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Jimmy Carter’s Politics Of Division


There he goes again.

Jimmy Carter, former Jim Crow man, has accused millions of his fellow Americans of engaging in the type of racial politics that marked his political career for years, even up to the eve of the 1980 presidential election, which he has never apologized for or acknowledged.

Branding his opponents as racists is nothing new for the old, self-described “redneck.” In the fall of 1980, he and his minions unleashed one of the most vicious campaigns in recent American history against his opponent, Ronald Reagan.

The attacks were so unprecedented, Nancy Reagan did something that was unprecedented at the time; she appeared in a television commercial taking it to President Carter over the slurs against “Ronnie.” Carter had shamefully accused his GOP opponent of wanting to divide Americans, “black from white, Christian from Jew…”

It was a curious – and, more importantly, nasty and unfounded – attack, as Reagan had a long history of fighting racism and anti-Semitism.

When Reagan was a young man playing football for Eureka College, several African-American team members were barred from staying at a “whites only” hotel. While their coach tried to make some other accommodations, Reagan took his teammates to his home, where his parents kindly took them in.

In the 1940s, Reagan quit a Los Angeles country club in protest when he discovered it had a policy of barring Jewish members. As governor of California, Reagan appointed more blacks to positions in his administration – hundreds more than his so-called progressive predecessors, including Earl Warren and Pat Brown.

Meanwhile Carter, in the early 1960s, supported legislation in the Georgia State Senate that would have effectively eviscerated the Civil Rights Act and would have prevented the desegregation of public schools there as well as open housing.

In 1966, during the contested gubernatorial election in Georgia, Carter had a choice as a state senator. He could support the Republican, Bo Calloway. He could support the moderate Democrat, Ellis Arnall. Or he could stand with Lester Maddox, one of the repugnant leaders of segregation in the South. Carter chose the stand with Maddox, in order to protect his political future.

During the nasty 1970 Democratic primary for governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter’s campaign mass-produced photos of his opponent, Carl Sanders, with the black members of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. Sanders was the real progressive in the campaign.

Even as late as 1976, Carter, while campaigning in the South, praised Senators John Stennis and Jim Eastland, two longtime Southern Democrats who were supporters of “Massive Resistance,” the attempt by some whites in the South to oppose racial integration.

When reporters caught up with Stennis to ask him his position on racial desegregation he replied, “I’m against it. Always have been and always will be.”

Also that fall, Carter’s home church, the Plains Baptist Church, voted to ban blacks from joining. Carter did not quit in protest, knowing it would undermine his “Southern Strategy” in the election. Weakly, he said he would attempt to change the policy from the inside.

In 1976, Carter took all of the South, excepting Virginia, and the region constituted 40 percent of his electoral total. He knew in 1976 and again in 1980 that to win, he needed to hold onto the states below the Mason-Dixon line.

If possible, it got worse in 1980. His campaign produced newspaper ads charging Reagan with wanting to win so he could stop Carter from appointing blacks to government. Fearful of losing urban black voters to the independent candidacy of John Anderson, his campaign ran ads on African-American radio stations falsely claiming Anderson had voted against the Civil Rights Act.

Even liberal editorialists eviscerated Carter for his vindictive campaign, and two Democratic opponents, former vice president Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Ted Kennedy, had often complained over the years about Carter’s nasty brand of politics.

The great Hugh Sidey of Time magazine wrote at the time, “The wrath that escapes Carter’s lips about racism and hatred when he prays and poses as the epitome of Christian charity leads even his supporters to protest his meanness.”

In Carter’s defense, his peanut business was once boycotted by the citizens of Plains in the 1960s because he’d supported a local desegregation issue. Carter is not a bigot. Sometimes he rose above his culture. Other times, he embraced it, especially when there was an election at stake.

About the Author: Craig Shirley is president and CEO of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Rendezvous with Destiny" about Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign.


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More Articles from Craig Shirley

There he goes again.

Jimmy Carter, former Jim Crow man, has accused millions of his fellow Americans of engaging in the type of racial politics that marked his political career for years, even up to the eve of the 1980 presidential election, which he has never apologized for or acknowledged.

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