Bishop, Sanford D. Jr. 1947–
Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. 1947–
Congressman from Georgia
In 1968, as a student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, Sanford Bishop sang at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nearly thirty years later, he would take a major step toward realizing King’s dream of an America where people were judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. Bishop was elected to Congress in a newly drawn district with a substantial white majority. He had been a member of the House since 1992, but the majority-African American district that had originally sent him to Congress had been struck down by the courts due to its irregular shape.
Bishop was born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 4, 1947, and grew up in a family that valued education and learning. His father, Sanford D. Bishop Sr., was an educator who became the first president of Alabama’s Bishop State Community College, and his mother, Minnie, was a librarian. Bishop attended Morehouse College, which was considered one of the premier centers of African American higher education in the South. During his senior year, he was elected president of the college’s student body.
With sterling credentials from his years at Morehouse, Bishop won admission to the prestigious law school at Atlanta’s Emory University, and distinguished himself there as well, winning scholarly awards and graduating in 1971. Along the way, he joined the U.S. Army, completing basic training at Georgia’s Fort Benning and entering a ROTC program. He received an honorable discharge in 1971, and the following year, after a brief stint in New York, took up residence in Columbus, Georgia, a middle-sized city in the southwestern part of the state. Columbus had been slow to embrace the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, and the firm that Bishop founded there, Bishop and Buckner P.C., concentrated on civil rights law.
Bishop quickly put down roots in Columbus, joining several civic organizations. In 1976, at the age of twenty-nine, he was elected to Georgia’s state legislature. Bishop served seven terms, and advanced to the state senate in 1990, where he sponsored bills related to job training for welfare recipients and legislative ethics. The ethics work stood Bishop in good stead in
At a Glance…
Born February 4, 1947, in Mobile, AL; son of an educational adminstrator and a librarian. Education: attended public schools in Mobile; Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia, B.A., 1968; Emory University School of Law, J.D., 1971. Military service: ROTC cadet, 1969–71. Religion: Baptist.
Career: United States Representative, Second District of Georgia, member of the Democratic Party. Admitted to Georgia Bar, 1971; moved to Columbus, Georgia, and began practicing law, 1972; elected to Georgia House of Representatives, 1976; elected to Georgia state senate, 1990; elected to U.S. House of Representatives, 1992; won reelection in 1994, 1996, and 1998.
Addresses: Office— 1433 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.
1992, when the Second District’s U.S. Representative, Charles Hatcher, was charged with having drawn 819 overdrafts against his U.S. House bank account. Local businessmen urged Bishop to enter the race, and he wound up second in a three-way runoff. He won both the runoff and the general election convincingly, and took his seat in Congress in January of 1993.
The district from which Bishop was elected was created to ensure an African American majority. It snaked through southern Georgia, and included predominantly African American neighborhoods in the cities of Columbus, Macon, Valdosta, and Albany. Such districts were intended to increase African American representation in Congress, but some observers questioned both the constitutionality and the effectiveness of such maneuvers. Many of these district boundaries were challenged in court. Bishop worked hard to aid victims of a flood that hit southern Georgia in the summer of 1994, and was convincingly reelected that November. However, in 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the existing boundaries of the Second District. Bishop’s new district was more contiguous geographically, but its percentage of African American residents had declined from 57 to 39 percent.
The 1996 elections, therefore, put Bishop and fellow Georgia Democrat Cynthia McKinney in the national spotlight. While African Americans had been elected in white-majority districts before, it had never happened in the Deep South, let alone in a rural district where racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan had flourished. “Many black observers give Bishop little chance,” The New Republic observed just before the election.
Bishop, however, campaigned vigorously against his Republican opponent, who ran television ads that called Bishop “shockingly liberal.” Bishop tailored his political positions to put him more in tune with the essential conservatism of his district, joining the congressional group of “Blue Dog” Democrats that tried to combat the leftward drift of the national party on fiscal and social issues. He joined the National Rifle Association, and voted for Republican-proposed welfare-reform and tax-cut plans. Some African American observers condemned Bishop for these policy changes—University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters told the New Republic he could understand why some African Americans would consider Bishop a “race traitor”—but in many respects he was simply following the leader of his own party, President Bill Clinton, who took a sharp rightward tack after the losses Democrats had suffered in the 1994 congressional elections.
Bishop, who according to The Almanac of American Politics described himself as “a moderate conservative on fiscal issues and a ’traditionalist’ on so-called family issues,” fired back at his critics. “If whites can win in majority-black districts and blacks can win in majority-white districts,” he told The New Republic, “it means we are one step closer to the magical moment when race is no longer a campaign issue.” He stressed his impeccable record of constituent services, reminding both African American and white crowds that he returned to the district from Washington every weekend. Indeed, Bishop had made many friends among the district’s peanut farmers as a result of his handling of the 1994 flood. His district included the home of former peanut farmer and President, Jimmy Carter. In Congress, Bishop worked to secure funds for a museum honoring Carter’s years in office.
In the months before the election, Bishop was a fixture at colorful small-town events like the Big Pig Jig in the town of Vienna, Georgia. He surprised political observers by winning the election by a margin of 54 to 46 percent. Rising national prosperity trickled down to southern Georgia, and increased Bishop’s margin of victory to 57–43 two years later. A member of the House Agriculture Committee, Bishop worked across party lines to fashion a compromise that ensured the continuation of federal government subsidies to peanut growers. He has also served on the House Intelligence and Veterans Affairs Committees. Holding the position of Whip at Large in the Democratic House membership structure, Bishop’s political star appeared to be on the rise.
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa. The Almanac of American Politics: 2000. National Journal, 1999.
1997–1998 Congressional Directory: 105th Congress. United States Government Printing Office, 1997.
Jet, August 1, 1994, p. 12; July 29, 1996, p. 32.
New Republic, November 4, 1996, p. 18.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from www.house.gov/bishop/bio.html.
—James M. Manheim
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