This fall, the New Baptist Covenant will hold its first national meeting since 2008. convened by President Carter in the late ’90s, the association of Baptist denominations is an unmistakable symbol of President Carter’s values: a humble and spiritual commitment to racial reconciliation and social justice.
At a time when racial discord is as rancorous as ever, President Carter talked to CT about growing up in the pre–civil rights movement South, his recent attempts to combat racism, and why he thinks race relations are worse today than they were in the ’60s.
When did you become passionate about racial reconciliation?
Our family—my father and mother, my two sisters, and I—would be invited to come to St. Mark’s Church. We were the only white family immersed in a black culture—not only in the cotton, peanut, and corn fields where I would hunt, fish, and play with my black playmates, but also in their church.I grew up in the isolated rural community of Archery, [Georgia,] which is about two-and-a-half miles west of Plains. The number one church there, then and now, was St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. And the number one citizen in our community was a bishop of five AME churches in the North, William Decker Johnson. When he came home, it was the biggest news in Sumter County. It would be front page headlines of the county paper that Bishop Johnson was home for the weekend.
What were you taught about race in school?
When I got to be six years old, I went to a school in Plains with white classmates. This was in 1930 or so. It was accepted then that the races would be completely separate as far as social affairs were concerned. Blacks had their own schools and their own churches.
I didn’t realize then, but learned later when I was old enough, that African Americans were not permitted to vote, were not permitted to serve on juries and things of that kind. They were excluded. I didn’t see that because I was almost completely immersed in black culture on the farm. I didn’t have any white playmates. All my playmates were African American. My mother was a registered nurse. She was gone a lot, and my father was busy. So I was raised by African American women who took care of me.
When did it first occur to you that your views on race weren’t the norm?
I wrote a poem about this once. It’s called “A Pasture Gate.” I was coming out of a field with two of my African American playmates. We’d been working that day; we were coming up to the barn, and we came to a gate. I called it a pasture gate. They stopped to let me go first. I thought there was a trip wire there, something that would make me fall down—we were always playing jokes on each other.
But I realized later that their parents had probably told them that we had reached the age when white and black should not be considered equal. We had considered each other equal up until then. That was really the origin of my commitment to civil rights.
As you became more aware of racism, did you find that difficult to internalize and deal with personally?
I went into the Navy. We had the first African American midshipman who graduated when I was there. His name was Wesley Brown. I was on the same cross-country team with him. We got to be friends, and I protected him from those who wanted him to drop out of Annapolis.
Later I was on battleships and submarines with African Americans. I remember in 1948 when President Harry Truman ordered that all racial discrimination would be ended in the military services and in the civil service. This was a very unpopular thing, as you can imagine, back in those days. He was condemned by most members of Congress, by the news media, and by everybody else for taking the step.
But that was when I started experiencing the benefits, really, of living in an environment on the ships with equality among all members of the crew. But that was seven or eight years before Rosa Parks sat in the front seat of a bus, or before Martin Luther King Jr. became famous. So Harry Truman was really a pioneer in ending racial discrimination.
How did you react when other white people confronted you about these things, or when black people deferred in the way that they did at the pasture gate?
One Sunday when I was traveling, our deacons at our Plains Baptist Church (where I was a member and a deacon) voted not to admit any African American worshipers into the building. I came home for a church conference, and I made a speech about how we should let them come into God’s house. My family and one other, six people, voted to integrate the church and let black people come in and worship at least. All the rest of them voted against it. But almost 100 people didn’t vote.
That was the first time I saw we really had a breakthrough. The majority of the members who were in conference agreed with me, although they wouldn’t vote with me. When I became governor later on, I made a speech that got me on the front cover of Time magazine: “The time for racial discrimination is over.”
Some Christians are rallying around the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet among many evangelicals, it remains controversial. What’s your view on that?
I don’t have any quarrel with Black Lives Matter. Obviously I agree with some of the counterpoint that all lives matter. But we had a very good, kind of quiet celebration throughout America after the civil rights movement was successful and Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and other laws into being. America breathed a sigh of relief.
As time went on, we have built up another segregated inclination in our country, which has been pretty well dramatized in recent years by the highly publicized police killing of African Americans who were not criminals, and so forth. So I think there’s been an aroused public that has taken a new look at the subject.
So do you think race relations in America have gotten worse in the last few years?
Yes, it’s certainly worse than it was during the ’60s and ’70s, when everybody was reaching out to each other to take advantage of the new laws and the end of 100 years of official racial segregation. We now have an obvious lack of equality among African Americans compared to white people in education, job opportunities, incarceration, executions, and things like that.
Have you been discouraged by the evangelical response to this problem?
Well, I consider myself an evangelical as well. I would hope that all Christians, Baptists included, would look at what we should learn from our own religion and treat everybody the same. As Paul told the Galatians, there’s no difference between people who are slaves or free, or Jews or Gentiles, or male or female. They’re all equal in the eyes of God. That’s a basic story that we ought to pursue.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” In light of your statement that race relations are worse now than they have been, I’m curious if you agree with that idea.
I think so. I think eventually the world is going to accept the vision that was expressed by Jesus Christ—that everybody will come together and will be blessed with peace and understanding under God’s grace and following in Jesus’ footsteps.
That’s what we’re trying to do with the New Baptist Covenant: We need to let the black and white churches reach out to one another, at first in a tentative way—maybe exchange pastors or exchange choirs. In Plains we’ve initiated a Christmas pageant where all the choirs in the area come together, black and white churches.
So that’s a wonderful experience we’ve had now for a few years that came out of the context of the New Baptist Covenant. We want people to reach across the racial divide.
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