ESSAY - Former president Jimmy Carter, who will be 99 this Sunday, October 1, was only 46 when he first popped up on the national political radar. After declaring in his 1971 inaugural address as governor of Georgia that “the time for racial discrimination is over,” Carter followed through by increasing the number of Black people on state boards and commissions from three to 53, boosting Black employment in state jobs by 25%, and hanging a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in the state capitol.
Media-wise, such moves secured Carter’s place within an emerging cohort of racially enlightened “New South” governors, including South Carolina’s John C. West and Florida’s Reubin Askew, who were also elected in 1970. Liberal optimists hailed their victories as the undoing of the Republican “Southern strategy” of relying on racially coded appeals to win over once-reliably Democratic white voters angered by their old party’s pro-civil rights stance. By the time Carter won the presidency in 1976, he personified a vision of a risen, racially redeemed South that captured the American imagination in the final decades of the 20th century.
Yet this sunny perception of Carter’s journey to the presidency obscured the reality of how he had managed to take the all-important first step.
Regardless of his actions after becoming Georgia’s governor, Jimmy Carter had captured that office in 1970 not by thwarting the Southern strategy but by following it very nearly to the letter in repeated campaign appeals to racial and class prejudice. Once they got him where he wanted to be, he quickly disavowed such tactics, which, in his mind, amounted to nothing more than purely pragmatic nods to political reality necessary to achieving his more idealistic aims.
The apparent incongruity between the method Carter employed to become governor and the measures he implemented in office can be traced in part to the way he reacted to the contrasting racial attitudes of his parents. Despite having myriad interactions with Black people as a landlord, grocer, and financier, Carter’s father Earl was no less adamant about their inferiority to whites than any but a tiny handful of his white contemporaries. Ironically, one of these rare exceptions was his wife Lillian, whose sympathy for Black neighbors and readiness to invite them into her home might have prompted more than quiet disapproval, had her husband been a less prominent figure in the community.
Young Jimmy’s awareness of the peculiarity of his mother’s racial views—and the near-ubiquity of his father’s—shaped the distinct blend of realism and idealism that defined his early political career. When his father died in 1953, he resigned his post as a naval engineer, to assume control of the family’s agribusiness enterprises. His budding political aspirations surfaced when he assumed his father’s old seat on the county school board in 1955, only a year after the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in the public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. With thousands of white Southerners scurrying to join the defiantly segregationist White Citizens’ Councils, Carter stood out as the only white man in Plains to decline membership in the Sumter County chapter. Later, when the congregation of the Plains Baptist Church, where Carter was a deacon, overwhelmingly rejected the idea of allowing Black people to worship there, his family cast three of only six dissenting votes.
Still, despite his efforts to improve Sumter County schools, Carter made no overt effort to encourage compliance with Brown. In his 1992 book, Turning Point, the best he could say for himself as a candidate for state senate 30 years earlier was that he had been “at least moderate” on segregation.
Carter’s first run for statewide office began with his belated entry into the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial primary against former governor Ellis Arnall, a racial moderate of longer standing, and the unrepentant segregationist Lester Maddox. Maddox won, courtesy of his strong appeal with blue collar whites, and with Arnall capturing the bulk of the Black and more affluent white vote, Carter came in a disappointing third. Still, the stinging defeat educated him to a stark reality: Racial moderation was not yet a winning strategy in Georgia politics. Nor would it be in the 1968 presidential race, when race-baiting virtuoso George Wallace easily outdistanced both Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon in Georgia.
Yet, despite his overwhelming rejection at the hands of American voters, Carter left Washington in 1981 at age 56 with his idealism not only intact but less encumbered by political constraints.
Carter took the lessons of both these campaigns to heart when he again sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1970. This time, his chief opponent was former governor Carl Sanders, who had once declared himself “a segregationist but not a damn fool” and generally lived up to his own billing by presiding over Georgia’s grudging but relatively orderly retreat from segregation between 1963 and 1966. Sanders was a senior partner in a high-powered Atlanta law firm, with a smooth, urbane persona. Dubbing him “Cufflinks Carl,” and playing to both racial and class resentments, Carter’s ads portrayed Sanders hobnobbing in air-conditioned comfort with his closet liberal country club pals while the good working folk of Georgia, including a certain peanut farmer from Plains, sweated and strived to make ends meet.
In a naked appeal to Wallace supporters, Carter opposed bussing and defended the rights of white Georgians to preserve racial homogeneity in their neighborhoods. His campaign circulated photos of Black members of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team showering Sanders with champagne, and spread word that he had furtively attended the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. While Carter’s racial machinations won him the endorsement of outspoken segregationist politico Roy V. Harris, more than eight in 10 Black voters opted for Sanders, who barely made it into a runoff election, where Carter bested him by 20% before trouncing his Republican opponent in the general election.
As governor, Carter melded his idealism with a more practical-minded engineer’s approach to problem-solving in an ambitious plan to rid state government of corruption, mismanagement, and waste, although when he announced his presidential candidacy near the end of 1974, he was still better known and appreciated for his efforts to do right by Black Georgians.
His carefully cultivated personal ties to influential ministers and civil rights leaders only bolstered Carter’s standing among Black voters. Yet he knew that his success depended on winning substantial support from Southern whites as well. To this end, he revamped his old Southern strategy, playing this time to regional rather than racial antagonisms. One of his campaign ads noted that after suffering years of ostracism and indiscriminate stereotyping as rednecks and hillbillies, “only a Southerner can understand what Jimmy Carter as President can mean.” Boasting an improbable duo of advocates in George Wallace and Martin Luther King Sr., Carter picked up more than half the electoral votes he needed to defeat Gerald Ford by carrying all of the old Confederate and border states except Virginia.
Still, despite his earnest courtship, Carter failed to win over a majority of white voters in the South, leaving him all the more indebted to the close to 90% support he enjoyed among Black voters in the region. As the ultimate political realists, they seemed to accept Carter’s pandering to Wallace voters in 1970 as merely a situational concession to political reality necessary to achieving the racially equitable and humane ends he secured upon taking office. Ironically enough, historically high Black participation in a presidential election had been critical to putting a white Southerner in the White House. Meanwhile, reeling from the military failure in Vietnam and the moral failures of the Watergate affair, white voters above the Mason-Dixon line also proved surprisingly receptive to the drawling Carter’s disarming smile, downhome folksiness, and earnest assurances that he would bring honesty and humility back to the White House.
Though he had not been above a bit of political charade along the way, once in office Carter appeared to revert to the somber, moralizing Southern Baptist he had always been at heart. With the economy faltering in the face of soaring inflation, he sermonized from his bully pulpit about Americans’ addictive consumerism and their habit of defining themselves not “by what one does, but what one has.” To hardly anyone’s surprise, his gospel of restraint seemed downright heretical to a generation who saw instant gratification and unbridled acquisitiveness as their birthright. Carter’s habit of foregrounding “pain” over “gain” in laying out the ramifications of his decisions led his vice president, Walter Mondale, to observe that “the worst thing you could say to Carter if you wanted him to do something was that it was politically the best thing to do.” Somewhat akin to Henry Clay, once in office Carter seemed to signal that he would “rather be right than [continue to] be president.”
Beyond the substantial economic challenges he faced, the crowning blow to his prospects of retaining that office was his failed—and now, reportedly, sabotaged—effort to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis; the abortive desert rescue mission with its abandoned, sand-clogged helicopters became for many a metaphor for his failed and inept presidency. He was easily out- distanced in 1980 by Republican Ronald Reagan, whose vows of a military buildup and gospel of permanent plenty played far better than Carter’s calls for sacrifice and self-denial. So much for securing the Camp David Accords, bailing out Social Security, deregulating the airlines, preserving the Alaskan wilds, and a number of other stellar accomplishments.
Yet, despite his overwhelming rejection at the hands of American voters, Carter left Washington in 1981 at age 56 with his idealism not only intact but less encumbered by political constraints. His boundless energy also demanded an outlet. By 2002, he had already gained such a reputation as a global peacemaker, humanitarian, and champion of human rights, that awarding him the Nobel Prize for Peace was less a question of “if” than “when.” With his moral certitude now reaffirmed, he seemed even less concerned with the political consequences of his forthright manner, as he indicated in 2007 by likening Israeli practices in the West Bank to a form of apartheid. Unmoved by the ensuing outcry, Carter soldiered on in his one-man war on human suffering and injustice, even inquiring about his ongoing Guinea worm eradication project after entering hospice care in February 2023.
As the longest-lived of all U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter hardly stands out as the only one of them who ever sacrificed principle to political expediency. He has no rival among them, however, in dedicating himself upon leaving that office to a higher, more transcendent ideal of human service and remaining faithful to it even as the end of his days draws nigh.
(James C. Cobb is a contributing editor at Zócalo Public Square and Spalding Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Georgia. His latest book is C. Vann Woodward: America's Historian. This article was featured in Zocalo Public Square. Zocaolpublicsquare.org)