Former President Jimmy Carter, right, blows out candles on a birthday cake as wife Rosalynn looks on during his 90th birthday celebration, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman/File)
by Mikel Holt, Milwaukee Community Journal
The sun is setting on former President Jimmy Carter; but in its wake is a rainbow that provided a multicolored light for a brief moment in time.
‘His-story’ has not painted a complimentary portrait of the nation’s 39th president, a one-term chief executive whose tenure was undermined by inflation and an Iranian hostage scenario that was exploited by Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.
I was thinking of Carter this past week as he accepted his ‘fate’ and committed himself to home hospice.
The former president has been on my radar for the last year as I gathered the information for a book I’m considering in which I will rank presidents from an African American perspective.
Totally by coincidence, I also recently discovered an old photograph of me interviewing Carter when he was in Milwaukee a few decades ago to lead a construction crew for one of the hundreds of Habitats for Humanity homes he’s spearheaded.
That interview provided the cherry on top of my positive evaluation of the former commander-in-chief.
Without regard for personal accolades, Carter spent most of his life after politics working on projects to benefit the less fortunate, highlighted by his work and promotion of the Habitat project, in which volunteers would rehab or build homes for low-income families, many if not most of whom are African American.
That spirit—grounded in his faith and personal integrity- earned him accolades from all corners of the globe.
Not bad for a peanut farmer from Georgia, which in the 1960s was known as a launching pad for White Supremacy and southern apartheid.
It also speaks volumes that Carter was the first elected president from the Deep South since 1844. That incredible accomplishment was made possible mainly because of the overwhelming support he received from Black voters, who had for the last century voted Republican, as it was the party that engineered civil rights legislation following the civil war, including the 13th and 14th amendments and the civil rights act of 1867.
Democrats, on the other hand, were the party of the Confederacy, and its members vehemently supported slavery, Black codes, and apartheid.
In fact, until they saw the light and found ‘religion’ in the early 1960s, Democrats were mainly known for creating the KKK to terrorize and suppress Black rights and block any initiative to empower Black Americans.
Carter’s civil rights resume as a Georgia state senator and governor made Carter so amenable to Black voters.
Despite the racial climate in Georgia, Carter boldly stood up against laws hindering the Black vote, housing, and school segregation.
His advocacy for civil rights was such that when he first ran for governor in 1966, White Supremacists from neighboring states poured money and resources into the campaign of well-known bigot Lester Maddox.
Carter rebounded, however, and with unprecedented support from Black voters, won the gubernatorial election four years later.
With that solid civil rights record, including investments in Black colleges and universities, Carter took his philosophy national and won the presidency.
Maintaining his commitment to inclusion, President Carter named an unprecedented number of African Americans to cabinet-level positions, including Clifford L. Alexander and Eleanor Holmes Norton.
While he spent most of his tenure fighting members of his own party (a scenario similar to what Barack Obama endured for the first two years of his term), Carter nonetheless shepherded environmental programs—including the establishment of the EPA– and arranged for a Mideast peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
But it was record inflation (which was actually less than what we’re currently facing), and the Iranian hostage crisis that paved the way for former California Governor and second-rate actor Reagan’s presidency after one term.
Years later, when I interviewed Carter in the heart of Milwaukee’s central city, I was immediately impressed with his southern charm and heartfelt demeanor.
I was equally fascinated that he was swinging a hammer instead of posing for publicity shots.
Likewise, it didn’t escape me that he felt at ease and obviously welcomed in the Black community, so much so that you could see the frustration on the faces of the secret servicemen who stood out like those white suburbanites who sought out Black prostitutes in the central city after the sun goes down.
Carter had nothing to fear among African American residents and admirers who stopped by to thank or simply get an up-close look at the man who challenged the southern status quo in Georgia and probably would have done likewise in a second term as president when he had nothing to lose, but an opportunity to gain immortality among African Americans.
Aside from a questionable comment he made early in his political tenure about people having the right to live among their peers—which some assumed was about Whites—Carter’s record far outweighed most of the presidents I’ve researched for a potential book.
My opinion would be subjective, but I believe our tribal members would have benefited far better than we did under Reagan, who showed his true ‘colors’ when he apologized for South African apartheid and refused to support affirmative action and other civil rights legislation.
You can base your evaluation on each of the presidents’ resumes.
Carter earned the Black vote not through rhetoric but through action.
Reagan earned nothing but scorn from Black leaders and laymen.
As president, Carter supported affirmative action, while Reagan opposed it. Carter didn’t have a problem with treating African Americans as equals. The only time Reagan was seen with a Black person, she was a maid or actress playing one.
Reagan was a master of code words, including his support for ’states’ rights.’ He kicked off his campaign (in Philadelphia, Mississippi of all places) with comments about ‘Negro’ welfare queens.
While he did sign the King Holiday bill, he was far from being a champion of the vision the slain civil rights leader advocated for.
Interestingly, my paternal grandparents lived not far from where Carter began his career in Georgia, while my mother was raised minutes away from Reagan’s childhood home in Galesburg, Illinois.
That is an interesting dichotomy, a northerner who blocked the schoolhouse door and a southerner who kicked it open.
In other words, Reagan was an actor playing president, while Carter was a Georgia farmer who wrote the script on how to act presidential.