Although his gubernatorial campaign was 30 years ago, Joe Frank Harris still treasures the unwavering commitment of his hometown supporters. Along with providing financial support, Bartow residents rallied around the future governor, mailing promotional items and traveling across the state to spread his name and message.
“[Their support] was great,” said Harris, a Cartersville native who served as Georgia’s governor from 1983 to 1991. “It was [the best] reassurance that you could ever have because [in] the first polls that were taken I only registered about a 3 percent name recognition for Joe Frank Harris statewide. So we started at the bottom and we had to move from the bottom all the way up and [I] was able to move through 10 other candidates to receive the nomination and to be elected as governor. But it was reassuring all during the campaign [trail] when people would tell you about Cartersville people being in their community and visiting, handing out literature, meeting them personally and recommending Joe Frank Harris.
“We had a Winnebago. It was our bus, I guess. They would load it up on a daily basis and go to some communities as far as they could get from here, even into south Georgia,” he said, referring to his Bartow supporters. “They carried the message and their recommendation of Joe Frank Harris personally all across the state, not just in Cartersville and Bartow County because the support here was universal. It was very strong and very appreciated too.”
In honor of his hometown supporters, the Bartow History Museum will present the temporary exhibit, “We Did This Ourselves: The Community’s Effort to Elect a Governor,” through Feb. 16. Along with taped interviews of his supporters, the display will feature details about Harris’ early life and political career as well as campaign memorabilia, including posters, buttons and photographs.
The exhibit will open Thursday with several offerings in which Harris, his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Joe Frank Harris Jr., will be in attendance. With all of the events open and free to the public, the celebration will begin with a ribbon cutting at 5 p.m. at the Bartow History Museum, 4 E. Church St. in Cartersville. The festivities will continue with the premiere of a film — encompassing stories from some of Harris’ supporters — at 6 p.m. in the Booth Western Art Museum’s theater that will be followed by a reception.
“When I first told [the Harris family] about the exhibit, they were fine with it but they didn’t want [it to focus] on them necessarily,” said Trey Gaines, director of the Bartow History Museum. “They wanted to show their appreciation to Cartersville and Bartow County for the efforts they put forth to get him elected to the governor’s office. The people of Cartersville and Bartow County really got behind the Harris family. He’d been in the Legislature for a number of years prior to this but [they] really were very supportive of him when he decided to run for governor as well. It really was a grassroots campaign. He wasn’t well-known across the state so they really got to work and traveled to events and places across the state to help get his name out — who he is, what he stands for and what he’s running for.
“So they did mailings. They made posters and signs. … They went to his big events and fundraisers and just really helped get the word out and spread the word about who he is. It’s a great piece of our history. It’s more recent history but history nonetheless — the fact that we did have a governor from here. Bartow County has a lot of stories of people who have gone on to do big things and this is one of them. [Through this exhibit, I want people] to understand more about Bartow County history and the people that are from here and the things that they’ve done but also just to show what people can do when they really put their minds to something and accomplish something big like this — not only the governor but the people who helped get him to the governor’s office.”
The festivities surrounding Thursday’s exhibit opening also will serve as a reunion for those involved in the grassroots campaign. Like many who will be in attendance, Harris is excited to view the film and learn more about what was transpiring locally while he was campaigning throughout the state.
“They were a major part of [my success] because they had elected me for 18 years in the General Assembly,” Harris said. “For nine times, they sent me back there and allowed me to really understand state government, to learn about it and particularly to be the chairman of the Appropriations Committee. [That] was probably the greatest learning experience that anyone could have ever had and then be governor. Then when we anticipated a statewide campaign, the local community came together. I think one of the best things about this 30-year recognition and reunion of those people who were involved and giving them credit for what they did [is] it gives me a chance to learn about it and … see a lot of things that we didn’t really have a chance to be a part of or participate in.
“We had a campaign going on all over the state. We were in eight or 10 cities a day almost during the campaign. None of that was here locally. Then our local people would travel on their own. They had a lot of memorabilia and things that they did that were effective for the campaign but I never had an opportunity to be involved in or even see. So I’m learning a lot about what people did even now that helped us be successful. I’m looking forward to viewing the film and the interviews that people [gave and hearing] some of their memories of what they did and how they were involved during that time.”
For Sue Jackson, who was interviewed for the film with her husband, Sonny, attending the exhibit’s opening will be a fun time to reminisce with the campaign’s participants. Thirty years ago, she played an integral part in Harris’ run for governor, including helping organize his campaign’s kickoff celebration in Cartersville.
“There were so many people [who were] a part of all of this, [such as] people who gave money and invited people to all sorts of fundraisers,” she said. “It just went on and on. … Having known Joe — not as long as my husband has known him, certainly — I knew he was a good man. We all did. We all knew if he promised something he would fulfill that promise. And having known Elizabeth and Joe Frank, they live what they preach and you can’t say that about many people.
“Whatever they say they’ll do, they do. … [The campaign] was very exciting. Everyone was so enthusiastic about it and I wouldn’t for a minute say that sometimes it was [not] exhausting but people were really surrounding him. And they were very proud that we had a young man from Bartow County running for governor and, of course, it was the first time we’d ever had that and he won.”
Through this exhibit, Harris wants the local community to know how much he has appreciated their past and present friendships and contributions.
“What I’ve always conveyed to [local residents] is we feel blessed and grateful that they were willing to support us over the years,” Harris said. “I was on the ballot 23 times, locally, in the primary and in the general elections, and five times of that was statewide. The local community always stood with me and was universal in their support.
“We just feel very blessed and grateful that they were able to do that for us. I’d really hope that those that are still here that [were] able to have memorabilia [featured] and involved [with] the recordings, I hope they know how much we appreciate their involvement, not only 30 years ago but their involvement still today — even their support of us after we came back and made our home in Cartersville. We’re just very grateful for it.”
For more information about the exhibit and its opening, call Gaines at 770-382-3818 ext. 6286 or visit www.bartowhistorymuseum.org.