ATLANTA — Without Black voters, there would have been no President Jimmy Carter.
In 1976, African Americans catapulted the underdog Democrat to the White House with 83 percent support. Four years later, they stuck by him, delivering nearly identical numbers even as many white voters abandoned him in favor of his victorious Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan.
This enduring Black support for Mr. Carter illuminates two intertwined and epochal American stories, each of them powered by themes of pragmatism and redemption. One is the story of a white Georgia politician who began his quest for power in the Jim Crow South — a man who, as late as 1970, declared his respect for the arch-segregationist George Wallace in an effort to attract white votes, but whose personal convictions and political ambitions later pushed him to try to change the racist environment in which he had been raised.
The other is the story of a historically oppressed people flexing their growing electoral muscle after the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed obstacles to the ballot box. Certainly, for some Black voters, candidate Carter was simply the least bad option. But for others, the elections of 1976 and 1980 were an opportunity to take the measure of this changing white man, recognizing the opportunity he presented, and even his better angels.
“His example in Georgia as a representative of the New South, as one of the new governors from the South, was exciting, and it was appealing,” said Representative Sanford Bishop, a Democrat whose Georgia congressional district includes Mr. Carter’s home. “It carried the day in terms of people wanting a fresh moral face for the presidency.”
Mr. Carter’s support for Black Americans sheds light on the political evolution of the man, who at 98, is America’s longest living president. (Mr. Carter entered hospice care earlier this month.)
The foundation of his relationships with Black voters and leaders was built in his home base of Plains, in rural Sumter County, Ga. Its Black residents can recall his efforts to maintain and then later resist the racist policies and practices that targeted the majority Black community.
Jonathan Alter, in his 2020 biography “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” noted that Mr. Carter, as a school board member, had made a number of moves to accommodate or uphold the local segregationist system of the 1950s, at one point trying to shift resources from Black schools to white schools in the name of sound fiscal management.
But Bobby Fuse, 71, a longtime civil rights activist who grew up in Americus, Ga., a few miles from Plains, recalled that Mr. Carter had also shown moments of real character. Among other things, he noted Mr. Carter’s objection to his Baptist church’s refusal to allow Black people to worship there.
“I wouldn’t have voted for anybody running against Jimmy Carter, more than likely,” said Mr. Fuse, who said he had first voted for Mr. Carter in his successful 1970 governor’s race. “Because I knew him to be an upright man different from the other Southerners.”
There were seeds of this difference early in the life of Mr. Carter. But as a young politician, it did not always translate into action. And the repressive environment of the mid-20th century meant that he had no Black voters to woo when he started his first foray into electoral politics with a 1962 bid for a South Georgia State Senate seat. Due to racist restrictions, hardly any Black people were registered to vote in his district at the time.
Historians say that Mr. Carter, early in his career, was both a creature and a critic of the strict segregationist system he had been born into. He largely kept his head down as civil rights advocates fought and sacrificed to change the status quo, with serious, and sometimes dangerous, protests and crackdowns flaring up in Sumter County.
Later, once he had achieved positions of power, he was outspoken about renouncing racial discrimination, seeking means to redress it and trying to live up to those principles. During his presidency, he famously enrolled his daughter, Amy, in a public school in Washington, D.C. Decades after leaving the White House, he offered a full-throated rebuke of Barack Obama’s Republican critics, calling their attacks racism loosely disguised as partisanship during his presidency.
“He saw his role as an elder statesman,” said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. “The fact that you have an elderly white president, from the South, who is there saying, ‘Look, the emperor has no clothes; that argument has no weight; that dog won’t hunt,’ is something that he didn’t necessarily have to do.”
Mr. Carter had grown up with Black playmates in the tiny community of Archery, Ga. As a boy, his moral and spiritual north star had been a Black woman, Rachel Clark, the wife of a worker on the Carter property. He slept many nights on the floor of her home when his parents were out of town. Mr. Alter, the biographer, wrote that she had taught him about nature and had impressed him with her selflessness. Mr. Alter wrote that Mr. Carter had even been teased in his all-white elementary school for “sounding Black.”
By the mid-1950s, Mr. Carter returned from a stint as a naval officer and settled in Plains, where he built on the family’s successful peanut business. The Brown v. Board of Education decision, which dismantled the old separate-but-equal regime for American schools, had inflamed white Southerners. Despite his efforts to appease white parents while on the school board, he was also, Mr. Alter notes, “the only prominent white man in Plains” who declined to join the local chapter of the racist White Citizens’ Council.
After winning his 1962 State Senate race, Mr. Carter, a man of searing ambition, set his sights on the governor’s mansion but was defeated in 1966. He ran again and won in 1970, with a campaign full of unsubtle dog whistles to aggrieved white voters that included promises to restore “law and order” to their communities and, according to Mr. Alter, the dissemination of a “fact sheet” that reminded white voters that Mr. Carter’s Democratic opponent, former Gov. Carl Sanders, had attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.
In the Democratic primary, Black voters took notice: Mr. Sanders, in the runoff, garnered roughly 90 percent of their votes. But by the general election, Mr. Carter was campaigning heavily in Black churches.
The dog-whistle strategy had generated its share of bitterness and criticism. But a course correction followed, in the form of Mr. Carter’s inaugural address.
“The time for racial discrimination is over,” he said.
“It was really dramatic for all of us, because he said it in that forum, as he was being sworn in,” Mr. Fuse recalled. “And hopefully we were going to see some activity from that.”
They did. Mr. Carter expanded the presence of Black Georgians in state government, from senior officials to state troopers, and welcomed civil rights leaders to the governor’s office.
Black skeptics were converted into allies in other ways. In an interview this week, Andrew Young, the civil rights leader who would serve as ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Carter, recalled having “a real prejudice to overcome” when the two men first met as Mr. Carter was running for governor.
When the matter of Fred Chappell, Sumter County’s notoriously racist sheriff, came up, Mr. Carter called him a “good friend.” Mr. Young was taken aback: Mr. Chappell had once arrested Dr. King after a protest. When Dr. King’s associates tried to bring him blankets to ward off the cold, Mr. Chappell refused them and turned on the fan instead.
Later, however, Mr. Young said he had gotten to know Mr. Carter’s family, including his mother, Lillian. Mr. Young, too, came to trust him. “I decided that he was always all right on race,” Mr. Young said. “He never discriminated between his Black friends and white friends.”
It went the same way with other influential civil rights leaders in Georgia, including Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and his father, Martin Luther King Sr. According to the author and journalist Kandy Stroud, the elder Mr. King sent a telegram to voters lauding Mr. Carter’s appointment of Black judges and his support for a fair housing law, among other things. “I know a man I can trust, Blacks can trust, and that man is Jimmy Carter,” he wrote.
By the time Mr. Carter started his 1976 bid for the White House, it was these leaders who spread the message beyond Georgia voters that Mr. Carter was worthy of their trust. They helped bolster the “peanut brigade,” the nickname for the team of staff members and volunteers spread across the country to campaign for him, making it a mix of Black and white Carter supporters.
“They had to tell these people in the rest of the country, ‘Yeah, he’s governor of Georgia, but he’s a different kind of governor of Georgia,’” Mr. Fuse said.
In a recent interview, the Rev. Al Sharpton recalled that the King family had lobbied him to support Mr. Carter in 1976. That went a long way, he said, but so did Mr. Carter’s presentation. “A Southern guy that would stand up and talk about racism?” he said. “This was the kind of guy that my uncle trusted down South. And he connected with us for that.”
As a presidential candidate, however, Mr. Carter again showed his propensity for trying to have it both ways in a racially divided country.
George Skelton, a Los Angeles Times columnist, recently recalled covering the candidate as he campaigned in Wisconsin and watching as he seemed to give contradictory messages on school busing to separate groups of Black and white voters within the span of a single day.
And in a speech about protecting neighborhoods, Mr. Carter used the phrase “ethnic purity,” creating a mini-scandal. Soon after, Mr. Young told him that the use of the phrase had been a “disaster for the campaign.” Mr. Carter issued an apology.
But Mr. Carter also found common cultural ground with Black voters nationwide, many of whom shared his Christian faith. They saw how comfortable he was in Black churches. “‘Born again’ is the secret of his success with Blacks,” Ethel Allen, a Black surgeon from Philadelphia, told Ms. Stroud at the time.
As president, Mr. Carter sought “to mend the racial divide,” said Kai Bird, another Carter biographer. Mr. Bird noted that food aid was significantly expanded under Mr. Carter, benefiting many poor Black residents in rural areas. Mr. Bird also noted that the Carter administration had toughened rules aimed at preventing racially discriminatory schools from claiming tax-exempt status.
If that explains why Black voters stuck with Mr. Carter in 1980, it may have also sown the seeds of his defeat. “I think all of these decisions were too much for white America,” Mr. Bird said. “Ronald Reagan came along and appealed much more to white voters.”
Mr. Fuse agrees. All these years later, he still laments the fact that Mr. Carter was denied a second term. Instead of focusing on the problems that plagued Mr. Carter’s time in office — the inflation, the energy crisis, the American hostages stuck in Tehran — Mr. Fuse spoke, instead, about that hope that Mr. Carter had engendered in 1976, and not just for Black voters.
“When this white man comes along who’s grinning with a broad smile after Watergate, he lifted our spirits,” Mr. Fuse said. “He lifted everybody’s spirits.”
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