The impact of Gov. Jimmy Carter can still be seen in Georgia politics today

On Saturday, Jimmy Carter will begin his 99th journey around the sun. Much will be said about his days in the White House and his extraordinary post-presidency.

Far less attention will be given to Carter’s most important legacy in Georgia, which might be invisible to those who don’t watch political ads on TV, have a mailbox or vote. But it’s there to see for anyone with an interest in who might be our next governor or U.S. senator.

Five decades later, Carter is still largely responsible for the way Georgia politics looks today.

Certainly, other factors and figures have played their parts over the decades, but Carter was the original author of the statewide, biracial alliance of rural whites and urban Blacks that allowed Democrats to hang onto power in Georgia for decades after other Deep South states flipped Republican.

Yes, that coalition finally collapsed in 2002, in the aftermath of a fierce, racially polarized fight over a state flag dominated by the Confederate battle emblem, when Georgia finally shifted into GOP hands. Stacey Abrams, with more than a little help from Donald Trump, has done much to revive and refurbish Carter’s work — with results yet to be determined.

Regardless, the foundation can rightly be called his, and it began with a few sentences tucked within Carter’s inaugural speech as governor on Jan. 12, 1971: “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over. … No poor, rural, weak or Black person should ever have to bear the additional burden of being deprived of the opportunity of an education, a job or simple justice.”

As tame as those words sound now, they shocked many of those on the state Capitol stage with Carter, as well as many white voters throughout the state — who thought they had elected a governor who would follow in the footsteps of segregationist heroes such as George Wallace and Lester Maddox.

Carter had campaigned as one of them. And this is perhaps why we don’t talk about the future president’s words as much as we should.

The contradiction between the 1970 gubernatorial candidate and man sworn in as governor has followed Carter ever since — prompting defenses in several of the autobiographical books he would write after leaving the White House.

It is a complicated tale, befitting a complicated man living through complicated times.

Let us begin in 1966. A dozen years after leaving submarine duty in the U.S. Navy, the peanut farmer from tiny Plains was a state senator who sought to replace the exiting Gov. Carl Sanders. Like Sanders, Carter was classified as a racial moderate. In the mid-’60s, that meant someone who didn’t threaten war against federal courts pushing integration.

Carter came in third. Maddox would go on to win the nomination — and would be named governor by the state Legislature when neither he nor Republican Howard “Bo” Callaway received a majority of the vote in November.

In later years, Carter would say his family’s refusal to participate in the excesses of racial enmity was a well-established fact in Plains. And this is so. Months after his ‘66 defeat, his 68-year-old mother, Lillian, advertised the family position with news that she was headed to India for a two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Peace Corps. “Mrs. Carter … trained for the job in Chicago’s Negro slums,” a UPI report noted.

But Maddox’s gubernatorial victory in Georgia had amounted to a white racial backlash. Retrenchment continued in 1968, when Wallace, the former Alabama governor running under a third-party banner, won Georgia’s 12 Electoral College votes in the presidential contest — besting both Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

Carter decided to try again in 1970. But he found his 1966 lane already occupied.

Sanders, barred from a second consecutive term four years earlier, decided to try a comeback. He was backed by the business community, most of the state’s newspapers and a large bloc of the rapidly emerging Black vote. Sanders was no saint when it came to race relations — he urged defeat of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the former governor was a known quantity. He had the support of state Sen. Leroy Johnson of Atlanta, the first African American in that chamber since the turn of the century. More importantly, Sanders had the backing of Martin Luther “Daddy” King Sr., whose son had been murdered only two years earlier.

That meant Carter’s only path was a rightward one.

”I expect to have particularly strong support from the people who voted for George Wallace for president and the ones who voted for Lester Maddox,” Carter said that June, also claiming support “among the leadership of the NAACP and Negro churchmen across the state.”

In August, a reporter noted him walking the “tightrope between a moderate stance and marketable Georgia-style conservatism” in Gwinnett County. Carter advised his audience to quit blaming the courts and Washington for the state of education in Georgia. But he also criticized federal judges for their heavy reliance on busing to enforce school integration. “I don’t like to be pushed around,” he said.

More than occasionally, Carter would abandon his tightrope. He criticized Sanders for once blocking Wallace from addressing a joint session of the state Legislature. And then there was the flyer that showed Sanders, a part-owner of the Atlanta Hawks, being doused with champagne by players — Black players — after winning a conference title.

The flyer blanketed rural Georgia. “I didn’t do it, but he had other people go everywhere and stick ‘em in every white barbershop,” said George Hooks of Americus, who worked on the campaign as a teenager and would later occupy the same state Senate seat once held by Carter. “The picture spoke for itself. And it was everywhere.”

Carter was also endorsed by former Gov. Marvin Griffin, architect of Georgia’s “massive resistance” in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision mandating an end to school segregation. But Griffin had his doubts about the man. “I do not agree with all the political philosophy of the peanut farmer from Plains, but we have not tried him yet so I shall cast my vote for him,” Griffin said. “He is entitled to a chance to serve.”

Carter defeated Sanders in a Democratic primary runoff and eased past Republican Hal Suit, a former TV newscaster, in the November general election. Speculation over which Carter would occupy the governor’s office was immediate.

“There’s a good deal of evidence, indeed, to suggest that Carter may be the most liberal Georgia governor on racial matters ever elected,” wrote Hal Gulliver, an editorial page columnist for The Atlanta Constitution. “But he was not elected on that basis. He ran as a ‘conservative.’ In the South, this has meant segregationist.”

Carter’s inauguration speech that January removed all doubt. Former governors Maddox and Griffin left fuming. The handful of Black legislators in the Capitol were thrilled. “Fantastic!” said state Rep. Bobby Hill of Savannah. “But I wasn’t terribly surprised. I always thought he was a progressive man and had these notions, yet couldn’t say them and get elected.”

Change was already afoot in Georgia. Maynard Jackson would become the first Black mayor of Atlanta three years later. But Carter’s speech and subsequent moves as governor would be just as important. He brought black-white political discourse into the Capitol — and at a level never before seen in this state. “Massive resistance” was dead.

“Jimmy Carter recognized that African Americans were full members of the governing coalition — for the first time,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes, whose 2002 reelection defeat marked an end to that version of the Democratic biracial alliance.

“Carter made the transition. He said, ‘Not only are you not second-class members of this coalition, you’re an equal member,’ ” Barnes said.

All was not peaches and cream. The black-white alliance was often a fraught one, especially during post-census redistricting sessions, which every 10 years decided the racial balance within the state’s Legislature and its congressional delegation.

One person who did not hear Carter’s inaugural address in person that day was Sanders. His seat on the stage remained vacant.

In 2006, in a recorded interview at Young Harris College, a still-riled Sanders offered his own digested interpretation of Carter’s groundbreaking speech.

“If you’ve come to hear me talk about segregation, you’ve come to the wrong place,” Sanders said — as Carter. “Integration is here, segregation is over, Martin Luther King Jr. is the man that I most admire, and the things that I told you during the election, you forget about those and discard those. They were just campaign opportunities. I’m a completely different person.”

Then Sanders added, in his own voice: “And I think he is.”

Sanders died eight years later. Perhaps by way of apology, Carter issued a statement in which he called his former rival “an outstanding governor of Georgia, a champion of education and a courageous proponent of ending racial segregation in our state.”

Jim Galloway, a former political columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, retired in 2021.