Dalton on Saturday.  When I arrived, the Speaker before me, Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown, was delivering a message of why minority outreach is crucial to the party’s future.  The message and messenger were well received.

Will the message take hold and spread?  Realistically, party identifications are not changed overnight.  Callaway’s gubernatorial election was 3 years before I was born, giving just shy of 5 full decades to get from where we were to where we are.

Where will the parties be in five more decades?  For the GOP, given population growth and demographic trends, the GOP won’t matter if that message isn’t received sooner rather than later.

Bo Callaway is now forever at home.  It’s time the Republican party start looking to return to some of the best parts of its past and come home too.


  1. David C says:

    Of course, as fellow Georgian Ed Kilgore points out, that “missed opportunity” to connect with minority voters dates back to Bo Callaway’s own Republican candidacies:

    Callaway joined the Republican party in ’64 with the Goldwater movement along with a bunch of other segregationists, and he and Maddox both were so far right (Recall “Go Bo! and Take Lester With You!) it led to Arnall’s write-in campaign that denied Callaway the majority.

    • Will Durant says:

      In the article Ed Kilgore also tells that he worked on Jimmy Carter’s campaign for Governor in ’66 when he finished 3rd to Maddox and Arnall in the primary. You think that might have tinged his memory just a bit? Much like Jimmy no longer remembering his own segregationist past. You simply didn’t get voted into office 50 years ago and before as an “integrationist”. Arnall achieved that label from Daddy Gene when as an outgoing Governor he tried to open up the Democratic primaries to African Americans that were then “Whites Only”. He never held office again.

      To paint Callaway in with Maddox as a segregationist one has to use a mighty broad brush that would cover 90% of Southern Whites in that era, and that would include Jimmy too. I can tell you that Georgia suffered by ending up with Maddox over Callaway and I would even bet party differences aside Carter would tell you today that he would have even preferred Callaway over Maddox as his Lt. Governor as well. Full disclosure here: as a kid I worked on the Bo Callaway campaign for Governor and was so disillusioned I never actively worked on a campaign again.

  2. Dr. Monica Henson says:

    Thanks for the history lesson, Charlie. Very well done and a singularly interesting morning read.

  3. ARAR says:

    good article Charlie, I was with Bo when we worked for Barry Goldwater and then for his effort for Congress and Governor, Bo was a great man, always positive and friendly to everyone. I was always amazed at his ability to remember names and where he knew you from. He was the founder of the Republican Party and I remember when we met for meetings, it was usually only a few… we used to say the Republican Party met on Broadway in the telephone booth. Bo really started it all. A real Republican and a real friend.

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