ALAN GRAHAM MEMORIAL LECTURE

Politics and Principle: Jimmy Carter in the Civil Rights Era

Robert A. Strong

Washington and Lee University

April 25, 2014

To listen to the lecture click here

There is a famous story about Lyndon Johnson’s White House.  In some versions, it was the night after Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act; in others, it was the Civil Rights bill.  In either case, the White House staff was ecstatic.  In the midst of the celebrations, one of the president’s aides, Bill Moyers, was surprised to find Johnson in a somber mood.  He asked the president why he wasn’t thrilled by the news from Capitol Hill and got this reply: “Bill, I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” Johnson’s electoral analysis was, of course, correct.  The American South, which for nearly a hundred years had been a one-party region consistently supportive of Democratic candidates, soon became competitive for Republicans, and then predominantly Republican, in national and statewide elections.  Passing Civil-Rights legislation carried a heavy price for the Democratic Party, a price they had been paying since 1948.  In that year, Harry Truman had integrated the armed forces and put a commitment to Civil-Rights legislation into the party platform.  Since 1948, no Democrat running for the presidency has won a majority of white voters, with one exception.  The exception was Johnson in 1964, who used his landslide victory to pass a second monumental piece of civil rights legislation.

The changes that took place in American politics, and particularly in the South, during and after the Civil Rights movement can be illuminated by providing some brief biographical sketches involving one politician, Jimmy Carter.  Carter makes no claim to leadership in the Civil Rights movement, but the early stages of his public life were profoundly affected by it. He famously announced that the era of segregation was over shortly after he was elected governor of Georgia in 1970.  Before that date he was caught in circumstances where politics and principle were often at odds and one or the other played a dominant role in his actions. These biographical details matter because they are important to scholars who try to understand Carter’s career on the national and international stage.  But they also give context and texture, and perhaps some complexity, to conversations about the importance and the impact of the Civil Rights era. 

Though Carter’s life and career are closely connected to the small town of Plains, Georgia, the house where he grew up was actually in Archery, a predominantly African-American community two miles further west.  As a child, Jimmy’s playmates were black; he often went fishing or hunting under the supervision of African-American neighbors.  The Carter home, in his younger years, had no electricity and no indoor plumbing, but the family was well off compared to almost everyone who lived nearby. 

His father and namesake was a farmer and businessman in the hard hit agricultural economy of the great depression.  He was an employer and a landlord to many of the black families who lived in and around Archery.  Unlike other farmers in the region, James Earl Carter, Sr.—Mr. Earl as he was called—had no substantial debts when the nation’s banking system collapsed.  He was cautious with money and suffered smaller losses in the depression than many of the farmers in his area.  He was actually able to buy land at low prices and expand his enterprises in the 1930s.  The Carter home was known to depression-era hobos transiting that part of Georgia as a place where you could always get food and drink for the asking.

Carter’s mother was a nurse who worked at a clinic in Plains.  Her eldest son, Jimmy, would turn out to be the first American president born in a hospital because Miss Lillian—as she was called—wanted to set an example in the community.  After Jimmy was born, followed by two younger sisters and, much later, a younger brother, Lillian continued to practice her profession.  She worked for hospitals and doctors and did in-home care for families in and around Archery.  Her husband often purchased the medicine she needed to treat their neighbors.

Carter’s parents had different views about race.  Mr. Earl never violated the written, or the unwritten, rules that governed relations between blacks and whites in rural Georgia.  He had a reputation for treating people fairly, but he was a stern taskmaster on his farms, in his businesses, and with his children.  When he helped his neighbors, as he often did, he did so anonymously and indirectly.  He never stepped outside the boundaries of what was accepted in segregated society.  For example, when Joe Louis, the African-American boxer, fought for the heavyweight championship in 1938, Mr. Earl put his radio—one of the few in the community—on the windowsill so the black farmhands standing outside could listen to the fight.  After Louis won, they thanked Mr. Earl politely and walked some distance away from his home before beginning to cheer.

If it had been up to Miss Lillian, however, the farmhands might not have been outside when they were listening to the radio.  She might have invited them into her home.  She was a dissident to the social norms of her race, class, and time.  The profession she practiced put her in close contact with the sick and injured of all races.  She sometimes welcomed black guests at the front door, not the back; and sat with them in the living room, not the kitchen.  As an apparent concession to her husband, on the occasions when Miss Lillian entertained black guests as equals Mr. Earl was not at home.  Rosalynn Smith, Jimmy’s future wife, grew up in Plains and remembers how eccentric Miss Lillian was.  Rosalynn reports that during her childhood Lillian Carter was the only person she ever met who had a kind word to say about Abraham Lincoln.

Jimmy Carter learned from both of his parents.  Throughout his life he had his father’s penchant for hard work, high standards, and frugality.  He also had some of his mother’s willingness to stand apart.  From both of his parents he learned that helping others, when and where you could, was an essential duty for anyone who achieved success. 

Carter’s own dreams for success involved leaving Georgia and serving in the US navy.  Rosalynn Smith, who married Jimmy shortly after his graduation from the Naval Academy, was even more anxious to get out of Plains.  Together they lived in a variety of locations in the northeast, the mid-Atlantic, and Hawaii.  Carter served in the armed forces that Truman had integrated by executive order and his views about race relations changed after he left Plains. When a ship on which Carter was serving visited the Bahamas, Jimmy joined a boycott of a social event at the British embassy because African-American sailors were specifically not invited.  On a trip back to Plains, he told his father about this episode and Mr. Earl told him that he had been wrong.  The embassy was perfectly within its rights to choose its guests.  According to Carter’s biographer, father and son never had another conversation about race.   

Carter prospered in his naval career.  He earned a coveted appointment to the new nuclear submarine force and rose rapidly in rank and responsibility.  He was the executive officer of a nuclear submarine under construction when he learned that his father had pancreatic cancer.  Mr. Earl’s death shortly thereafter caused a crisis in Carter’s marriage.  He felt compelled to go home and take charge of the family farm and businesses; Rosalynn did not want to go.  Carter’s decision was greatly influenced by his father’s final days and by the funeral, when large numbers of people came forward to thank Mr. Earl for acts of generosity over the years.  Jimmy was surprised to learn the details and the extent of his father’s charity and decided that life in Plains offered more opportunities to help people and make a difference than a career in the navy.

After struggling with drought and a serious cash-flow crisis in the family enterprises, Carter turned a corner and became a highly successful farmer, warehouse manager, cotton-gin operator, and seed provider.  He joined community organizations and became a member of the local school board.  He was on the board in the aftermath of the Brown decision.  Carter did not advocate desegregation, but he also refused to join the White Citizen’s Council, an organization formed in the South to resist the Supreme Court ruling.  When his neighbors came to the peanut warehouse and offered to pay Carter’s five-dollar dues to the Council, thinking he may have failed to do so as an act of economy, Carter told them that he would rather flush their five-dollar bill down the toilet than become a member of the organization.  A boycott of the family businesses ensued.  Carter, at a recent event sponsored by the LBJ Presidential Library on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, also remembered a time when he drove into the only gas station in Plains and was refused service because he was a “lover of black people.”  White Georgians in the 1950s would have used a different, and more racist, phrase to describe Carter’s relationship with blacks, but the former president chose not to use that language in front of his later Austin audience. 

Carter’s refusal to join the organized resistance to the Brown decision was not popular at the Plains gas station, but it did not mean that the then-future president was publicly calling for immediate racial integration of schools.  He was a leading citizen and businessman in his community, and someone with political ambition.  Supporting full and prompt compliance with the Brown decision in the late 1950s, at least in rural Georgia, would have threatened his livelihood and his political future.  Carter did support consolidation of the small school system in Plains with the schools in the surrounding area.  He did so as a way more easily to raise money for school improvements and to offer students a broader curriculum.  But the consolidation referendum, or any changes in the way schools were administered, was controversial.  Some feared that changing the boundaries of the school district would be a first step toward integration.  The referendum failed by a large margin.  On the night of the vote counting there was a sign tacked to the door of the family’s peanut warehouse with a racial slur not unlike the one that Carter had encountered at the gas station. 

In 1961, Carter ran for the Georgia State Senate after another Supreme Court decision mandated redistricting of the state legislature.  The old Georgia electoral arrangements had given equal representation to every county in the state and disproportionate power to rural and more racist communities.  When that system was declared unconstitutional, opportunities were created for candidates across the state to run in new, larger and more equitable districts.

Carter’s election to the state senate is a famous one in Georgia politics and is described in detail in his book Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age.  Carter campaigned diligently and won the support of many people who knew him, but he lost the Democratic primary when his principal opponent received a suspiciously large number of votes in a neighboring county.  This was a county that in previous elections had had more ballots than registered voters and polling place records, indicating that the good citizens of Quitman County had apparently arrived at the courthouse to cast their votes in alphabetical order, collecting ballots in groups of ten before folding them and putting them in the ballot box.  The irregularities in Carter’s election were not quite that egregious, but there was sufficient evidence of election fraud to pique the interest of Atlanta newspapers and prominent attorneys who wanted to fight county courthouse corruption.  Carter sued the Democratic Party of Georgia, and a judge eventually threw out the ballots from the suspect county, declaring Carter the winner of the Democratic primary and, for all practical purposes in one-party Georgia, the winner of the Senate seat.

Carter was a life-long member of the Democratic Party, both before and after he sued the state party leaders.  He admired Jack Kennedy and maintained his allegiance to him even after the president gave his famous speech supporting the introduction of Civil Rights legislation.  When Kennedy was killed in Dallas, a teacher at the Plains High School announced the assassination with a comment that it was good news.  Most of the students in the classroom applauded the teacher’s announcement.  Carter’s son Chip did not.  He was angry and pushed his desk toward the teacher.  He was suspended and remembers this as the only time he ever got in trouble at school when his father did not take the side of school authorities.  In 1964, there was no-one in Plains willing to work at the Johnson election campaign office—no-one until Miss Lillian volunteered.   

The following year, the Carter family took a stand at their church when the congregation met to consider a resolution prohibiting African-Americans from attending services.  There were no black members of the congregation at that time, but a group of Civil Rights activists were traveling in the region with a mixed racial group visiting church services.  In Americus, Georgia, a city not far from Plains, a local minister had been photographed holding a gun and blocking African-Americans from entering his church.  The members of the Plains Baptist Church were afraid that they might be targeted for a visit from the Civil Rights campaigners and wanted to determine in advance how the congregation would respond.  The members of the Carter family were the only ones to vote against the resolution, except for an older church member who was hard-of-hearing and is believed to have misunderstood what the vote was about. 

Like the visit from the members of the White Citizen’s Council, the church resolution was not an occasion when Jimmy Carter was actively engaged in promoting or pushing an integration agenda.  The issue arose when his fellow parishioners decided to prevent the possibility that an African-American might visit their church.  On both occasions Carter said no to the community pressure to sign on to a segregationist commitment.  These were acts of courage, noted and noticed in the community, but they did not mean that Jimmy Carter was taking a leading role actively to end racial inequality.  Carter did not seek out opportunities to stand up against segregation, but when they arose he did not hide from them. 

Carter was a deacon in the Plains Baptist Church.  When the deacons met to draw up the resolution against admitting African-Americans, Carter had been out of town.  When the notice was distributed about the forthcoming vote, he could have been absent again.  That was, in fact, what his wife recommended.  Carter insisted on attending.  There was some political risk in the choice he made, though the principle he stood up for – that anyone was free to visit and worship in a house of God – was less controversial than other issues on the civil rights agenda.  Moreover, after the congregation’s vote, several members of the church called the Carters to say that they had wanted to vote against the resolution but were afraid to do so.  Public sentiments in Plains were changing, slowly and cautiously, but changing nevertheless.

Carter’s action at his church, and his earlier refusal to join the White Citizen’s Council, did not end his political career.  In 1966, he considered a run for the House of Representatives, but ended up instead joining a large field of candidates in the governor’s race.  Carter campaigned as a moderate, a fiscal conservative, and an advocate for educational improvements.  The leading candidate in that election cycle was a former governor, Ellis Arnall.  Carter, a two-term member of the state senate from a tiny town in the southwest, was not considered a serious contender for statewide office.  He gave the campaign enormous time and effort, crisscrossing the state and sending members of his family to events he could not attend.  He and Rosalynn estimate that they shook hands with hundreds of thousands of people in the course of the campaign.  Carter came in third in the Democratic primary, doing far better than anyone expected and forcing a run-off between Arnall and a notorious restaurant owner named Lester Maddox.  Maddox was famous for resisting the integration of his restaurant.  Like the minister in Americus, he stood in the doorway of his establishment blocking African-Americans from entering.  Maddox held an ax instead of a gun and spent time on the campaign trail signing ax handles.  He eventually won the Democratic Party nomination and the final election.      

Carter was despondent.  He had lost something he wanted and worked hard to win; he was not accustomed to losing.  Moreover, the campaign had ended with a racist in the governor’s mansion.  Carter spent the following months reexamining his life, his future plans, and his Christian faith.  When he decided to make a second run for governor, he organized a bigger campaign with more travel, more fund-raising, more attention to advertising and media coverage, and more careful positioning of his views on a variety of issues. 

In 1970, Carter was again campaigning against a former governor.  This time his primary opponent was a man named Carl Sanders.  Sanders, like Carter, did not call for the integration of Georgia schools, but he did not oppose the court orders and federal authorities enforcing integration.  In this regard, he was more progressive than the governors of Alabama and Mississippi, who made resistance to integration their primary political legacy.  Sanders served in the difficult years between 1962 and 1966, and was respected for his accomplishments.  According to Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s political adviser, the race for governor in 1970 was a bigger challenge than the subsequent campaign for the presidency: “Sanders had all the political establishment, all the money, all the newspapers, all the political talent.  It was just Jimmy Carter against everybody.” 

Carter again campaigned as a moderate.  On race sensitive matters he was particularly careful.  He accepted endorsements from conservatives who were known opponents to integration, including a former officer of the White Citizen’s Council.  He said some positive things about private schools that were proliferating across the state, often serving as a mechanism by which communities could circumvent or mitigate the court-ordered integration of public education.  He promised to invite George Wallace to visit Georgia because

Sanders had withdrawn an invitation to Wallace when he was governor.  Wallace was the governor of Alabama and the famous opponent of efforts to allow black students to attend the State University.

People supporting the Carter campaign distributed pictures of Sanders in a locker room with African-American basketball players who had just won an important victory for a team that Sanders partly owned.  The photograph showed Sanders to be someone who was evidently wealthy, well connected, and able to socialize with celebrities.  These were things Carter emphasized in his campaign speeches when he drew attention to Sanders’ status and power, and called him “cuff-links Carl.”  It also showed the former governor celebrating in the company of blacks, a message that was read by many as a race-based attack on Sanders. 

Carter did not run a racist campaign in 1970, as Lester Maddox had done four years earlier and as other statewide candidates had done in Georgia history.  He sought and received an endorsement from Martin Luther King, Sr., who was then an influential minister in Atlanta as well as the father of the slain Civil Rights leader.  He campaigned in African-American communities and forums, and was particularly effective at black churches.  But if Carter was clearly not a segregationist and not a racist, he was also not campaigning as a Civil Rights reformer.  He consciously positioned himself to the right of Sanders and made it a theme in his campaign literature that he had closer ties to ordinary, rural, and working-class Georgians.  After a run-off, Carter won the primary and easily won the final election.

Because of the tenor and tone of the 1970 campaign, it was a surprise when Carter said in his gubernatorial inaugural address that “the time for racial discrimination is over […]  No poor, rural, weak or black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job or simple justice.”  That plainly worded public statement was the first of its kind spoken by any Southern governor and it put Carter on the cover of Time magazine. Leroy Johnson, a member of the Georgia State Senate, was happy to hear Carter’s inaugural address, but observed that many of the white segregationists were not.  “I’m convinced,” Johnson said, “that those people that supported him, would not have supported him if they had thought that he would have made that statement.” 

Carter went on to appoint a large number of African-Americans to prominent positions in the State, and to deal with a variety of issues in Georgia including budget reform, government reorganization, and controversies surrounding the death penalty. 

In 1975 he decided to run for the Presidency.  When he shared that decision with his family, his mother is reported to have said, “president of what?”  As a one-term Southern governor with no national name recognition, Carter was a highly unlikely candidate for the nation’s highest office.  But in the years after Watergate and the controversies surrounding the war in Vietnam, it helped that he was a politician from outside of Washington. In Iowa and New Hampshire, where candidates actually meet with prospective voters, he was surprisingly effective at winning pluralities in both of those early contests.  He then went up against George Wallace in the South and, to the surprise of many, beat the Alabama governor in Florida.  That primary victory made Carter a serious contender.  After a few more primaries and caucuses, he was the presumptive nominee.  A moderate who spoke with a Southern accent and had defeated one of the party’s most notorious segregationists offered new hope that a Democratic candidate could win states in both the North and South, and with them the White House.

That is, of course, what happened.  The 1976 presidential campaign was unusual in many respects, with serious missteps by Carter – who gave an odd interview to Playboy magazine – and mistakes by Gerald Ford, who made embarrassing misstatements in a Presidential debate.  Both candidates were running national campaigns for the first time, and both were decent individuals knocked about in the rough and tumble of Presidential election press coverage.  Race and race relations were not major issues in 1976, though they had been in 1968 and 1972.

In foreign affairs, it was hard for the Democratic Party in 1976 to criticize the Republicans, who had finally ended the war in Vietnam and were busy pursuing détente with the Soviet Union, strategic arms limitation, and a new relationship with China.  Carter, along with many other Democrats, was generally in favor of those policies.  Carter did criticize the Nixon-Ford administration for its neglect of human rights, and for its support for dictatorial regimes in Chile and on the Indian sub-continent.  Human rights was an ideal issue for candidate Carter.  It united a political party that, at that time, included both conservative cold warriors and liberal anti-war candidates.

It did not surprise political analysts that Carter campaigned on a theme of improving America’s commitment to human rights.  It did surprise them when it turned out that he actually meant what he said.  Human rights was the primary topic of Carter’s first major foreign-policy speech; it was a subject he talked about, in public and private, throughout his Presidency and beyond.  He saw a clear connection between what had happened in America during the Civil Rights era and what could happen across the globe if citizens and leaders talked about human rights.  Carter had seen that longstanding and seemingly intractable conditions in American race relations could change.  If it could happen in Georgia, it could happen elsewhere.  Moreover, he had well-developed ideas about the best ways to promote positive change.  You needed to make clear and frequent statements about fundamental rights and justice, but you did not need to impose harsh or punitive penalties against the societies and leaders who did not yet meet those standards.

A recent article in the journal Diplomatic History does a good job of reviewing the connections between Carter’s experiences as a Southern governor and his presidential policies toward South Africa.  President Carter often spoke out against apartheid, but his administration did not impose the strict sanctions on American firms doing business in South Africa that many critics of apartheid advocated.  The apparent contradiction between the President’s words and deeds has an explanation rooted in his personal and political experiences.  Carter explained his position in a speech he gave in Nigeria in 1978.  There, he said that progress on racial issues is more likely to be accomplished

if the determination to see wrongs righted is matched by an understanding that the prisoners of injustice include the privileged as well as the powerless. I believe we should therefore combine our determination to support the rights of the oppressed people in South Africa with a willingness to hold out our hands to the white minority if they decide to transform their society. 

In Georgia, Carter had been one of the white politicians who played an important role in the later stages of the Civil Rights movement.  His statement about the end of discrimination in his gubernatorial inaugural address is properly remembered as an important public acknowledgment of what had been achieved as a result of Civil Rights demonstrations, court decisions, and legislation. 

His actions before 1970 were more mixed and measured.  In those earlier years, he showed some of his father’s conservatism and some of his mother’s courage.  To his neighbors in Plains he stood up and refused to become a member of the White Citizen’s Council; he stood up again to those who were afraid of educational reform or the possibility that an all-white church might be visited by an African-American worshipper.  But those episodes of resistance to segregation were balanced by careful public positioning that advanced his political career.  In his two statewide election campaigns, he presented himself to the citizens of Georgia as a moderate man of the people who was neither an advocate for segregation nor an activist in the movement to end it.

White moderates like Carter mattered in the Civil Rights movement in the South.  They were never at the front of the line when marches and demonstrations were being held, but when they publicly joined the movement they legitimized and solidified the progress that had been made.  Andrew Young, the black Civil Rights activist who had his own career in Georgia politics and eventually became Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, remembers first meeting the future President in Plains and being impressed by his conversations about race.  Young observed that Carter dealt with race relations in an honest and refreshing way.  He had neither the guilt of the “converted redneck” nor the “paternalism” of the Northern white liberal.

White Southern moderates were an audience of particular importance to Martin Luther King, Jr.  In many ways, his letter from a Birmingham jail is addressed to them.  King understood that the diehard segregationists, the Bull Connors of the world, were not going to change, with or without demonstrations in Birmingham.  But moderate whites could.  They were the people who knew that segregation was wrong and inconsistent with American political ideals.  When they came around, and when they came forward, real change could take place.

King and Carter are the only two citizens of Georgia to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  They never met.  In the years of Carter’s rise to political prominence in the state, King was the most famous person living in Atlanta, and one of the few people in Georgia who had a national and international audience for his speeches, sermons, and statements.  It was probably not an accident that Carter did not encounter King.  A photograph of a Georgia politician in the 1960s standing next to the Civil Rights leader or shaking his hand would have made a statement about where that politician stood on issues that were highly controversial and significant in electoral behavior.  Carter avoided such statements until after he was elected governor.  He came to play his public part in the cause of civil rights on his own terms and on his own timetable.

How shall we evaluate that fact? We could easily criticize Carter, imagining that we would have done more, and done it sooner, had we been citizens or politicians in the segregated South.  But we ought to be very careful about rendering that judgment too quickly or too easily.  It is hard to know fully what life was like in those times, when fundamental elements of long-established social structures were being challenged.  We should, I think, be open to the possibility that those who came late to the cause of Civil Rights made their own contribution to its success.

It is common to commemorate the Civil Rights era by retelling the stories of the visionaries and martyrs: Dr. King, Medgar Evers, the young girls killed in a bombed church basement, the marchers attacked by dogs and fire hoses in the streets of Birmingham, and the Freedom Riders beaten at bus stations in Southern cities.  It is altogether appropriate that we should do so.  But their lives, their activities, their heroism, do not tell the full story of what took place in Southern American states and across the country. 

To tell the whole story you also need to consider the lives of people who acted before and after the demonstrations, the jailings, the legislative achievements, and the newsworthy acts of violence.  You need to explain how, when, and why genuine social and political changes were introduced, implemented, and accepted. All across the American South, all across the nation, there were people like Lillian Carter who never lived their lives in complete compliance with the unjust laws and stifling conventions that regulated race relations and repressed black Americans in the century that followed the Civil War.  Their stories are important. 

Throughout the Civil Rights era, there were families like the Carters who, when forced to respond to an issue of racial justice, were willing to take unpopular positions in their congregations, in their schools, in their businesses, in their community organizations.  They did this when large majorities held firm opinions and when many in the minority were afraid to speak and act.  Their stories are important too. 

And there were politicians, many politicians, like Jimmy Carter, who took time to fully, publicly, and unambiguously embrace the cause of racial equality.  Lyndon Johnson voted against Civil Rights legislation for over twenty years before he played a crucial role in passing the most important Civil Rights laws of the twentieth century.  Both Kennedy and Johnson were elected in 1960, in part for their moderate views on race relations.  Early in their service as President and Vice-President, they counseled caution to Civil Rights leaders and Southern governors. Both changed while in office, and in response to events in the Civil Rights movement.  When politicians change, if their timing is well chosen, if their actions and rhetoric are compelling, they can bring others (sometimes many others) with them.  In the White House, that change took place in the mid-1960s; in the governor’s mansions of the Southern states it took longer.  Carter came away from the Civil Rights era convinced that its lessons had global traction.  He applied those lessons to a serious and sustained campaign to improve international human rights.  The full results of his efforts in this regard are not yet known.

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