When the scramble for the Democratic nomination began, Carter was widely seen as a long shot. But by the time the primary season was half over, he had left the other, better-known Democratic contenders in the dust. That he was able to compete with them at all—that is, to raise money and enlist volunteers—owed to the national exposure he had received for his inaugural address as governor of Georgia in 1971. At that time, with much of the South still clinging to Jim Crow and resisting the nation’s new civil-rights laws, Carter had boldly declared that “the time for segregation is over.”
Yet the path that led him to that dramatic moment was a tortuous one, known to few outside of Georgia, and it shed light on the man who five years later would be promising voters across the country: “I will never lie to you.”
Carter ran for governor of Georgia against Carl Sanders, who had served in the post previously, earning a reputation as one of the early “Southern moderates.” (Georgia law prohibited serving two terms consecutively.) In the campaign, Carter presented himself as, in his words, “a local Georgia conservative Democrat . . . basically a redneck.” This formulation was calculated to convey a message about his stand on racial issues: a message of resistance to racial integration, if not of out-and-out racism. He reinforced the same message by making a campaign stop at a whites-only private school, and by promising to invite Alabama Governor George Wallace, the champion of segregation, to address the state legislature.
Topping it off was Carter’s reaction when, as a result of the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Lester Maddox emerged as his running mate. Maddox, a restaurateur and Sanders’s successor as governor, had gained notoriety by distributing to the customers of his whites-only establishment ax handles with which to batter any blacks who might seek to be served there. Carter took the pairing in stride, characterizing Maddox as “the essence of the Democratic party.”
But no sooner had he won office than he executed his remarkable shift on race, a move that landed him on the cover of Time as the apotheosis of the “new South” and made him a nationally recognized figure. The cause of this about-face is still a matter of conjecture. Since he was barred from running for re-election, it is possible that he was already weighing a presidential run and thinking in terms of a national audience. Or he may have long harbored liberal views that he had deliberately concealed. In any event, one of his associates later explained that it was Carter’s way to “run conservative and govern liberal.” He was soon to put that formula to use again.
Ex-President Carter Shameful Activities
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