Column: Jimmy Carter and the crucible of race


For the Valley News

Published: 03-13-2023 9:59 AM

“You won’t like my campaign,” Jimmy Carter warned Vernon Jordan of the United Negro College Fund toward the conclusion of Carter’s second run for governor in 1970. “But you will like my administration.” When Carter was sworn in as governor on Jan. 12, 1971, following a campaign in which he courted segregationists, Carter famously told his fellow Georgians that “the time for racial discrimination is over.”

Perhaps inevitably for a son of the South, Carter’s life intersected frequently with the issue of race. He often talked about growing up with African American playmates, and when he served on the Sumter County Board of Education he noticed, and he tried to address, the inequalities between Black and white schools and the fact that Blacks walked to their school, whereas whites rode the school bus.

As a businessman in Plains, Carter was repeatedly asked to join the local chapter of the White Citizens’ Council, often characterized as the “uptown Klan.” When yet another delegation of neighbors visited the Carter Warehouse, Carter became angry.

The businessmen agreed to pay his dues if he consented to join, and they threatened to boycott his warehouse if he refused.

Carter walked over to the cash register, took out a $5 bill and announced that he would flush it down the toilet before he’d join the White Citizens’ Council.

Carter ran for governor as a racial moderate in 1966, but he lost the Democratic primary to the notorious segregationist Lester Maddox. The defeat was devastating, and only a renewal of his Christian faith set him back on course. He undertook two mission trips, one to Loch Haven, Pennsylvania, and the other to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was paired with a Cuban-American pastor from Brooklyn, Eloy Cruz.

Their task, according to Carter, was to evangelize Puerto Ricans who had settled in Springfield. With his rudimentary command of Spanish, Carter would read from the Bible, and Cruz would preach. At the conclusion of their week together, Carter asked Cruz the secret to his success. An embarrassed and reluctant Cruz finally answered, “Señor Jimmy, we only need to have two loves in our lives: for God, and for the person who happens to be in front of us at any time.”

In preparing for his second bid for governor, however, Carter resolved that he would not be outflanked on the right, a strategy that recalled George C. Wallace’s similar determination after losing the gubernatorial nomination to John Patterson in 1958. Wallace crassly pledged that no one would ever “out-ni--er” him again.

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Carter’s pandering to segregationists during his 1970 campaign was never that explicit, but toward the end of the campaign, he endorsed Maddox, his political nemesis, for lieutenant governor. (At the time, Georgia’s governors could not serve consecutive terms.)

Carter handily won the election, but he suffered from a bad conscience. On election night, Carter’s aide Hamilton Jordan remembered, “I said, ‘Well, Jimmy, I guess it’s about time to start calling you governor,’ and he just shrugged and said, ‘Well, whatever you want.’ He didn’t seem the least bit excited about it.”

According to some accounts, he assured Rosalynn that he would “never go through such a campaign again.” Carter’s only prospect for redemption lay in his conduct as governor, the office for which he had compromised his integrity.

Carter’s inaugural declaration that “the time for racial discrimination was over” set the tone, and he followed through.

Carter believed that “improving the criminal justice system in my state could be my greatest contribution as governor.” During his four-year term, he reformed Georgia’s prisons, adding education and treatment programs, increasing dramatically the number of professional counselors in the corrections system.

Carter appointed dozens of African Americans to policy positions in corrections, pardon and parole boards, law enforcement, professional examination boards and the university system. He called for the peaceful integration of public schools and defused volatile racial tensions in several towns.

Symbolically, he honored three Black Georgians, including Martin Luther King Jr., by hanging their portraits in the statehouse. Never again would Carter be guilty of pandering to racial fears. During his campaign for the presidency, Carter had reached out to African American voters, and they responded in kind.

One of his great contributions to American life, however, has never received the credit it deserves. On his way to the White House, Carter effectively rid his party — and the nation — of its most pugnacious segregationist, George Wallace of Alabama, by beating Wallace in the Florida Democratic primary. As president, he appointed to federal office more women and people of color than all previous presidents combined; among his appointments was Andrew Young as ambassador to the United Nations.

Years later, after leaving the White House, Carter recalled Cruz’s wisdom about “loving the person who happens to be in front of us at any time.” He noted that it’s easy to love people in Haiti or Mozambique or on the other side of town, but more difficult to do so face to face.

Reflecting on Cruz’s statement, Carter said, “I don’t know of a more profound and practical philosophy than that.”

Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.