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“Don’t you tell me these doors aren’t going to open. They’re going to open.”--Reverend Clennon King, in his effort to open the doors of President-elect Jimmy Carter’s Plains, Ga. church
“Please vote for me, vote for open doors,” shouted Reverend Clennon King to President-elect Jimmy Carter, entering the Plains Baptist Church that Sunday. Only twelve days before Carter had struggled to a hard won victory over Republican incumbent President Gerald Ford by receiving the overwhelming support of black voters. Now, an embarrassed Carter was unable to savor his victory and quietly formulate plans for his new administration due to this unexpected controversy. King, a fifty-five year old African American, stood his ground insisting on exposing an important aspect of the systematic racial bias at the heart of American society. At issue was the whites-only policy of a church that now included the president-elect of the most powerful nation on earth.
Carter had long maintained that he spoke out against the policy of segregation at the church and that, despite his efforts, the church voted to institute a policy prohibiting blacks from worshiping there.132 During this period Carter wrote in his book Why Not the Best? of his hopes that “not many churches in the United States today would forcibly exclude any worshiper because of race.” Only weeks before, during the heat of the campaign, after Reverend King decided to test the church’s racial policy, Carter said that blacks could join his church “if they wanted to” indicating that he believed that the church’s “attitude is to receive blacks now.” King apparently knew otherwise. Following King’s announcement that he intended to join the church the Sunday prior to the presidential election, the church’s deacons cancelled the services. In the 11th hour, a controversy over racism threatened the carefully planned Carter campaign.
Under fire, Carter desperately attempted to separate his views from those of the church. “Anyone who lives in our community and who wants to be a member of our church, regardless of race, ought to be admitted,” he said. Clearly, he would not resign from the church, for that would risk incurring the wrath of his white constituency who would punish any such buckling under to black demands.
Unfortunately for Carter, Clennon King was determined. “Don’t you tell me these doors aren’t going to open,” the African American minister declared. “They’re going to open.” The King forces, few in number but full of fire, challenged Carter to stand up for justice citing the overwhelming African American support for him. The mushrooming crisis forced Carter himself to devote some time in attempting to soften the church’s stance before the upcoming vote on the issue took place. The President-elect reiterated his support for allowing blacks to become members, but insisted that King was not fit for membership. He declared that “King is here to disrupt the church. His brother knows it. The blacks know it. We know it. He’s crazy. I could not vote for this man under these circumstances, and I don’t think anyone else could either.”
Carter pressured his resistant fellow townsfolk arguing that the “world is looking at this church.” Carter was relieved and “proud” of his church after they voted 120 to 66 to open membership to blacks. Nevertheless, they angrily rejected Rev. Clennon King’s application for membership.
Born on the first of October 1924, James Earl Carter, Jr. grew up in a plantation environment typical of the Jim Crow era. When he was four his father, Earl, moved the family to a farm home adjacent to an African American community, Archer. Earl’s “magic” with money often seemed to involve the labor and consumption of the neighboring blacks. His land of four thousand acres, in different sites, was worked over two hundred black sharecroppers who worked “Mr. Earl’s” land for one dollar a day for men, seventy-five cents for women and a quarter for children. It was an endless day that extended from dawn to dusk for black tenants the descendants of people who toiled from “can’t see to can’t see.”
The elder Carter was following a long family practice of relying on enslaved, semi-coerced and terrorized black labor. After Thomas Carter, Jr. settled in Virginia in 1635, the family moved to Georgia where they were generally small slaveholders. In the 1840s, a Carter murdered a man in a dispute over the ownership of an African. Nevertheless, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War when James Carter died, his six or so slaves were worth far more on the market than his 303 acres. The Carter family, was would be expected, fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War. The family in recent generations was solidly entrenched in the Georgian middle-class as farmers, and small entrepreneurs. Jimmy Carter’s mother’s family, the Gordys, similarly fought for slavery on the side of the Confederacy.The young Jimmy Carter thrived from an early age in this social environment. From the age of five, Carter sold peanuts and saved his profits. By the time he was a teenager, he was able to use his accumulated savings to buy a considerable amount of cotton, which he stored until prices rose. In 1937, he sold it to buy five black tenant shacks. The young Carter’s real estate yielded him $16.50 per month in rental income during that period.
As a child Jimmy Carter played with African American children and was under the supervision of a black woman domestic. One author describes Carter as having “a succession of black mothers.” Only one other white family lived in the area, forcing young Carter to play with the black tenants of his father. Carter later commented during his 1976 campaign for president that his playmates at home were black while his friends at school were white. His best friend until his mid-teens was an African American youth, A. B. Davis despite the fact that Carter’s father, Earl, a staunch segregationist, did not allow black children in his house and forced adult African Americans to enter through the rear door. The well-educated son of the local black leader, an A. M. E. minister, a man who Carter strangely recalls later as the head of the “dominant family” of the area, apparently chose to ignore these racial mores when he was home from college. He was let into the Carter front door, as the sole exception to the home’s Jim Crow policy, and sat down to often thrill young Jimmy Carter and his family with stories of his travels in the north. When he entered the front door, Jimmy’s father Earl himself would then exit from the back door in anger.
Later, Carter recalled how the racial divisions on his father’s plantation manifested themselves on the occasion of Joe Louis’ fight with the pro-Nazi Max Schmeling. Earl Carter allowed his black tenants to come into the “big house” to listen to the fight on the Carter’s radio. Restraining their celebration when Louis disposed of the German fighter, whom Earl Carter favored, they quietly thanked him for allowing them to listen to the fight. As soon as they were outside the door, however, shouts of joy were heard and continued long into the evening as they enjoyed the symbolism of Louis’ victory.
Carter as an adult broke with tradition by stubbornly refusing to join the White Citizen’s Council resisting pressures from the local establishment in 1958. It is possible that his later capitulation to racism during his race for Governor indicates that he learned the wrong lessons from this incident. Defying the white establishment, he was subjected to threats of social, political, and financial reprisals. However, if this hampered him financially, it was not readily apparent as Carter prospered as a farmer especially after he built a dryer and a peanut shelling plant in Plains. By the time he became president his net worth had surpassed $1,000,000.
In general, Carter as a young and up-and-coming politician was decidedly mainstream. While on the school board, he never challenged the unequal local educational system that featured gross disparities in the allocation of resources between black and white. Despite Carter’s later praise of the historical significance of the civil rights movement, he himself never suffered from being castigated as an “integrationist.” Yet, he was proud his rejection of the invitation to join the White Citizens’ Council. On at least one occasion, Carter admitted to having been saddened when he finally became conscious that for years he had not recognized the inherent injustice of providing transportation to school free of charge for white children while not doing the same for black children. As a member of the school board, as someone who had black friends as a youth, and as a highly money-conscious businessman, it is doubtful he could not have noticed the huge disparities in not only this area, but present in almost all other spheres of Georgian life.
Indeed, as a politician, one who was very able, it was necessary for him to understand the southern white psyche, and use it to his advantage. There is every indication that he did precisely that. In one instance Carter responded to a protest that a a new black school being planned was too close to a white school by quickly recommending that the black school be relocated. He was hardly a rebel confronting the system of racial injustice as he willingly proposed measures, during a period well after Brown v. Board of Education decision, that assumed eternal “separate but equal” practices.154 Carter’s first effort to obtain a state office was successful following an appeal that reversed a narrow loss. Serving in the Georgia State Senate beginning in 1962, in 1966 Carter ran for Governor and lost. Having given up his State Senate seat, the loss shocked Carter, forcing him to reflect deeply upon the political meaning of his defeat. Carter concluded that he had campaigned excessively for the black vote and that his racially liberal image had hurt him. Moreover, he didn’t enjoy the confidence of politically influential white segregationists such as Roy Harris. Harris, an influential attorney, who routinely referred to blacks as “niggers,” backed Lester Maddox in his quest to be governor of Georgia in 1966. Carter, in a manner reminiscent of George Wallace’s famous vow, had decided not to be “out-niggered” again in his second run in 1970 for governor. Following the previous election Carter commissioned a state-wide poll that revealed a perception of him among white voters as more liberal than they. His relative lack of name recognition led the Carter team to settle on a strategy of casting himself as a moderate candidate less liberal than his opponent. Being moderate within a state such as Georgia whose whites were especially concerned with the question of black progress, encouraged a defense of the racial status quo. With this political incentive, Carter tossed aside his remaining liberal positions on race.
During the heat of the campaign Carter chose to pay a visit to one of the segregated academies in a move heavy with symbolism. At the school Carter pledged to work on behalf of the all-white private schools. Unveiling his strategy spurning the African American vote, Carter boasted that he could win the election “without a single black vote.” During the campaign, Carter praised Lester Maddox became close to George Wallace, and defended white resistance to integration. Carter disingenuously maintained that blacks too were against integration. Carter went further, however, to the point of using morally questionable tactics based on an appeal to the racial prejudice of his Georgia white constituency. Most notably, a photo of Carter’s opponent, Carl Sanders, with black members of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team celebrating a playoff victory, was widely distributed in an effort to link him to blacks in the minds of white voters. While Carter did no additional campaigning in black communities, he won enjoying the support of the most notorious racists in the state obtaining over 49 percent of the vote.
As Governor of Georgia, Carter seemed to feel that symbolism would be sufficient to satisfy the political needs of the state’s African Americans. Carter is credited with making Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday on January 15, 1973, and later unveiling a portrait of the slain black leader in the state’s capital building. Yet, at a more meaningful level of policy, Governor Carter pushed for an anti-busing amendment to the Constitution. This had the advantage of taking the issue out of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. By the time he was campaigning for president, however, aware of his national African American potential constituency, this position had been quietly abandoned.
Carter grappled with the difficult transition from a state to a national politician. After he became governor his outlook changed somewhat as he set his sights on higher political office. Aiding the crystallization of his new image was Carter’s singing of “We Shall Overcome” at the convention. In his March 14, 1976 “Face the Nation” interview with George Herman and Ed Rabel of CBS News, Rabel asked him why Martin Luther King was omitted when he rattled off his pantheon of heroes to white audiences. Carter responded by asserting it was an unintentional omission. Later Herman mentions Carter’s accusation that another Democratic presidential hopeful, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, exploited racial prejudice during his campaign and related it to a question in Carter’s own background. At issue was Carter’s indication in February 1972 that he would only support a statewide boycott of schools if the General Assembly did not pass a resolution supporting a constitutional amendment banning busing. Carter responded that it was all an effort to try to tamp down “racial tension in the state” and defuse a threatened boycott of children from the schools throughout the state.
Herman then asks if Carter was elected president did he have a plan able to achieve “certain forms of integration without busing?” Carter replied, “Well, I think so....” and then repeats what he said dozens if not hundreds of times during the campaign: “I think that the passage of the Civil Rights Acts was the best thing that ever happened to the South in my lifetime....” Carter segues from this to ....”I’m not in favor of mandatory busing. We tried it in the South, and it didn’t work.....”
Responding to a reporter’s question during the 1976 presidential campaign, Carter said that he saw “nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained.” He indicated that he “would not force the racial integration of a neighborhood by government action” while he would nevertheless prohibit housing discrimination. Afterwards, amid increasing controversy, Carter adamantly refused to admit that this was in any way objectionable and only apologized after his aide Andrew Young threatened to leave his campaign. He finally emerged from the pack of Democratic presidential candidates early in 1976, and a black electorate, hungry for a presidential candidate who would respect their interests, examined the credentials of the Georgian presidential hopeful. While some found his background limited and flawed, a greater number focused more on the current promises and rhetoric of the Democratic candidate who consciously endeavored to appear more liberal. After eight years of Republican brakes on their forward progress, African Americans viewed any opportunity to elect a Democratic alternative as a welcome opportunity. Governor Carter’s eagerness to solidify black support was custom-fitted to the black eagerness to embrace a candidate that promised to help fulfill a minimum of their interests..
Despite a remarkable increase in the number of black elected officials from just 100 in 1965, 1,185 in 1969, and 3,503 in 1975, African Americans in the mid-1970s were highly conscious of the huge disparity between their potential political clout and their actual political power. It didn’t take long after President Jimmy Carter assumed office for African Americans to express disappointment with his performance. On February 3, 1977, roughly two weeks after he took office, President Carter met with a group of black leaders who took issue with the both the policies of the administration, as well as, the small number of black appointees. There were a few highly publicized black appointments, notably Patricia Roberts Harris was named as Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Andrew Young was named the United Nations Special Ambassador, Wade McCree was appointed Solicitor General, Clifford Alexander, Secretary of the Army, and John Slaughter, chairman of the National Science Foundation.
Key advisors of President Carter, imbued with traditional white southern values, were ambivalent toward the advance of the African American status in American society. Jody Powell of Vienna, Georgia, forced our of the Air Force Academy during his senior year for cheating, admitted to having contradictory emotions when confronted with the challenge of the black civil rights movement. Powell confessed that he resented “to some extent” and harbored the feeling that the South was being unfairly criticized for oppressing African Americans. Another key Georgian-born Carter advisor, Hamilton Jordan, similarly stressed the resentment young white southerners felt at being labeled, unfairly in their view, as rabid racists. Jordan pointed to “a kind of media-imposed inferiority complex” characterizing his generation who were tired of “the country basically looking down their nose at them and their region. . . “ Jordan said that during the height of the civil rights movement that he felt “kind of ambivalent. I had a feeling that whites had not been fair to blacks, but I felt the demonstrations and everything were a great threat to my way of life.” Later, Jordan maintained that he underwent a liberal transformation. Appointing Griffin Bell of Georgia as Attorney General was regarded as another sign of the shortcomings of the young Carter administration. A member of whites-only clubs, a former supporter of Harold Carswell for the Supreme Court, and a judicial defender of segregated institutions, the Bell appointment conformed disturbingly to the patterns of previous administrations.
Carter was urged by several interest groups, including African Americans, to put together a meaningful economic stimulus package to jumpstart the economy. Pressure from the National League of Cities, the National Conference of Mayors and the national African American leadership pressed Carter to extend the scope of the stimulus package. Ignoring their pleas a larger economic stimulus package, Carter shifted from the Keynesian emphasis of the previous Democratic administrations and accepted the premise of the Nixon administration that an increase in expenditures for “non-productive” services leads to an unacceptably high inflation rate. Moreover, President Carter continued reducing social programs said to damage the recipient’s incentive to work, such as welfare, unemployment compensation, or food stamps.
One particular shocking realization of Carter’s post-election rightward swing came with the May 1977 announcement that there would be no new social welfare, health, and educational initiatives. The promise to drastically cut the defense budget was similarly forgotten. The 1978 Carter budget proposed cutbacks in social programs incurring the wrath of more liberal politicians. Senator Edward Kennedy began to clash with the president over the question of the budget and social programs. Increasingly, the president was caught between the fire of the conservative Republicans and the more liberal Democrats. Black leadership’s criticisms of Carter, meanwhile, continued to escalate.
By August 1977, key black leaders who had supported Carter’s campaign including Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan, and Benjamin Hooks, were charging President Carter with “ callous neglect “ declaring that the Carter administration had “ betrayed “ black America. African American leaders pushed for programs key to the survival and progress of the national African American community but found increasing resistance from an administration they pushed hard to elect. Vernon Jordan, in particular, was harshly critical of President Carter. Speaking to the 67th annual meeting of the Urban League, Jordan said that during Carter’s brief presidency he “has impressed us with his personal style,” but “an open style without substantive change is not enough. . .” Jordan declared that “Black people and poor people . . . resent unfulfilled promises of jobs, compromises to win conservative support and the continued acceptance of high unemployment.” A subsequent exchange of words between Jordan and Carter left black leadership further alienated from the president. Carter’s abrupt reversal of his campaign promises led to the creation of new organizational forms to strive for black interests. Most significantly, the National Black Leadership Roundtable was formed in 1977. Columnist Chuck Stone was particularly critical of Carter’s “paternalistic racism” and “political ineptitude.” He notes that in the absence of the implementation of his campaign promises, Carter substituted symbolism, such as appearing at a black church on Sunday morning.
High on the agenda of African American leadership was the Humphrey-Hawkins bill that would provide radical measures to alleviate the increasingly acute unemployment problems endured by African Americans. With unemployment among black youth hovering around forty percent and steadily increasing, black leaders were desperately searching to stem this tide. Committing the federal government to act to improve workers’ wages, access to day care, public housing and transportation, the legislation was denounced as too left wing by the right. Carter failed to push aggressively for the bill as he was concerned with attempting to reach a balanced budget and with broadening his support beyond the traditional Democratic constituency.
In some areas of importance to African Americans, Carter was more destructive than in others. In the area of support for black institutions of higher education, Carter actually radically slashed the federal funds supporting traditional African American colleges and universities. Moreover, the promised financial aide support of black students failed to materialize.
Following his presidency, in 1982, Carter was asked and and whether he was guided by a strategy to “broaden” the Democratic voter base. Carter said:
Yes. . . I [thought] my conservative approach to fiscal/monetary/budget affairs would increase my base of support beyond what was habitually Democratic. . . At the same time, I looked on myself as being quite liberal on civil rights . . . human rights on a broad basis, . . .on social programs, jobs, appointments of minorities and the increased involvement of minorities and women in government.
In 1979, controversy erupted after President Carter, responding to strident demands of the establishment and media, forced United Nations ambassador Andrew Young to resign. Young’s sin was to meet informally with a representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Carter’s haste in dumping Young infuriated many of the African Americans who had been most active in his campaign for the presidency.
The late 1970s witnessed the rise of anti-black racial violence. Particularly ominous was the increase in numbers and influence of extreme racist political formations, epitomized by the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity across the nation as the Klan’s membership tripled in the 1970s. Particularly notable was a January 1977 rally in Plains, Georgia, President Carter’s hometown, that attracted 250. An upsurge of racist violence included the shooting of Vernon Jordan in the back in May 1980 by a racist extremist and the massacre of black leftists in Greensboro, North Carolina.
There were also signs of increasing mass frustration in black America. In May 1980, the Liberty City area of Miami literally exploded following an all-white jury’s acquittal of four officers of the beating death of thirty-three year old Arthur McDuffie, an African American insurance executive. In a broad-based rebellion that included white vigilante retaliation against blacks, eighteen were killed, 1,250 arrested and 3,600 National Guard required to supplement the Miami police. It was the first major urban black rebellion in twelve years, and represented a vote of no confidence in both the Carter administration and United States society.
©Christopher Brian Booker, 2014.