By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Former Georgia Governor Carl Sanders, a "New South" racial moderate who led the state toward greater integration during the early 1960s, has died at age 89, his law firm said on Monday.
Sanders, who supported compliance with federal integration efforts at a time when other leaders in the U.S. South sought to maintain segregated schools and public facilities, died on Sunday from respiratory distress and other complications arising from a fall at his home two days earlier, his firm said.
"He was not playing the race card when he was elected in 1962," University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock told Reuters, adding that his Democratic primary opponent in that race ran on a segregationist platform.
Sanders, a former University of Georgia quarterback and World War II pilot, was elected governor at age 37. He held that job when the state landed its first major league sports teams, baseball's Atlanta Braves and the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.
Prevented by Georgia law from running for re-election in 1966, Sanders ran again for governor four years later but was defeated in the Democratic primary by Jimmy Carter, then a state senator, who would go to become president of the United States in 1977.
In that race, Sanders was again the political moderate, while Carter took a harder line on race relations - a stance Carter did not carry over to his governorship, Bullock said.
Sanders, an attorney, went on to form the Atlanta law firm Troutman Sanders LLP, which now has more than 600 attorneys.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, said in a statement that Sanders had served as a mentor to him.
"Governor Sanders showed true leadership and character by supporting civil rights for all during a time when many were not," Deal said.
"His lasting positive impact on our state will be felt by many future generations of Georgians," he said.
(Editing by Jonathan Kaminsky and Gunna Dickson)