Jimmy Carter & the Civil Rights Movement

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

In this lesson, we will learn about President Jimmy Carter's record on civil rights. Although he grew up in the segregated South, President Carter would come to be an important supporter of the US Civil Rights Movement.

Jimmy Carter

Today anyone can sit anywhere they want to, but when Jimmy Carter was growing up, this was not the case. Jimmy Carter was a young boy growing up in Plains, Georgia when he and his best friend traveled across the state by train. While on the train they were separated into two separate passenger cars. Carter was sent to one car, while his friend, who was Black, was sent to another.

How would you feel if this happened to you? Jimmy Carter was upset. But he said later that he did not think anything of it at the time. That's just how things were in the American South. But this experience of segregation on a personal level would shape his future. The young boy who was separated from his best friend grew up to become first the governor of Georgia, and then President of the United States. In both positions, he would be a champion of the US Civil Rights Movement and its leaders.

Carter said once that ''We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.'' Civil rights was one of those dreams.

President Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter

Governor of Georgia

Jimmy Carter entered government as a Georgia state senator in 1963. As a state senator, he consistently advocated a pro-integrationist stance. He worked hard to get rid of laws that made it hard for African Americans to vote and championed school integration; in the segregated South, though, this stance backfired. When Carter ran for governor in 1966, he lost the election to Lester Maddox, an avowed segregationist.

In 1970, Carter ran for governor again, this time disavowing his pro-integrationist stance. This angered some of his supporters but got him elected. As governor, Carter changed his tone completely. He declared at his inauguration that ''The time for racial discrimination is over.''

During his time as governor, Carter promoted prison reform and educational change and worked to increase the number of African Americans serving in the state government. Time magazine put him on its cover as a representative of a ''New South'' that embraced integration and civil rights.

Carter as President

Many historians believe that Carter won the presidency in 1976 in large part because he was able to gain large numbers of African American supporters. At the Democratic National Convention which nominated Carter for president, Martin Luther King Sr. gave the benediction and Andrew Young, as well as Barbara Jordan, (the first southern African American members of Congress in nearly 100 years), gave speeches. While campaigning, Carter stopped in places like the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, where he credited Martin Luther King Jr. with influencing his run for president. Carter also gained the support of John Lewis's Voter Education Project, which worked to educate new African American voters in the South as well as John Lewis himself. In the end, Carter won the presidency by carrying every southern state except Virginia. He did this with the support of the African American vote; he won 95% of the Black vote, compared to 45% of the White vote.

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