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Georgia, 60 years later

What would James V. Carmichael think and say today?

Sixty years ago, progressive business executive Jimmy Carmichael of Marietta roared onto the Georgia political scene to run for governor. He promised to cast aside race-dominated politics and dwell on curing the state's economic ills.

Carmichael, a lawyer-turned-industrialist, won the popular vote but lost the Democratic primary to ex-Gov. Eugene Talmadge under rules of the discriminatory county unit system. Even in defeat, Carmichael became the prototype for gubernatorial candidates who would later - 16 years later, in fact - dominate Georgia government.

In some ways, Carmichael's Georgia of 1946 seems light years away from the Peach State of 2006. Yet, many maladies addressed by Carmichael still infect us. Carmichael decried Georgia's poor education system, lagging economic development and inadequate job opportunities.

"The time has come when we must stop thinking in terms of being the 'Best in the South.' That is damning ourselves with faint praise," Carmichael said. "Let us assume full responsibility for our actions, and let us not be afraid to set ambitious goals which, when achieved, will make us equal to our fellow man throughout the nation and the world."

We don't hear much talk like that any more. In the years following Carmichael's courageous campaign, Georgia became one of the go-go Southern states, enjoying decades of unprecedented growth. Race-baiting speeches and the plantation mentality disappeared from public discourse - nearly. Most successful candidates for governor dwelled on making life better for all Georgia citizens.

If Carmichael suddenly reappeared on the Georgia scene, he would undoubtedly marvel at much of 21st century Georgia. He also might despair. A new report on the state of "working Georgia" suggests serious slippage since the beginning of the new century.

In its annual analysis of employment, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonaligned research group, found the following:

•Georgia's unemployment rate in 2005 spiked to its highest level since 1993 and exceeded the Southern rate for the first time in 25 years.

•The poverty rate increased to 14.4 percent (or 1.2 million) in 2005. Georgia was one of four states to experience a significant increase in poverty from 2003-2004 to 2004-2005.

•The 2004-2005 median household income remained $3,000 below pre-2001 recession levels.

•Georgia's uninsured rate increased to 18.1 percent, making Georgia one of only eight states to experience a measurable increase in the uninsured population.

Not surprisingly, many of those negative figures can be traced to racial and ethnic disparities.

The GBPI said in its report: "African-American workers [were] more than two-and-a-half times as likely to be unemployed as white workers. The median income of African-American households was 61.9 percent of white households, while the median income of Hispanic households was 70.3 percent of white households in 2005. In regards to poverty, 24.9 percent of African-Americans, 20.0 percent of Hispanics and 8.8 percent of whites lived in poverty in 2005."

"Overall, the state of working Georgia in 2005 was not an improvement from 2004 and remained well below conditions prior to the 2001 recession," said Sara Beth Coffey, GBPI's deputy director.

A closer look at this study reveals problems that transcend a recession hangover. The ancient bugaboo of Two Georgias (maybe it should be called Three Georgias considering the dramatic influx of Latinos) still exists. One Georgia is anchored in white suburbia and exurbia, the other in multi-racial urban and rural settings. The first Georgia is generally booming, while the other Georgia struggles.

A rapidly changing global economy further complicates our situation as lower-paying service jobs replace vanishing manufacturing positions. North Carolina, Virginia and Florida are among Southern states that have recognized and met the challenges of these turbulent times. Georgia should join the parade.

Though he was never elected, Carmichael might serve as an inspiration for the Georgia governor who will be elected Nov. 7.

"Jimmy Carmichael's vision for his state was that Georgians, if they committed themselves, if they were led intelligently, and if they assumed responsibility for their own progress, could place our state among the economic leaders of the nation," amateur historian George Berry wrote in 2002 in "The Man Who Should Have Been Governor," a brief biography of Carmichael.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com.

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