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Former President Jimmy Carter Concerned About Race in American Politics

In the 1976 U.S. Presidential election, African-American voters played a key role in electing former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. He was raised in that southern state in a predominately African-American community. Today, while involved in a wide array of humanitarian and political activities, Mr. Carter still maintains deep personal and political ties to that community. And so as this new election season heats up - now with an African-American seeking the Democratic Party nomination - VOA's Kane Farabaugh discussed the issue of race and politics during a recent interview with the former President and Nobel Laureate.

Decades ago, when Jimmy Carter was a young boy growing up in the small southern town of Plains, Georgia, his progressive mother and father encouraged interaction with all of his neighbors, not just the white ones.

, "I was immersed, from tiny childhood, in a black community," Carter explained.

Writing about those years in his book An Hour Before Daylight, President Carter discussed his relationship with five of the most influential people in his life.

"Of those five, only two of them are white. The other three were black people who literally shaped who I am, and the way that I think, and the way that I deal with moral values and the way that I deal with religious issues. I'm a product of the finest aspects of African American culture, and I'm proud of it," he said.

But the racial openness of Jimmy Carter's youth did not characterize the political reality of the time. Race was sometimes used by politicians as a divisive issue. In 1976, 12 years after the U.S. Congress adopted landmark civil rights legislation, then-Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter faced Alabama Governor George Wallace. The southern segregationist, with a history of appealing to racial hostilities, beat Mr. Carter in several primaries, although the Georgian eventually won the nomination and the Presidency.

Reporter: "Does it trouble you then to watch the current campaign and see how race is creeping into this contest?"

Carter: "It does. And I think that there is a lot of racism still in the political arena of America. And I am troubled by it."

In this year's primary election season, for example, there are reports U.S. Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign has been the target of isolated racist incidents.

President Carter says he hopes these are the exception and not the rule.

"I hope that this year will bring an end to it, or a substantial end," he said. "My mother would be delighted to see a black man and a woman with the potential of becoming president. That would be a breakthrough for her and she would like it."

If he wins the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, and defeats presumptive Republican Party nominee John McCain, Barack Obama would make history as the first African-American to be elected president.

While President Carter has yet to endorse any presidential candidate, he has playfully pointed out that members of his own family are supporting Obama for the party's nomination, over opponent Senator Hillary Clinton.

When he does publicly announce his preference, one influential factor for Jimmy Carter will certainly be how the candidates view racial issues. It is something that framed his youth back in the small town of Plains, and later in life, in the much larger town of Washington.