The former president shared a close friendship with Yazoo City’s own, the late Owen Cooper, who received two major appointments during the Carter Administration.
Like most of the rest of the country, I was saddened to learn over the weekend that former President Jimmy Carter had decided after a prolonged battle with cancer and advancing age to end the fight on his terms and enter hospice care. May God grant him peace and comfort.
Notably, Carter was in 1976 the last Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority in Mississippi and one of only two Democratic presidential nominees to carry the state since Adlai Stevenson II of Illinois carried the state in 1952 and 1956 against Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Carter’s 1976 win was a narrow one, taking only 49.56 percent of the vote but winning all seven pledged Mississippi electors in the Electoral College.
The former president was also a close friend and confidante of the late Owen Cooper of Yazoo City, the driving force behind what would become Mississippi Chemical Company, a farmer-owned nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing company. Cooper was also a pillar of the Southern Baptist Convention (serving as president in 1972) and that group’s domestic outreach arm, the Home Mission Board.
Cooper’s outspoken moderate stance on race went against the white political majority and saw him lead ventures to address domestic U.S. poverty and healthcare disparities along with global hunger challenges in India. In the early 1960s, Cooper was the most influential white member of Mississippi Action for Progress, the entity created to administer the federal Head Start program in the state.
It was Cooper’s national notoriety in agricultural interests and moderate Southern racial initiatives that brought highly successful Georgia peanut farmer and Georgia Baptist Convention leader Jimmy Carter into Cooper’s orbit. Cooper’s backing was a key reason that Carter carried Mississippi’s 1976 presidential election vote.
Carter’s respect for Cooper’s abilities were borne out by two key Carter Administration presidential appointments – first to the powerful President’s Personnel Advisory Committee, which advised Carter on government appointees and then to the Federal Farm Credit Board. One of the highlights of Carter’s genuine friendship with Cooper was the July 1977 visit by the President to Cooper’s Yazoo City home and a nationally televised town hall meeting in the Yazoo City High School gymnasium.
Yet in Yazoo County in 1976, President Gerald Ford took 50.23 percent of the vote to Carter’s 47.85 percent with the remaining two percent and change going to minor party candidates in the race.
The Carter presidency is best known for the accomplishments of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel that Carter brokered between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin that brought progress on the path to peace in the Middle East. The work would eventually earn the 39th President the Nobel Peace Prize.
But the Carter Administration also struggled mightily with the Iranian Hostage Crisis, scandals involving his Office of Management and Budget director Bert Lance and his late brother, Billy Carter, and a national economy that draws comparison to issues confounding the nation today – high inflation, rising interest rates, and the added malady of high unemployment.
Carter’s re-election bid was a political disaster as Republican Ronald Reagan won the 1980 race in a national electoral landslide, including a win in Mississippi by 1.33 percent of the popular vote. But the 1980 race established the GOP dominance of presidential politics in the state that continues today.
One of the best and most meticulously-researched books on Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, is a two-volume biography written by Mississippi State University History professor emeritus E. Stanly Godbold Jr. entitled “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: The Georgia Years, 1924 – 1974” and “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: Power and Human Rights 1976 – 2020” (Oxford University Press).
Godbold’s work reflects the highly productive and influential life that the Carters have led since leaving the White House some 42 years ago. Both his presidential and post-presidential service is worthy of the nation’s respect.
There is a spot on the grounds of MSU’s Colvard Student Union on the Starkville campus where I vividly recall in 1976 Carter posing prior to an appearance on campus in a maroon felt cowboy hat with “MSU” on the front of the hat’s crown – a bemused but patient “let’s get this over with” grin on his face.