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Jimmy Carter’s Pivotal Role in Georgia’s Black Civil Rights Struggle

We spoke with historian Meredith Evans about the former president’s stance and influence.

President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter sing with Martin Luther King Sr., Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, and other civil rights leader during a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in January 1979. (HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Jimmy Carter wasn’t as outspoken about racial politics on the campaign trail during his second run for governor in 1970, but after winning the race, he made his then-controversial position on integration clear.

“The time for racial discrimination is over,” Carter declared on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol after becoming the state’s 76th governor. “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.”

The 98-year-old, Nobel Prize-winning, former U.S. president and lifelong champion of human rights around the globe began receiving hospice care at home earlier this week, prompting some to reflect on his career accomplishments.

Carter was born in the segregated, southwest Georgia town of Plains in 1924, but he was raised in the nearby predominantly Black area of Archery.

Despite attending segregated schools, Carter grew up in a community where he developed lasting friendships with Black residents. Those experiences shaped Carter’s worldview and led him to become a strong advocate for integration and equal rights.

During his time as a state senator from 1963 to 1967, Carter worked to repeal laws that made it harder for Black people to vote. His pro-integration positions likely led to him losing his first bid for governor of Georgia in 1966, according to historian Meredith Evans, director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

Afterward, Carter became more strategic in how he campaigned. He made fewer appearances on the campaign trail in front of Black American groups and even courted endorsements from staunch segregationists, according to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, a nonpartisan public policy and political history research group.

“He went towards the term ‘human rights’ instead of saying ‘Black rights’ or ‘African American rights,’” Evans said. “I think that was the way he was able to still fight for desegregation without [alienating] the white vote that he needed to win.” 

Carter maintained his moral stance on integration after winning the race and led by example on the issue.

The number of Black appointees on Georgia state boards and agencies rose from three to 53 during Carter’s time in office, and he increased the overall number of Black state employees by 25%.

“He brought people of color into that office when he was governor. He was very vocal about where he stood once he was in office, and he has never looked back,” Evans said.

Carter wasn’t always the most artful speaker when it came to issues of race. During his 1976 presidential run, he faced criticism for appearing to defend the rights of white Southerners to preserve the “ethnic purity” of their neighborhoods before apologizing for his remarks at the behest of Georgia civil rights activist Andrew Young. 

Evans spoke with Capital B about Carter’s legacy of advancing civil rights causes throughout his political career. 

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Capital B Atlanta: How did Carter’s upbringing in Archery, a predominantly Black community, shape his views on race maybe differently than other white people in the segregated South?

Meredith Evans: His best friend, Buddy, was somebody that he cared for who was African American. And he had the experiences of going to the movies together and then having to separate because the city was segregated. I think he has never been a fan of racial inequality and he doesn’t believe in segregation. So he has lots of stories that he’s written about when it comes to this. And he lost the first governor’s election because he wasn’t a segregationist. I think his upbringing seriously shaped his viewpoint, and I think he continuously fights for human rights because of how he was brought up and because of the inequities that he saw in his own town.

When and why did Jimmy Carter go into politics, and what were some of his accomplishments working with Black folks?

He was very vocal about where he stood once he was in office, and he has never looked back. He had a relationship with Daddy King [Martin Luther King Sr.] that was extensive. Daddy King called the White House when [Carter] got into the presidency. There was a relationship there. I think that President Carter has always been diplomatic, but he’s always also stuck to his word. He brought women into the governor’s mansion in different positions. He brought people of color in that administration, and he did the same thing during his presidency. And for decades he was the president that brought in the most Black and Latino women appointees out of all the presidents. He was the first to really do it in a way that was effective.

I’m curious about his stance on segregation publicly and how he talked about it in a way that would make it more palatable to white audiences.

I think he understood that it was a system of oppression. I think he understood that it was law, and he tried to do what he could to change it. And he did so by getting into the governor’s mansion. If he had gotten in the governor’s mansion the first round, it would’ve ended sooner. I mean, Georgia is very late in the game for desegregating schools. I mean, it was in the early to late ’70s before all the schools in Georgia were desegregated, even though the law in the United States had changed.

President Carter’s not one to dwell on the past; he’s one to make change in the future. He often mostly talks about it as the human condition and human rights, and that might be more palatable, but it put him in positions where he could effectively make change.

Could you give me some examples of how he might’ve watered down some of his rhetoric on race from the first gubernatorial campaign to the second?

I think he went towards the term human rights instead of saying Black rights or African American rights. I think that was the way he was able to still fight for desegregation without [alienating] the white vote that he needed to win. So I don’t know if he disguised his language in a way that’s negative; I think if he did disguise his language, it was to try to win to make a difference.

What was Carter’s platform when he ran for president ahead of ’76, and how did it address Black civil rights and economic issues?

He also talks a lot about things that everybody believed in, right? Family, making sure everybody had a roof over their head, and equitable funding. 

He went into Black communities to just have conversations to see what the needs were. He did that when he was [in the] state Senate. He did it when he was governor, and he did it when he was president. He believed that everybody should have a roof over their head and food at their table. And so people need to be at the table, and I think he was good for that.