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Jimmy Carter and Race Relations in America: What Could Have Been?

                                                                                                                                                                Photo Credit: Getty Images


It is time to guarantee an end to discrimination because of race.” These were the words said by Democratic Presidential candidate and future US president James (Jimmy) Earl Carter on July 15th, 1976. While this may sound as obvious rhetoric nowadays, for Carter and his time, it meant so much more.

The former governor of Georgia would go on to be the first US president from the Deep South, a political and cultural region which varies by states but is generally regarded as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. The Deep South had seen the most vicious episodes of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, but also its most powerful, such as the Selma to Montgomery March led by Martin Luther King Jr in 1965.

Carter came from a region torn by racial tensions, stemming from slavery, the US Civil War, the failures of Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws. This is what made his inaugural address in 1971 as Georgia’s 76th governor astounding. Carter preached that ‘the time for racial discrimination is over.’ The speech sent shockwaves through the South where racist leaders like George Wallace of Alabama and Lester Maddox, Carter’s predecessor, ran campaigns based on white supremacy. 

Despite this, Carter was popular, due to running a covertly racist campaign, and won 59% of the vote in Georgia’s 1970 Gubernational election. He served one term as governor; he ran for president in 1976 against Republican Gerald Ford. Carter won by 50.1% of the vote and became the 39th president. It was here, on the national stage, where Carter could best exercise his views on reuniting the nation.

During a speech given at Tuscumbia, Alabama on 1st September 1980, Carter condemned racist actions and the activity of the Ku Klux Klan:

“These people in white sheets do not understand our region and what it's been through, they do not understand what our country stands for, they do not understand that the South and all of America must move forward.”

As a white Southerner, Carter lent a certain air of authority when condemning racist activity in America by lambasting their ignorance to the very region they sought to represent. His region. Carter’s progressive view on race, by Southern standards, was particularly well received by black voters across the country. Carter won 82% of the black vote in 1976 and 83% in 1980 when he would lose to Ronald Reagan.

In the same speech at Tuscumbia, Carter said that the use of the Confederate flag by white supremacists made him “angry” as he viewed those who preached “fear and hatred” as misunderstanding of the South’s legitimate connection to the Confederacy and the ancestors who died fighting for the region.

Carter showed further engagement with the Confederacy when in October 1978, the citizenship rights of Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederate States of America, were restored. This sought to end what Carter called the “the long process of reconciliation” which sought to bring America back together. Carter knew that the Confederacy meant a lot to the South, but he also had genuine respect and care for the African American community, as they did for him given their support in both 1976 and 1980.

Unfortunately, Carter would not get to cement his doctrine of ‘proper reconstruction’ as the 1980 election would see Reagan come to power and propagate the ‘Long Southern Strategy.’ A term coined by political scientists Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields. The strategy would see the Republican Party hunt the Southern racist vote, polarising race and seeing Carter’s genuine attempts at racial reconciliation lost.

The forty years of American politics since Carter have been tumultuous for race issues. Reagan in the 1980’s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990’s and the TEA Party of the 2010’s has seen the right wing of America become radicalised and more partisan than ever (Levitsky and Zablatt, 2018). Barack Obama’s election in 2008 sought to cause only more problems as mass shootings, such as the 2015 Charleston massacre, bought the militant right wing of America out in full protest and bought Donald Trump into the White House, solidifying partisanship and racial tension in American politics.  

Therefore, it is worth a thought, how could an America shaped by Jimmy Carter rather than Ronald Reagan look?


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