Jimmy Carter photo

News Conference in Sacramento, California

November 01, 1976

Governor Carter. First of all, I'm sorry that the last press conference I have after 22 months is not concerned with the campaign directly but a problem in my own community, my own church. But I think in many ways this is indicative of what's going on around the country. There's a search for a way in people's hearts and minds to eliminate discrimination and hatred against anyone because of their status in life or their race or their background.

Ten years ago, during the civil rights demonstrations, my family and I in our own church worked and tried to seek openness so that our church would receive anyone as a worshipper and a member without regard to race.

In the interim period, our church has opened its doors to anyone who's come there to worship. Recently, I think because of my presence in the church, as a Democratic nominee of our party, there's been a deliberate effort made to force the issue by someone who doesn't live in the community; who's a Republican; who's not a Baptist. And this has caused, unfortunately, a very serious problem to arise.

The people in my home community, our pastor, our deacons, our church members, are trying to hold down the altercation so it wouldn't hurt my campaign—to be frank about it, and so it wouldn't divide our little church.

Some of you have been to Plains, and you know that it is a tiny church and it has tried to absorb the tremendous influx of tourists and newspaper, radio, television people, who've come in there. And they've accommodated this change as best they could. I feel very sad that this has happened. And I don't want to criticize anyone because of it. I first found out about it last Thursday morning. I called the pastor to talk to him, and he was not home. I talked to his wife. [She] informed me that the deacons had voted over his opposition not to have the church service yesterday in order to hold down any dissension or division or discord in the church. And because of events with which you are familiar, the church service was cancelled over the opposition of the pastor, and the problem has arisen, which I regret.

My position now, and then, as a member of the church, I intend to go home next Sunday and in subsequent worship services do what I can to ensure that there is not any discrimination in our church against anyone because they happen to be black or of any other race. I could not be there this week; perhaps if I had been there—I'm not a deacon anymore in our church—I could have had something to do with minimizing the problem. But this is something that I've had to face at a distance—none of my family are in Plains this week. As you know, we are campaigning all over the country. And I'm deeply concerned about this and its impact on our little church and on possibly the campaign. But more because it shows that still within our country there is a remnant, sometimes a large remnant, of discrimination.

I think it would be best for me to answer your questions on this subject first, and then if you have questions about any other subject I would be glad to answer them.

Q. [You] experienced being a white man in the South during the period of the civil rights movement. And there were a number of things that you wished that you had done that you did not do. Do you feel that you did enough this past week to avert what happened in Plains?

Governor Carter. Well, there may have been things that I could have done. I could have possibly left the campaign and gone home to my church. The only thing that I knew that was going to happen when I talked to the pastor's wife, was that the church service itself would be cancelled on Sunday. And the pastor who believes very strongly that the church ought to accept anyone who comes as a member, had asked the Republican, non-Baptist not to come in order to keep the church from being disturbed. I didn't know what was going to happen then. But I can't say that I did everything I could to hold down that incident. No. But it was a choice I had to make whether to continue my campaign or to go home and deal with the church service in Plains on Sunday.

Q. Governor, why don't you withdraw your own membership in that church, in opposition or as a protest to policies not acceptable to you?

Governor Carter. Well, the church, so far as I know, has never voted not to accept blacks into membership. In a Baptist Church, the ultimate authority, the only authority, is the church membership. About ten years ago, the church did vote, over my opposition and the opposition of my family, not to admit blacks and agitators. I think it was "colored" and agitators. Since then though, when I was Governor of Georgia and since I've been a candidate for President, I have quite often gone to the church with black people and they have been welcomed into the church, as you observed. I can't resign from the human race because there's discrimination; I can't resign as an American citizen because there's still discrimination. And I don't intend to resign from my own church because there's discrimination.

I think my best approach is to stay within the church and to try to change the attitudes which I abhor. Now if it was a country club, I would have quit. In fact, I have no membership in country clubs or any other private clubs that discriminate on account of race. But this is not my church, it's God's church. And I can't quit my lifetime worship habit and commitment because of a remnant of discrimination which has been alleviated a great deal in the last ten years. I hope it will be eliminated completely in the next few weeks. I can't speak for the church membership. But I'll do all I can within the church to eliminate that last vestige of racial discrimination.

Q. Governor, do you think, understanding your own attitude, this particular example being put forward at this time before the election, can hurt you very badly in some of the big cities of this country where you need the vote?

Governor Carter. I think it's a possibility. I think the motivation for the attempt was politically inspired. But I have talked to a number of the people around the country who represent minority groups as leaders, and the unanimous expression from them is of support to me. In 1976, it's not a matter of courage or danger or alienation to be for an end to discrimination. It wasn't quite that easy ten years ago. But I think that Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta King, and Andy Young and Jesse Jackson and others around the nation who know about my past background are now speaking up for me on the subject, and I think that in the long run it may not be very damaging politically. I can't say for sure. But I've expressed my position and I'll do all I can as a member of my church, as an American citizen, and as someone who's going to be the next President of this country to eliminate the last vestiges of racial discrimination in this country to the limit of my ability.

Q. Governor, do you know whether King was politically motivated or was there someone else who's inspiring him? What is the political motivation behind this?

Governor Carter. I don't have any way to know that, and I don't want to criticize the man. Mr. King is a pastor himself of a non-denominational church. He's not a Baptist; he's never come to worship with us when the doors were open to any worshipper. He doesn't live anywhere near our community. He works for a newspaper that has endorsed my opponent, that happens to be owned by a man who ran against me for governor in 1966. Those are just factors which may or may not have been a part of the motivations of Mr. Clement King. I don't really know how to answer that question. But the fact that it was the Sunday before the election and that there was a great deal of publicity deliberately aroused on the subject, I think is indicative that it was partially at least inspired by politics. I can't say that for sure.

Q. ...closing it's doors and canceling services? [First part inaudible.]

Governor Carter. No. No, I think that it would have been better for the church to keep its doors open. And I did disagree with the fact that the church doors were closed.

Q. Governor, you said that the church was God's church. You also said that it was an institution run by men. At the time that the Kennedy Administration came in, and the blacks were denied membership in the Metropolitan Club in Washington, it was a much different thing but people did resign. Why did you resist the idea of resigning when you called on President Ford to show leadership with General Brown?

Governor Carter. Well, there's a difference I think between resigning from a country club and resigning from the church of one's life. My allegiance is to God. It's an ability to worship, and I see a sharp distinction between resigning from a country club and resigning from one's church. And I think a resignation on my part and my family might very well perpetuate the very attitude within the church which is abhorrent to me. I think, to be frank about it, and not to be bragging on myself, the last number of years the church doors have been open to black worshippers, partially because of my presence. I can't say that for sure, but I hope that within the future my presence in the church would also help to continue to open the door and as I said many times, any sort of discrimination in a religious service, or in a country dub or in government affairs, private affairs against someone because of their race, is an abhorrent thing to me. And I'll do the best I can within the church of God to make sure that the discrimination is terminated.

Thank you very much.

Jimmy Carter, News Conference in Sacramento, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347594

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