President Jimmy Carter's Record on Civil Rights and Race Relations

Jimmy Carter Greeting African American Supporters
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When Georgian Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential race, no politician from the Deep South had been elected since 1844. Despite Carter’s Dixie roots, the incoming president boasted a large Black fan base, having supported Black causes as a lawmaker in his home state. Four out of every five Black voters reportedly backed Carter and, decades later, when the country welcomed its first Black president, Carter continued to speak out about race relations in America. His record on civil rights before and after entering the White House reveal why Carter long garnered support from communities of color.

A Voting Rights Supporter

During his tenure as a Georgia state senator from 1963 to 1967, Carter worked to overturn laws that made it challenging for Black people to vote, according to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. His pro-integration stance did not prevent him from serving two terms as state senator, but his views may have hurt his gubernatorial bid. When he ran for governor in 1966, an outpouring of segregationists turned out to the polls to elect Jim Crow supporter Lester Maddox. When Carter ran for governor four years later, he “minimized appearances before African American groups, and even sought the endorsements of avowed segregationists, a move that some critics call deeply hypocritical.” But Carter, it turned out, was simply being a politician. When he became governor the following year, he announced that the time had come to end segregation. Clearly, he’d never supported Jim Crow but catered to segregationists just to win their votes.

Appointments of Black People in Key Positions

As Georgia governor, Carter didn’t just verbally oppose segregation but also worked to create more diversity in state politics. He reportedly raised the number of Black people on Georgia state boards and agencies from just three to a staggering 53. Under his leadership, almost half, 40 percent, of public servants in influential positions were Black.

Social Justice Platform Impresses Time, Rolling Stone

Gov. Carter’s views on civil rights so markedly differed from other Southern lawmakers, such as notorious Alabama Gov. George Wallace, that in 1971 he made the cover of Time magazine, which dubbed the Georgian the face of the “New South.” Just three years later, legendary Rolling Stone journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, became a fan of Carter after hearing the lawmaker discuss how politics can be used to effect social change.

A Racial Gaffe or More Duplicity?

Carter sparked controversy on April 3, 1976, while discussing public housing. The then-presidential candidate said that he thought community members should be able to preserve the “ethnic purity” of their neighborhoods, a statement that sounded like the tacit support of segregated housing. Five days later, Carter apologized for the comment. Had the pro-integrationist really meant to express support of Jim Crow housing, or was the statement just another ploy to get the segregationist vote?

Black College Initiative

As president, Carter launched the Black College Initiative to give historically Black colleges and universities more support from the federal government.

“Other administration education initiatives covered in the collection include science apprenticeships for minority students, technical assistance to Black colleges, and minority fellowships in graduate management education,” according to the “Civil Rights During the Carter Administration” report.

Business Opportunities for Black People

Carter also tried to close the wealth gap between whites and Black people. He developed initiatives to give Black-owned businesses a boost. “These programs focused primarily on increasing the government’s procurement of goods and services from minority business, as well as through requirements for procurement by federal contractors from minority firms,” the CRDTCA report states. “The aided industries ranged from construction to manufacturing to advertising, banking, and insurance. The government also maintained a program to help minority-owned exporters gain footholds in foreign markets.”

Affirmative Action Supporter

Affirmative action became a heavily debated topic when the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Allan Bakke, a white man denied admission to the medical school at the University of California, Davis. Bakke sued after UC Davis rejected him while admitting less qualified Black students, he argued. The case marked the first time affirmative action had been challenged so vigorously. Yet, Carter continued to support affirmative action, which endeared him to Black people.

Prominent Black people in the Carter Administration

When Carter became president, more than 4,300 Black people held elected office in the U.S. They also served in the Carter cabinet. “Wade H. Mc-Cree served as solicitor general, Clifford L. Alexander was the first Black secretary of the army, Mary Berry was the top official in Washington on educational matters prior to the establishment of the Department of Education, Eleanor Holmes Norton chaired the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Franklin Delano Raines served on the White House staff,” according to the Spartacus-Educational website. Andrew Young, a Martin Luther King protégé and the first African American elected as a Georgia congressman since Reconstruction, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. But Young’s outspoken views on race caused controversy for Carter and Young resigned under pressure. The president replaced with him another Black man, Donald F. McHenry.

Expansion from Civil Rights to Human Rights

When Carter lost his bid for re-election, he opened the Carter Center in Georgia in 1981. The institution promotes human rights across the world and has overseen elections in a number of countries and curbed human rights violations in places such as Ethiopia, Panama, and Haiti. The center has also focused on domestic issues, such as in October 1991, when it launched the Atlanta Project initiative to address urban social problems. In October 2002, President Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize for “his decades of untiring efforts to find peaceful solutions to international conflict.”

The Civil Rights Summit

Jimmy Carter was the first president to speak at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit in April 2014. The summit commemorated the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964. During the event, the former president urged the nation to do more civil rights work. “There’s still a gross disparity between Black and white people on education and employment,” he said. “A good amount of schools in the South are still segregated.” Given these factors, the civil rights movement isn’t just history, Carter explained but remains a pressing issue in the 21st century.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "President Jimmy Carter's Record on Civil Rights and Race Relations." ThoughtCo, Mar. 11, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, March 11). President Jimmy Carter's Record on Civil Rights and Race Relations. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "President Jimmy Carter's Record on Civil Rights and Race Relations." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).

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