Coming out of Morehouse College in 1968 at the height of the civil rights-era tension, Sanford Bishop had to make a decision: Law school at Emory University or seminary at the school institute that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. attended.
Today, nearly a half century after making the decision to attend law school, he can say he made the right one. It led him into civil rights legislation, which led him into politics, which led him into one of the most exclusive clubs in the country, the U.S. House of Representatives.
Recently, Bishop sat down with reporter Chuck Williams to talk about his career, partisan politics, race and his world view.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
You have a unique perspective. Where is our country right now?
We are at a very, very important crossroads. We've got challenges much as the British Empire did, the Roman Empire did, in that we have been the world superpower for quite a while, and now there are emerging competitors -- China, and of course India. And of course, that places us in the position of having to develop a will to get out of complacency in order to maintain our place in the global community.
I'm very concerned about some of the basics and the fundamentals that we have had historically. We've had a country that was strong in values, that had a strong patriotic fervor, and a will to compete and to be the best.
Is this country still as patriotic as it once was?
Sometimes I wonder. I would like to think that we are, however ... I look at and reflect on a visit I made to China 15 years ago. ... At precisely 8 a.m., a gong sounded and they all came to attention and the national anthem played. It gave me goose bumps because I realized they were a nation that was focused on becoming the No. 1 superpower. And as I have watch China evolve over the last 15 years, I have really come to believe that they are on a mission.
Where did our country start to lose focus -- or has it lost focus?
I'm not sure what the precise historical moment was, but I think right around the time of the development of the Internet, with the beginning of the Iraq war, we had been the eminent superpower. But once the Internet spread worldwide, it allowed developing countries to move much faster and to accelerate their pace of development.
And of course, India and China had developed institutes of technology, and they have 10 times the population that we have, and they are developing 10 times as many scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists. That places us at a disadvantage. But not only that, they're developing 10 times as many MBAs and entrepreneurs as we are, and that has placed us in the global marketplace as not necessarily the world's most developing and growing economy.
Does that scare you?
It does, it does. It gives me cause of concern. And you asked where the country was, and we're at a point where we really need to focus on making sure that we can continue to produce scientists, engineers, people who are mathematicians, who are trained in technology, so that we can compete. Otherwise, we won't be able to.
We also have to master energy because the economy that is able to control this energy cost and to have sufficient energy will be the economy that succeeds in the global marketplace. And we've got to also manage our relations with other nations better than we are.
Right now, there are people who really hate the United States, that hate America. You see the ISIS, the al-Qaida and all of those militant terrorist groups that have a deep-seated hatred for us. I believe that those kinds of hostilities come from a lack of having relationships and understanding and communication with one another. It happens here on the local level, it happens internationally, and if you don't have communication, you don't understand and respect one another. It breeds the opportunity for hostilities and contempt.
Can the nation focus amid what almost seems like a partisan political food fight every time there is an issue?
That is most unfortunate, because I think at a time when our nation is facing external challenges in the global community for us to be so intramurally focused on partisanship is a distraction, it takes our eye off of the ball, off the real objective, the real goal.
In doing that, I think those of us who are elected officials do the country and the people that we represent a disservice. We have to be focused, not only the here and now, but we've got to think about the next generation, we've got to think about the future of our country. ...
Of course, that requires us to confront the challenges that we face realistically, neither in a Democratic or Republican way, but in an American way, because the problems and challenges are not really Republican problems or Democratic problems. They are American problems, and we need American solutions, and it requires the best minds from whatever political perspective one has to focus on those problems and to exchange ideas and communicate.
There came a time in our body of politic, probably around the time of the Gingrich Revolution, that the ability and the propensity for members of Congress to have continual relationships sort of fell by the wayside and became a very hostile, very partisan, a very finger-pointing environment. And that has persisted and I think has distracted us from our purpose. When our Founding Fathers created our government with the separation of powers and the checks and balances, that was a basic assumption that the people that are involved in our government would be working for the common good.
And that meant that we would have to compromise, that it couldn't be my way or the highway. It had to be a give and take, finding middle ground where there were strong disagreements. And of course, that is how our Constitution is structured, it is how our government is structured. In order for it to work effectively, that's what has to happen, but when we have the strong partisanship, the far-right and the far-left, it's got to be my way -- we end up with the gridlock that we've experience for too long.
And of course there are some of us who are concerned about that. There's a group called "No Labels," which I'm a part of. It's a group of Democrats and Republicans who have come together to try and focus on how we can get past the partisanship and focus on an effective, efficient government that works for the people. We've been involved in that now for a year and a half, almost two years. It is half and half -- half Democrats and half Republicans.
Who is a Republican congressman that you have a close relationship with?
Ander Crenshaw, who is one of the members of the Appropriations Committee. He's from Florida. I have a very strong relationship with John Culberson, who was the chair of the Military Construction Veterans Affairs Subcommittee until the beginning of this past session. I was a ranking member, so we worked very closely together on Military Construction Veterans Affairs. I've had some very close relationships with the members that have passed on. Bill Young, who died last year, who was the chair of the Defense Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, longtime member -- we were very close, and he was a mentor.
Any of those guys that you break bread with?
Oh yeah, I do. And of course, Jack Kingston and I were close. We went to the legislature around the same time. We served in the State House together. I went to the Senate, but later we both came to Washington together. Nathan Deal and I served as State Senators together. He was the president pro-tem of the Senate, I was the chair of the Education Subcommittee.
He was a Democrat back then, wasn't he?
He was. And we worked together, and we both went to Washington at the same time, and we were in the first group of Blue Dog Democrats when that was formed. We worked together closely on the Bill Clinton Welfare to Work Bill, which was patterned after the Georgia legislation, which we had been a part of in the Legislature.
So, I have had over the years very close friends, and of course one of my closest friends is Dr. Bob Wright, who is a very, very strong and longtime Republican. He served in the Reagan administration and has been a strong Republican, but we're very close friends. We have had political differences over the years, but our friendship has endured and I consider him to be one of my very closest friends and advisors. In fact, when I ran for Congress he was on my finance committee.
Looking at your lapel pin, the number 114 is on that pin. Is that's your seniority number?
No. This is the 114th Congress.
What is your seniority number on the pin?
It's 38, and it's on back of the pin.
So, 38. So you have been there long enough that basically you are in the top 10 percent now.
Well, that might be a little higher than the top 10 percent.
Let me put it this way: according to the seniority numbers, there are only 37 members of the House who have more seniority than I do out of the 438.
What comes with that seniority?
I guess it's the experience. Of course, when you have ceremonial events you get preference to go out to choose your seat. For instance, an inaugural, you get to be in front of the line.
Seniority has to do with committee assignments and being able to be in a position to effectively represent your constituents. For example, it's not easy to get on the Appropriations Committee. It took me 10 years before I was able to get a seat on the Appropriations Committee.
What is the importance of the Appropriations Committee?
Well, when I was in college, my first day of Political Science Class 301, the professor asked us for the definition and we all went to the Encyclopedia of Political Science that came with these page-long definitions, and he told everybody to put their pencils down and said, "Politics is nothing more than who gets what, when and how." And appropriations determines who gets the tax dollars. Appropriation committees -- whether it's in the State House, whether it's in the State Senate, or whether it's in Congress -- determines how the allocations of the tax dollars will be made.
It's the most important place to be in a legislative body, right?
I determined that it is.
When I went to the legislature back in 1976, I had been involved in a civil rights case against the state prison system, Guthrie vs. Ault. And it was a massive class-action lawsuit on behalf of black inmates, and ultimately the judge asked us to represent white inmates on non-racial issues to improve the conditions. And of course after we began to litigate, the judge determined that the inmates had brought the case without attorneys -- we ended up with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund representing them.
The judge determined that the state was in violation of their constitutional rights, that they were being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, and that they had all kinds of violations of their civil liberties that should not have been there. But in order to fix it, it required an expenditure of $110 million. So, for four years, twice a year, we would have status conferences with the Attorney General's office and they would say, "Yes, judge, I know you ordered us to do this, but the legislature hasn't appropriated the money." So, for eight meetings I sat there and just got furious because we had won the case -- we had made the case and won the arguments and the judge had issued the order -- but nothing was happening. And they came back and said the legislature hadn't appropriated the money.
So, in December 1975, I left the meeting in Brunswick with (federal) Judge (Anthony) Alaimo and said, "I've got to run for the legislature." So, I came back to Columbus and started talking to George Ford and to Albert Thompson about running for the legislature to make the legislature to do right on this case, I was so frustrated. So, with careful advice from George Ford, we were able to develop a strategy for me to run. So, in March I ended up running for the legislature and I was elected to the State House with a view of going there to make the legislature to do right.
So, that is how this all started?
This is how it all started. Once I got there I wanted to be on the Appropriations Committee but seniority determined that. So, for the 14 years I was in the House I wasn't able to get on the Appropriations Committee. And of course, the appropriations bill would come to the floor with the money in there and some of the legislators would get up and mend out.
Did it ever get appropriated?
It did. I think I was there for six years before it was finally approved, and of course once it was approved then they had the construction of buildings -- and Rutledge (Prison in Columbus) was a result of that. Many prisons across the country were the result of that decision. And of course, the economy went bad. So, they got them constructed but they couldn't staff them and they couldn't equip them. So, it went on and on and on, and finally I went to the Senate in 1990, after being in the House for 14 years. And in 1992, I was elected to Congress.
I get to Congress in my first term, Allen Ault -- who had been the defendant, who had been the commissioner of corrections at the time the suit was in its early stages -- had left the state, gone on to teach and to write. Zell Miller became governor and brought him back to head up corrections. So, he was again the commissioner of corrections for Georgia, and they had decided they were finally able to open the prisons. And one of them was in my congressional district in Macon County.
He invited me to come to the ribbon cutting and the ceremony because it was in my district. It was very, very emotional for me because when he introduced me to bring greetings, he said, "This is Congressman Bishop. We invited him because this is in his Congressional district, this facility will employee so many hundreds of people, and it will contribute X number of dollars to the local economy through salaries and contracts."
He said, "But what you really need to know is that he is really here because of what he did in his other life." And then he talked about the case and how it resulted in the relieving of the overcrowding, which is one of the main issues, and it resulted in building prisons that were decentralized across the state.
Let's talk about social change. You grew up in the Civil Rights era. You attended Morehouse. Obviously, Dr. King came out of Morehouse. Morehouse was a center for forward thinking in our country at that period, right?
Yes. In fact, my freshman year Dr. King received the Nobel Prize and I got to meet him because Dr. (Benjamin) Mays, who was president and had been a mentor to Dr. King, invited him following him receiving the Nobel Prize to receive an honorary degree and to have a convocation where he spoke. I was so impressed with Dr. King and had the opportunity to meet him, and of course, I began to follow him. That was a very, very interesting and tremulous time. There were lots of conflicting models of leadership at that time. There was Dr. King, there was Stokley Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and Malcolm X. And so all of these ideas for young college students were the topic of our late dorm night conversations.
But, Dr. King being a very prominent Morehouse grad really arrested our attention. Of course, I followed him very closely, and I was SGA president at the time of his assassination. That was a very, very tremulous time in Atlanta and across the country.
Where were you when you heard he had been assassinated?
I had just left dinner and walked into Mays Hall and walked into the lounge to watch the 6 o'clock news. The news finished and I guess it had gone into the 7 o'clock program and a breaking news came across the screen that Dr. King had been shot.
Of course, you could hear the rumblings and the noise across the neighborhood all around the campus. It wasn't long before the fires began to flare up all around the campus, so we had to try to mobilize to make sure that nobody set fires to the buildings on campus. And of course, I was SGA president and I was trying to keep things under control. Ultimately, we managed to escape any bad things on the campus. But all around the campus, the neighborhood's grocery stores were fire bombed and windows were broken out of various businesses that were around in the city.
At the time of the funeral, I went over to the funeral home where his body was in state -- we were all just shaken. The funeral day, I went to the funeral at Ebenezer Church and I marched with the mule train over to the campus at Morehouse where they had the public funeral. The other one was public but it was smaller. I was a member of the Morehouse Glee Club, and of course when we got a few blocks to the college, I ran to the dorm and changed into my glee club blazer and got into my position near the stage, so I actually sang at his funeral.
How is our country different in 2015 than it was in 1968?
We've come a long way.
Is there still hate?
Yes. There is hate and perhaps there will always be hate, but we have come a long way from where we were in 1968, where we were in 1964 and 1965, before the Voting Rights Act. I actually remember the Edmond Pettus Bridge. I remember when the girls were killed in Birmingham -- I remember that very vividly. I remember the Montgomery bus boycott -- I was a small child but my father was the dean of the Mobile branch of Alabama State, which was in Montgomery.
And of course, when they bombed Dr. King's house, the president communicated to my father that Dr. King and his family were actually staying at the president's house on campus at Alabama State to be safe. So, President H. Councill Trenholm provided refuge for the King family and that's how I knew about it because I was a small kid and they were talking about it at the dinner table. When I actually got to meet Dr. King later when I was in college, I was just taken by him -- I wanted to emulate him.
In fact, I was in pre-law and in my junior year, being so impressed with Dr. King, I began to want to follow in his footsteps. Religion was compulsory at Morehouse regardless of what your major was. You had to take at least one semester of religion, and if you were getting a bachelor of arts opposed to a bachelor of science, you had to take a whole year of religion and philosophy. I enjoyed my religion courses, so I really was struggling with going into the ministry. I was actually accepted to Crozer Theological Seminary where Dr. King went. At the same time, I was accepted to law school.
Why did you choose law over seminary?
Well, after Dr. King's assassination, one of the attorneys in Atlanta, Howard Moore Jr. with the firm of Moore, Alexander and Rindskopf -- I ran into him my senior year and it was close to graduation, and he said, "What are you going to do?" And I said, "I'm torn between going to the seminary and going to law school." He said, "What do you want to do?" I said, "I want to follow in Dr. King's footsteps. I want to do something for the Civil Rights Movement." And he said, "Let me tell you, if you really want to do something for the movement, we need people with useful skills. We don't need anymore hot-air preachers, so you ought to go to law school." So, I decided to go to law school.
Is politics a blend of the ministry and the law profession?
To some extent it is. For me, and with that calling that I felt the pull to the ministry, I was very unsettled for a number of years to whether I had done the right thing, and I finally realized that what I was doing was a ministry of public service.
You look at other countries, they have a ministry of defense, a ministry of education, a ministry of health, a ministry of trade. And of course what we do is actually a ministry. It is actually working for and in behalf of the people we represent. That's what ministers do.
Did you make the right decision in 1968?
I think I did. And as I look back on it, when I was in the State House, I was representing a congregation of 30,000 people.
You first came to Columbus in 1972, right?
How has Columbus changed in the 40-plus years?
It has changed tremendously. ... Part of why I came was the African-American police officers' lawsuit against the police department where they were protesting discrimination and severed the American flags from their uniforms, and for that they were fired.
And of course, they filed suit in federal court and that suit went on for 20-plus years. But the Legal Defense Fund that had helped me to set up was involved in that case. The lawyer who was representing the police officers was a guy by the name of Peter Rindskopf, who was in that law firm of Moore, Alexander and Rindskopf. The year that I was in New York, I went there Fourth of July weekend. And in October, Peter Renscoft, who was representing the police officers, was killed in an automobile accident, and he was the primary lawyer on the case so they didn't have anyone. Of course, they were willing to help me set up a practice if I came to a place that didn't have people doing civil rights. At the time, Albert Thompson was the only African-American lawyer in Columbus, and he wasn't doing civil rights.
You were the second African-American lawyer in the city?
At the time that I came. There had been lawyers before but they had left. They left around the time that Dr. (Albert) Brewer was killed, and of course a number of African-American professionals left at that time. Marilyn McCoo the singer, her father was a doctor here and had a medical practice here. Marilyn was friends and grew up with Bunky McClung; they were contemporaries.
But from the stories that I have gotten -- the history that I got from Albert Thompson, A.J. McClung, George Ford and others after I got here -- I could see what Columbus and what the area was like, and of course I have seen it change over the years tremendously. I remember when we had an organization called the Ad Hoc Group made up of some of the movers and shakers in this community.
Black and white, right?
Black and white. They met privately to try to figure out how to get changes in the community, for example, on corporate boards and a lot of other things that were happening. It resulted in African Americans being asked to sit on the boards of Aflac, Columbus Bank & Trust, which was a real breakthrough.
Is Columbus more progressive racially than some of the other communities like Macon or Montgomery, Augusta, Savannah or Mobile?
I wouldn't say that it is. I would say that all of those communities have made progress. I have found being associated with all of those communities that Columbus, I think, is probably as progressive as any, although we still have a ways to go here.
What is the biggest challenge Columbus faces racially?
I think it's based in economics where you have the class differences. It results in educational differences, which results in employment differences and income differences, which results in the involvement of the criminal justice system, which tends to be people on the low income scale who tend to be more involved in the criminal justice system in terms of numbers than people who are better educated. And of course, the end result tends to show up in race.
How does a man with your background, with your segregated South background, so successfully represent white Georgia peanut farmers?
I think it has to do with the values that I learned growing up. I was a Boy Scout. A Scout is a friend to all and a brother to every other Scout. "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight. A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."
All of these strong character traits -- and of course growing up in the church, having a very strong religious upbringing -- helped me to realize that I'm as good as any but better than none, and that there are good people who are black, there are good people who are white, there are bad people who are black and there are bad people who are white. It has to do with their values and it's not the color of your skin, but it's the character.
But you've related to the South Georgia peanut farmers in a way that has been beneficial for them and you.
I guess when I ran for Congress, and in everything that I've done, I've come to understand in getting to know people that people have more in common than they have differences. So, I always try to look for the common denominator experiences -- the common hopes, the common aspirations, the common issues that people share -- and try to address those. It was interesting: I talked with a peanut farmer at the Peanut Commission shortly after I was elected to Congress and he said, "I didn't know you, but I read that you were an Eagle Scout. I was an Eagle Scout and I knew that if you went through scouting that you would be a good representative." That was something that we had in common. I grew up in the church, so I could relate in terms of scriptures and in terms of the Judeo-Christian values and I could be very conversant with those.
That's their values.
And the values in our Second Congressional District, believe it or not, are very simple values: God, country, work, family and guns, and not necessarily in that order. But I had to really come to understand that last one. Those core values are the values that I was able to emphasize in running for office and getting to know the people that I represent -- those things that we share, those common values of family, the common value of work, self-sufficiency.
As you approach 70 years old, what are you most proud of in your life?
I believe through my life's work as an attorney and as an elected official that I have been able to make a small difference. I can look at the Congressional district, I can look at Columbus, I can look at individuals that I represented as an attorney, I can look at the results from that lawsuit that I was involved in with the Civil Rights case against the state prison system and see the tremendous value that came out of that in terms of quality of life for people who are incarcerated.
I can look at the landscape of Columbus, for example. I look at the RiverWalk and think about my first term in Congress when we were concerned about the combined sewer overflow, how we were going to deal with the EPA and what the Water Works was going to be able to do. And of course everybody was apprehensive, but we got there and I was able to work with some of the more senior members to get appropriations to do the combined sewage overflow which resulted in the afterthought of the RiverWalk.
As a result of that improvement of the sewer infrastructure which was hundreds of years old, we were now able to rebuild downtown. You've got the TSYS complex, you've got the Trade Center, you've got so much economic development. Now Columbus State has moved downtown. And I think about the transportation funds that we were able to get for our streetscapes, which helped to fund all of the streetscapes in the downtown area of Columbus.
I look at the courthouse in Albany, Ga., for example, the new Federal Courthouse which they've been trying to get for years. When I was elected I had known Dr. King's lawyer, C.B. King, who was one of the premier civil rights lawyers outside of Atlanta in the state of Georgia, whom I got to know through my association with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
I admired and respected the work that he did. He represented Dr. King in desegregating a lot of public accommodations and government employment in middle and South Georgia. And of course, C.B. was a legend, and one of the first things I was able to do when I was able to get the new courthouse funded was to name that courthouse for C.B. King. It was very, very fulfilling to me when they cut the ribbon and the courthouse was finally constructed and the sign went with C.B. King Courthouse.
The senior judge of the Middle District of Georgia who was going to sit in that courthouse was an African American, Judge Louis Sands, which was so ironic that he was able to sit in the courthouse that C.B. King made possible by opening the doors and breaking down discrimination.
Those are just some of the things. Being on the Appropriations Committee looking at Fort Benning, I just happened to be on the Military Construction Subcommittee for Appropriations at the time of BRAC in 2005. That subcommittee is the subcommittee that funds BRAC. So, having been on that subcommittee, I was in a position to question the upcoming BRAC and the thought process of the movers and shakers at the Pentagon as to what they were going to be looking for so I could make sure that we were positioned -- the bases in my district and in Georgia were positioned -- to withstand whatever scrutiny they would be subjected to with BRAC.
As a result of that knowledge and serving on that committee, I was able to make sure that whatever the requirements were going to be that Fort Benning would be in a position to meet them, that the Albany Marine Logistics would be in a position to meet them, that Moody Air Force Base would be in a position to meet them, that Robins (Air Base) would be in a position to meet them, and of course it worked out.
Job: U.S. Congressman, 23 years; former member of Georgia General Assembly; attorney
Hometown: Mobile, Ala.
Residence: Albany, Ga.; also has a home in Columbus.
Education: Morehouse College B.A., 1968; Emory University School of Law, 1971
Family: Wife, Vivian Creighton Bishop, married in 2001; daughter Aayesha Reese, granddaughter Londyn Reese