Doing Bad to Do Good: Carter’s Race-Baiting Election of 1970

Doing Bad to Do Good: Carter’s Race-Baiting Election of 1970 May 13, 2015

In 1970 Jimmy Carter ran a sordid campaign for governor of Georgia. Courting the support of segregationist George Wallace, Carter used Wallace’s slogan “our kind of man,” which was a barely veiled appeal to the laboring classes who opposed integration. Carter’s campaign workers, who called themselves the “stink tank,” found a photograph showing Carter’s liberal opponent Carl Sanders (who was part owner of the Atlanta Hawks) celebrating with the black members of the team after winning a championship. The photograph was meant to sully Sanders by associating him with alcohol and African Americans.

File:James Earl Carter, Jr., , Thirty-ninth President (1977-1981).jpg
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

These weren’t the only examples of race-baiting in the campaign. Carter’s campaign also informed voters that Sanders had attended the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. Carter sought the endorsement of a former White Citizens’ Council president. “Carter ran as a George Wallace segregationist,” later recalled Sanders. “He put me in the position of being a liberal integrationist.” As Randall Balmer documents in his terrific book Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, the candidate’s overtures to white segregationists worked. He won his Democratic primary over Sanders and then went on win the general election. Sanders was so angry that he refused to attend Carter’s inauguration.

This is a shocking story for those who have seen Carter as in the vanguard of racial sensitivity. It is particularly troubling because Carter had recently “rededicated” his life to Jesus. In 1967 his Pentecostal sister Ruth Carter Stapleton helped spark a revitalized faith in Carter. It was “a deeply profound religious experience that changed my life dramatically.”

The campaign further doesn’t fit Carter’s long history as a staunch integrationist. In the wake of the Brown v. Board decision in 1955, Carter was put under immense pressure to join the White Citizens’ Council. A group of men implored Carter at his warehouse, telling him that “every white male adult in the community had joined” except him. They even offered to pay the $5 due for him. An angry Carter took a $5 out of his pocket and said, “I’ll take this and flush it down the toilet, but I am not going to join the White Citizens’ Council.” A boycott against his business was the result.

So how did Carter explain his race-baiting campaign in the context of a lifetime of race sensitivity and religious revival? He justified it using Nieburian logic. One of Carter’s lifelong mantras was his desire, borrowed from Reinhold Niebuhr, “to establish justice in a sinful world.” He could do much good, he thought, if only he could get to the governor’s mansion. “You won’t like my campaign,” Carter had warned Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League, “but you will like my administration.” This was a frank admission of a means-justifies-the-ends political methodology.

There is much that is honorable about Carter. I’ll delineate those positives in my next post. And as it turns out, the newly elected governor did much to improve race relations. But the 1970 campaign is mired in moral quicksand. Is it a sobering, but ultimately instructive, narrative of the possibilities of political realism? Or is it an appalling morality tale about the bankruptcy of electoral politics?

If the past is any guide, we should brace ourselves in the coming election season for a fresh onslaught of opportunistic politicians working out these questions on a very public stage.

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