Richard Hyatt: Calvin Smyre keeps making history

February 25, 2014 

Calvin Smyre has been around the Georgia capitol almost as long as the gold on the dome, so it isn't surprising that he keeps making history.

He was elected into the Georgia House of Representatives in 1974, taking office at a time when Democrats were in power and African Americans were a novelty.

Almost 40 years later, Smyre is the dean. Even Republicans recognize him as the designated elder statesman. And when history is made, the Columbus legislator is never far away.

This week, it is his role as co-sponsor of legislation that should lead to a statue of the late Martin Luther King Jr. being added to the capitol grounds. Last week it was a ground-breaking moment that found him speaking to, all of people, members of the Georgia Senate.

History is not a new subject for Smyre. He has been flirting with it since his star first began to rise in the General Assembly. He has served governors. He has led his party. He has chaired influential committees.

But the House is his home and that is where he has made his mark, especially when the focus is civil rights. Two pieces of legislation top that list: The bill that made MLK's birthday a state holiday and another that changed the design of the Georgia flag.

But neither came easy.

This week he shepherded a bill that would enable a statue of King to be erected somewhere on Capitol Square nearly 46 years after his tragic death.

This move had bipartisan support, starting with the governor's office, but it was natural for Smyre to be at the forefront of a measure that must come together by Monday -- the last day that a House bill can be sent over to the Senate.

"Our backs are against the wall," Smyre said Tuesday. "We are ironing things out as we go. This legislation is only the first step."

But for capitol insiders, an event last week was just as memorable. Smyre was recently honored with a spot on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame and colleagues in the Senate wanted to add their congratulations.

Friends walked Smyre to the opposing chamber where he received a standing ovation and listened to speeches by three senators -- including his old friend Ed Harbison.

"It was almost historic," Smyre said. "I've never before seen a sitting House member speak to the Senate. It was a total surprise."

That moment in a building where the two governing bodies quarrel like kids on a playground was historic. Smyre grew up a protégé of Speaker Tom Murphy who was never on speaking terms with the Senate.

"If Speaker Murphy had been around, I don't know if I would have been allowed to go over there," he said. "That shows you how times have changed."

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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