Over the weekend Howard “Bo” Callaway, former Secretary of the Army, former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, and the 1966 Republican nominee for governor of Georgia, passed away at the age of 86.

I took special notice in part because Callaway was part of the mill-owning, union-busting family that exercised feudal authority over the town (LaGrange, Georgia) where I spend five years of my childhood. But I also recall Callaway’s gubernatorial campaign as a crucial turning point in the political history of Georgia and of southern Republicanism, when the GOP went the extra mile to ensure that no one could accuse it of race-mixing liberalism.

Until 1964, Bo, like the rest of his family, was affiliated with the dominant segregationist wing of the Georgia Democratic Party; he was a big supporter of 1962 gubernatorial candidate Marvin Griffin, whose previous tenure in Atlanta was equally famous for corruption and racist demagoguery. And like a lot of Georgia seggie hardliners, Bo joined the Goldwater Movement. But he went a step further by running for Congress as a Republican in 1964, and was swept into office by the Goldwater landslide in Georgia that year. Instead of staying in the House and happily compiling a right-wing voting record, Callaway decided to run for governor in 1966, and was designated the GOP nominee without having to deal with a primary.

To make a very long story short, Bo wound up facing the world-renowned segregationist militant Lester Maddox in the 1966 general election, after Maddox dispatched moderate former governor Ellis Arnall in a runoff (the close third-place finisher was a state senator named Jimmy Carter, in whose campaign I was a juvenile volunteer) amid widespread reports of Republican crossover voting to help ol’ Lester, viewed as the weakest Democratic prospect. Had Callaway made even small gestures towards accommodation of civil rights sentiment in Georgia, he would probably have won easily. But instead, he stood his conservative ground, and invited a massive write-in campaign on behalf of Arnall that denied either major-party candidate the majority necessary under the Georgia constitution for victory. Though Callaway won a tiny plurality of the popular vote, Maddox was subsequently elected governor by the Democratic-dominated legislature. It said a lot about the perceptions of the time that Jimmy Carter’s support for Maddox over Callaway did not come back to haunt him when he ran for president in 1976; nobody was all that sure Lester would be any worse for race relations than Bo.

The same year that Callaway chose being Right over being governor, Winthrop Rockefeller won the gubernatorial contest in Arkansas as a straightforward supporter of civil rights, very much in the tradition of his brother the governor of New York, and more importantly, of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had sent federal troops into that state to integrate public schools in a high-profile battle with Rockefeller’s political nemesis, Orval Faubus.

So Callaway’s position on civil rights was a choice, not a reflection of southern Republican tradition–indeed, it was a continuation of his previous Dixiecrat career. And it wasn’t a choice made on purely electoral grounds. Even aside from the opportunity opened up by Maddox’s nomination, there was a growing suburban electoral base in the state (and in the region) for a more moderate brand of Republicanism. As Sean Trende recently pointed out, Goldwater got a smaller percentage of the southern regional vote in 1964 than Ike did in 1956.

Now ultimately, the partisan realignment of the South into a moderate Democratic Party drawing on a biracial coalition and a conservative Republican White Man’s Party would have happened anyway thanks to a host of forces. But the special virulence of southern conservative Republicanism, and its taste for overt and covert racial appeals, wasn’t immediately inevitable; in Rockefeller’s Arkansas, the right-wing takeover of the state GOP didn’t happen until 1980, and a full race-based realignment of the parties in the South didn’t happen until quite recently outside the “super-South” states of South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.

I don’t know how much difference it would have made had Bo Callaway been elected governor of Georgia as a racial “healer” in 1966. But it certainly would have offered the state and the GOP some options–and some history–it never enjoyed.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.