In 1954, as segregationist organizations were springing up all over the South in response to Brown vs. Board of Education, the chief of police and a Baptist minister in Plains, Ga., visited a peanut farmer at his warehouse and urged him to join the local White Citizens’ Council. The farmer refused. The men returned a few days later and told the farmer he was the only white man in Plains who hadn’t signed up. That didn’t change his mind. The men returned a third time with some of the farmer’s customers, who threatened to boycott his business. If he couldn’t afford the $5 dues, they would lend it to him. “I’ve got $5,” the farmer responded. “And I’d flush it down the toilet before I’d give it to you.”
The farmer, in case you haven’t guessed, was Jimmy Carter.
The news that Carter has brain cancer has led many to consider his life’s work, as a controversial president and a dynamic former president. Carter is largely remembered as a feckless leader; even his own party tends to ignore his time in the White House. But he had a strong record on civil rights, and his work to advance the cause would have been far more consequential if his successor, Ronald Reagan, had not reversed course.
Few predicted that Carter would be an advocate for civil rights. When he ran for governor in 1970 as a little-known 46-year-old state senator, many thought he’d be just another second-rate George Wallace, like so many Southern governors before him. But in his inaugural address, Carter revealed his progressive views on race.
“I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over,” he told the people of Georgia.
Carter quickly became the poster child for the ascendant “New South.” Time magazine even put his face on the cover with the headline “Dixie Whistles a Different Tune.”
In his 1976 presidential campaign, Carter embraced the power of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which enfranchised millions of African Americans and expanded protections for Latinos and language minority groups a decade later. Carter defeated Wallace — the symbol of the Old South — in the Democratic primary in part by appealing to black voters. His high-profile backers included Andrew Young and Barbara Jordan, the first black members of Congress from the South since Reconstruction. At the 1976 Democratic Convention in New York, Jordan gave the keynote speech, Young helped nominate Carter and Martin Luther King Sr. delivered the closing benediction.
While campaigning in black strongholds like Watts, Carter told audiences: “I could not stand here today as a candidate for president of the United States had it not been for Martin Luther King Jr.” The Voter Education Project, led by civil rights icon John Lewis, plastered thousands of posters across the South that read, “Hands that pick cotton ... now can pick our public officials.”
Carter owed his general election victory against Gerald Ford to black ballots. He carried every Southern state except Virginia by winning 95% of the black vote compared with 45% of the white vote. “The Voting Rights Act,” said Lewis, “created the climate for someone like Jimmy Carter to become the Democratic nominee and be elected president.”
Once in office, Carter pledged, “There will never be any attempt while I am president to weaken the great civil rights acts that have passed in the years gone by.” He appointed the first black division head at the Department of Justice, the first black female Cabinet member and the first black ambassador to the United Nations. Carter named more blacks, Latinos and women to the federal judiciary than all previous administrations combined.
But his Republican challenger in 1980, Reagan, took a very different position on civil rights, having opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Reagan kicked off his general election campaign for president in Neshoba County, Miss., where civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been murdered in 1964. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan told the nearly all-white crowd at the county fair.
Carter responded to Reagan’s speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King once preached. “You’ve seen in this campaign,” he said, “the stirrings of hate and the rebirth of code words like ‘states’ rights’ in a speech in Mississippi.” Again Carter attracted minority support, but that wasn’t enough to overcome Reagan’s commanding margin among whites.
When we look back on Reagan’s victory over Carter, we think of the end of the Iran hostage crisis and the beginning of “Morning in America.” Less well known is that Reagan’s triumph also ushered in a counterrevolution against the country’s civil rights laws.
Whereas Carter had appointed Drew Days III, a former lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Reagan installed the conservative lawyer William Bradford Reynolds, who believed that “government-imposed discrimination” had created “a kind of racial spoils system in America,” favoring historically disadvantaged minorities over whites. The future leaders of the contemporary conservative legal movement, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., came of age in the Reagan Justice Department, where they aggressively tried to weaken the civil rights laws of the 1960s.
Now we live in the world Reagan created. The five conservative justices on the Supreme Court who gutted the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 decision Shelby County vs. Holder were all appointed by Reagan or served in his administration. Reagan’s ideological descendants, post-Shelby, have imposed strict voter-ID laws, cut early voting and eliminated same-day voter registration.
Of course, there’s also a growing movement to fight these restrictions and to make voting easier. In March, Oregon became the first state to adopt automatic voter registration for every eligible voter who requests a driver’s license or state ID card. California is considering a similar proposal, which would add 7 million voters to the rolls. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders have highlighted this ambitious election reform in their policy platforms.
What nobody seems to mention is that Carter had the same idea 39 years ago. In 1976, while appearing with John Lewis, Carter proposed automatically registering every U.S. citizen 18 and older, which he said would “transform, in a beneficial way, the politics of our country.”
Ari Berman is a contributing writer for the Nation and the author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”