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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  • stefanstackhouse

    The ends do not justify the means. If we desire to be just, then we must always employ just ends in the pursuit of just means. “But then we won’t be able to achieve the just things we are wanting, and evil will result.” Maybe. On the other hand, do we really believe that we have a just God, and that He is able to intervene in human affairs? Or are we really only deists, believing that God just sits there impassively and that everything down here is all up to us alone?

  • billmcreynolds

    These attempts to “redeem” Carter’s presidency are a hard sell. He was awful.

  • I recently was re-reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935/1956) and found a quote that might be relevant (although it is in the context of a discussion of violence and not race):

    “This wholly pragmatic and relativistic analysis of the problem of violence obviously fails to arrive at an absolute disavowal of violence under all circumstances. It is therefore tainted with the implied principle that the end justifies the means. This is supposedly a terrible Jesuitical maxim which all good people must abhor. Yet all good people are involved in it. Short of an ascetic withdrawal from the world, every moral action takes place in a whole field of moral values and possibilities in which no absolute distinction between means and ends is possible. There are only immediate and more ultimate values. Whether immediate or ultimate, every value is only partly intrinsic. It is partly instrumental, in the sense that its worth must be estimated in terms of its support of other values. Obviously, any end does not justify any means because every possible value does not deserve the subordination of every other possible value to it. Yet the subordination of values to each other is necessary in any hierarchy of values. . . . When dealing with the actual human situation realistically and pragmatically it is impossible to fix upon a single moral absolute” (174-175).

  • David Buchanan

    If doing the right thing means doing it in a way that is not right, then it isn’t actually the right thing.

  • RustbeltRick

    Politics is an ugly business. You do have to break some eggs to make an omelet, as they say. Bush Senior used the infamous Willie Horton ad to infer sinister things about his opponent. Part of making the case for yourself is to paint your opponent as a dreadful, scary choice. And when you traffic in fear, it usually gets ugly.

  • ugluk2

    He failed to control inflation and allowed the Iranian hostage crisis to define the last part of his Presidency, but Paul Volcker who he appointed brought down inflation, though at a very high price. Reagan, as it turned out, had a worse record on dealing with both Iraq and Iran.

    The worst aspect of Carter’s Presidency is never mentioned because the issue reflects badly on five Presidents, the media, and America in general. That would be our complicity in the genocide in East Timor. But Reagan defenders are in a poor position to lecture anyone on support for mass murderers, given the number that Reagan backed.

  • ugluk2

    That was one of the low points in Carter’s career.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    That is seriously disappointing, but not because of Carter’s Christianity. Bigotry arises from human fears and prejudice, and no political or religious ideology can claim immunity from it.