Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Life Before the Presidency

James Earl Carter's ancestors had lived in America since the 1630s. They were residents of Georgia since just after the Revolution. "Jimmy" Carter's parents, Earl and Lillian Carter, owned a peanut farm and warehouse and a store outside the small town of Plains, Georgia. Earl was bright, hardworking, and a very good businessman. "Miz" Lillian had been trained as a nurse, but abandoned her career when she became pregnant soon after marriage. She named the first of her four children James Earl, for his father. Jimmy's mother, well read and curious about the world around her, crossed the then-strict lines of segregation in 1920s Georgia by counseling poor African American women on matters of health care.

The family became moderately prosperous, but when Jimmy was born in 1924, the first American president to be born in a hospital, he was taken back to a house that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. By the time he was ten, the boy stacked produce from the family farm onto a wagon, hauled it into town, and sold it. He saved his money, and by the age of thirteen, he bought five houses around Plains that the Great Depression had put on the market at rock-bottom prices. These homes were rented to families in the area. His father was stern but proud of Jimmy. His mother, Lillian, while also demanding, nurtured and encouraged his reading.

Entertainment was hard to come by in the rural Georgia of the 1930s, and for Jimmy his mother's brother offered a glimpse of the outside world. Uncle Tom Gordy had joined the United States Navy, and sent postcards to the Carters from around the globe. His nephew was fascinated with all the exotic places depicted in the cards and began to tell his parents that someday he'd be in the Navy, too. Before he even entered high school he had written the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to ask for a catalogue. In 1941, he graduated as class valedictorian of his tiny high school.

Navy Career and Marriage

The events of World War II (1939-45) motivated many American patriots like Jimmy to enter the military service. There was stiff competition for admission into Annapolis and thus, Carter flung himself into his coursework, studying for a year at Georgia Institute of Technology in 1942. Carter was admitted to Annapolis in 1943 and graduated in the top ten percent of his class in August 1946, just after the end of the war.

Prior to his last year at Annapolis, while on leave, Midshipman Carter met Rosalynn Smith, a friend of his sister's. She was only seventeen-years-old, three years Jimmy's junior. When Carter first proposed marriage, she refused him. Early the following year, however, she visited him at Annapolis, and when he proposed a second time she accepted. The two were married in July of 1946.

For Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, the next eight years were typical of a young postwar, American couple. Their first son was born within a year of their marriage, and there would eventually be two more sons and a daughter. Carter worked long hours while his wife worked at home raising the children. Lieutenant Carter selected the submarine service, the Navy's most hazardous duty. One incident during this time clearly illustrated Carter's values and beliefs. While his submarine was moored in Bermuda, British officials there extended a party invitation to white crewmembers only. Partly at Carter's urgings, everyone on the submarine refused to attend.

About this time, the Navy was attempting to construct its first nuclear-powered submarines. The program was headed by the brilliant, tough Captain Hyman Rickover. Today regarded as "the father of the nuclear Navy," Rickover was slight, intense and a demanding taskmaster. Carter was assigned to Rickover's research team, and the young lieutenant was pushed mercilessly by the uncompromising captain. "I think, second to my own father, Rickover had more effect on my life than any other man," Carter would later say. One of the two new submarines being built was the Seawolf, and Carter taught nuclear engineering to its handpicked crew.

Then came bad news from Plains. Carter's father Earl had cancer, and in July 1953, he died. The farm had declined in his last years, and there was real danger that it would now be lost, a crushing prospect to Lillian Carter. After some hard thought, Carter decided to resign from the Navy, return to Plains, and help his family.

Southern Winds of Change

Carter threw himself into farming the way he had his naval duties. But the return to Plains became the greatest crisis of the Carter marriage. Rosalynn, deeply opposed to giving up the travel and financial security of military life, found it a difficult adjustment. The year 1954, saw a terrible drought in Georgia, and net profits from the farm totaled just $187.

The South was changing. The Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), had declared school segregation unconstitutional. Later in neighboring Alabama, an African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white person, and she was jailed for it. Black citizens boycotted the bus system and challenged the segregation in court. They were taking a stand against centuries of oppression, and the attitudes of many whites hardened. An organization called the White Citizens Council was formed to maintain the segregated status quo in the South, and its membership blossomed across the region-including Plains, Georgia. Carter was heavily pressured to join the organization in 1958, and was the only white male in Plains to refuse. The council's members boycotted Carter's business, but he stubbornly held out and over time, the boycott fizzled out.

Community Involvement and Political Aspirations

Hard work and effective management made the Carter farm prosperous by 1959. Jimmy Carter's involvement in his local community increased as he began to serve on local boards for civic entities like hospitals and libraries. He also became a church deacon and Sunday school teacher at the Plains Baptist Church. In 1955 he successfully ran for office for the first time-a seat on Sumter County Board of Education, eventually becoming its chairman. When a new seat in the Georgia State Senate opened up because of federally ordered reapportionment in 1962, Carter entered that race. Initially defeated in the Democratic primary, he was able to prove that his opponent's victory was based on widespread vote fraud. He appealed the result and a judge threw out the fraudulent votes, and Carter was handed the election.

During his two terms in the state senate, Carter earned a reputation as a tough, independent operator. He attacked wasteful government practices and helped repeal laws designed to discourage African Americans from voting. Consistent with his past practice and his deeply held principles, when a vote was held in his church to decide on whether to admit blacks to worship there, the vote was nearly unanimous against integration. Of the three dissenting votes, two were cast by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.

In 1966, Carter planned to run for United States Congress. However, a Republican rival announced his candidacy for governor of Georgia, and Carter decided to challenge him. This attempt was a mistake. The civil rights movement had created a conservative backlash in the South ending the solidly Democratic stranglehold on the South. Liberal Democrats like Carter were especially vulnerable. Although he campaigned hard, he finished a poor third in the 1966 Democratic primary. The eventual winner was Lester Maddox, an ultraconservative who proudly refused to allow blacks to enter a restaurant he owned, and who distributed ax handles to white patrons as a symbol of resistance to desegregation required under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Carter was bitterly disappointed by the defeat and was saddled with a substantial debt from it. He began to position himself for the 1970 gubernatorial election almost immediately. In the late 1960s Carter campaigned tirelessly up and down the state.

He campaigned on a platform calling for an end to busing as a means to overcome segregation in public schools. Carter thought that in order to win he would have to capture white voters who were uneasy about integration. Consequently, he minimized appearances before African American groups, and sought the endorsement of several avowed segregationists, including Lester Maddox. The leading newspaper in the state, the Atlanta Constitution, refused to endorse him, and described him as an "ignorant, racist, backward, ultra-conservative, red-necked South Georgia peanut farmer." The strategy worked, however, and with the support of rural farmers, born-again Christians, and segregationist voters, Carter forced a runoff election and won with 49 percent of the vote.

Delivering Change to Georgia

The new governor's inaugural address surprised many Georgians by calling for an end to segregation, and received national attention for it. By and large, Carter governed as a progressive and reformer. During Carter's term as governor of Georgia, he increased the number of African American staff members in Georgia's government by 25 percent. But his primary concern was the state's outdated, wasteful government bureaucracy. Three hundred state agencies were channeled into two dozen "superagencies." He promoted environmental protection and greater funding for the schools. However, he worked poorly with traditional Democratic politicians in the state legislature, and gained a deserved reputation as an arrogant governor, with a "holier than thou" attitude that isolated him from politicians who might otherwise have become his political allies.

While Carter was serving as governor, he was taking careful measure of the national political landscape. The Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 was George McGovern, a liberal who steadfastly opposed the war in Vietnam. Carter watched McGovern run an impracticable campaign, in which he was portrayed by his opponents as a radical extremist, and that ended with an overwhelming defeat at the hands of Republican incumbent, Richard Nixon. Governor Carter reasoned that the next election would require a different type of Democrat, and he quietly began laying the groundwork for a run for the White House in 1976.