September 26, 2020 10:25:00 PM
Were he Catholic, chances are Jimmy Carter, who turns 96 later this week, would be destined for sainthood. Since his 1980 defeat by Ronald Reagan in his bid for a second term as president, Carter, with his wife Rosalyn, has devoted himself to humanitarian causes.
Through the Atlanta-based Carter Center, he has worked to ensure fair elections in fledgling democracies and established food programs and developed health initiatives in third-world countries. For his efforts he received the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Carters, too, have been high-profile advocates for Habitat for Humanity, the world's largest non-profit of builder for housing for the poor.
Yet a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Alter titled "When Jimmy Carter Was Silent on Civil Rights" illustrates how rare and difficult it was for even the most enlightened white Southerners -- especially those with businesses or political aspirations -- to advocate for integration and racial equality in the 1950s and 60s.
Here in Mississippi, such activities by whites were a surefire way to have a cross burned in your yard, or worse. Local white voices for racial justice were few during that time.
An excellent paper available online by University of Southern Mississippi communications prof David Davies recounts the stories of five courageous Mississippi newspaper editors who challenged the often violent racism prevalent throughout the state.
Those few were the "prophets" Jesus spoke about to his disciples in Mark: "A prophet is without honor only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own household."
Three won Pulitzer Prizes for editorial writing: Hodding Carter Jr. of the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times (1946), Ira B. Harkey, Jr., of the Pascagoula Chronicle (1963) and Hazel Brannon Smith of the Lexington Advertiser (1964).
J. Oliver Emmerich Jr. of the McComb Enterprise-Journal and P.D. East of the Petal Paper also took courageous stands during those horrific times.
It wasn't until he became governor of Georgia in 1971 did Carter become a vocal proponent for racial justice.
As Alter's article notes, Carter's father was a white supremacist, his mother a nurse, who took her young son to black churches and with her to the homes of black sharecroppers, who she treated for free. Most of Carter's childhood playmates were black.
At the Naval Academy, Carter defended a black cadet from hazing and later, as a naval officer, refused to attend social functions where his black shipmates were not invited.
Carter's father was appalled by his son's liberal stand on race, and, as Alter notes, their relationship grew distant.
When Earl Carter died in 1953, Jimmy returned to Plains to take over the peanut business and assume his father's place on the county school board. In doing so, he assumed his father's attitude toward race, at least outwardly.
To have done different would have been detrimental to the family business and nullified any political aspirations he might have had.
Jimmy Carter became the person Martin Luther King Jr. was referring to in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail: "the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not" the Ku Klux Klan, "but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice ..."
As a Georgia state senator representing a deeply conservative district, Carter hewed to the status quo. Had he done otherwise, "it would have been the end of my political career," he told Alter.
"Pay no intention to what I say," Carter told civil rights lawyer Vernon Jordan during his 1970 campaign for governor -- Carter had lost a 1966 bid for governor to segregationist Lester Maddox -- "just watch what I do (as governor)."
On the last day of his campaign, Carter asked his pilot, David Rabhan, a wealthy liberal, how he might repay him for his support and for flying him around the state. Rabhan, whose friendship with Carter is speculated to be the reason he would later spend 11 years in an Iranian prison without being charged, picked up a flight map, the nearest scrap of paper, and wrote with a pencil, "The time for racial discrimination is over."
Carter used the line verbatim in his inaugural speech. Several of his former senate colleagues walked out in protest. Soon Carter was on the cover of Time magazine and gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson was urging him to run for president.
Alter's piece in the WSJ, the source for much of this column, was adapted from a book he is writing on Carter. He ends the WSJ article with the following paragraph.
Mr. Carter has never admitted to spending the second half of his life atoning for the failures of his first. But this year, after the killing of George Floyd, he said that he had learned in his travels around the world that "silence can be as deadly as violence."
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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