Georgia had not elected a Republican to Congress since Reconstruction, and winning the Democratic Primary was tantamount to election for just about every office at every level in the state. The state’s Democratic Party of that era was dominated by fight-to-the-last-ditch segregationists determined to maintain second-class status for blacks until the end of time, and then some.
But Callaway was already a man of accomplishment and not easily deterred. He studied at Georgia Tech before being appointed as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1949. He went on to serve as a platoon leader on the front lines during the Korean War, then after leaving the service helped his father develop and run Callaway Gardens, which quickly became one of Georgia’s premier resorts.
After being elected to Congress in 1964, he gave Georgia’s entrenched political establishment the scare of its life by resigning to run for governor and winning more votes than the Democrats’ nominee, Atlanta restaurant owner and arch-segregationist Lester Maddox. Neither candidate had a majority of votes, however, due to a write-in candidacy mounted by former Gov. Ellis Arnall. Georgia law did not provide for run-off elections in that era, so the Legislature broke the stalemate by selecting a governor. And the Democrat-dominated body picked Maddox.
But even in defeat, Callaway had managed to inspire legions of open-minded Georgians to support him, especially younger ones. And his campaign was the first major step toward achieving a viable two-party system in our state. The number of Republicans in the state Legislature steadily grew from the single digits in the 1960s and early ’70s to the double digits in the ’80s and eventually, today’s utterly changed political landscape, in which Republicans control every major political office in the state and both houses of the legislature by clear majorities.
Callaway’s career in public service continued when he was appointed Secretary of the Army in 1973, and he spent the next three decades developing the Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado.
He died last week in Columbus at age 86.
Callaway is remembered as a political trailblazer, the dreamer of a dream for his state that wasn’t as impossible as many believed.