In 2020, every pundit has made clear that one key to victory for Joe Biden will be an increase in Black turnout from 2016. Voting data from 2016 showed that Hillary Clinton lost partially because of a decline in Black voter turnout in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania. This isn't surprising. Since the New Deal era, when Democrats have won the presidency, they have done so partially due to strong Black support in national elections. That probably will be the case if they win this year.
The Black vote has played a key role in shaping electoral outcomes in the United States for decades. The 1976 campaign was a critical example, coming as it did in the aftermath of Richard Nixon's resignation due to Watergate. The country had been torn apart in preceding years by the Vietnam War, White backlash to civil rights and the federal government's crackdown on the Black Power Movement. Second-wave feminism had made serious gains but was threatened by the rise of an anti-feminist movement led by Phyllis Schlafly.
In the words of a New York Times editorial from Nov. 30, 1975, the upcoming election was "likely to mark a decisive turning point." Black American voters would have a critical chance to decide which party would benefit from that turning point. They ended up being critical to Jimmy Carter narrowly triumphing over Gerald Ford.
What makes the 1976 election so intriguing in historical context is the uncertainty of the national situation in the aftermath of Watergate. After Ford's 1974 pardon of Nixon, it appeared that almost any Democrat could defeat Ford and win back the White House. However, the fall 1976 campaign tightened far more than anyone expected, due to gaffes by the Carter team and Ford's aggressive campaigning. Carter's campaign knew that their best path to victory was to play up his strong civil rights record — one that was surprising to most outside the South, given that Carter was a Deep South Democrat in the 1970s.
Carter himself long commented on his broad support from Black Americans. Running for Georgia governor in 1970, he embraced the still-strong segregationist wing of the state Democratic Party to survive a tough primary against former governor Carl Sanders, who ran as a moderate on issues of race in comparison to Carter's more conservative stance. However, after winning the fall campaign for governor, Carter promised a new era in Georgia politics. In the process, he helped usher in the age of the New South Democrat.
"I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial segregation is over," Carter proclaimed in his historic inaugural address in January 1971. The speech immediately grabbed national attention. Carter would cultivate Black support across Georgia, hosting a 1974 ceremony for the unveiling of the portraits of the first three Black Americans to be honored in that manner at the Georgia Capitol — Martin Luther King Jr., 19th-century preacher and activist Henry McNeal Turner and Lucy Craft Laney, an advocate of education for Black Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Running for president in 1976, Carter continued to emphasize his close relationship to Black Americans, pointing to his spirituality and Southern identity in making common cause with millions of Black voters. Campaigning across the nation with Martin Luther King Sr., King's father and activist/preacher who was still pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and civil rights activist turned Rep. Andrew Young, Carter endorsed the idea of the civil rights movement "redeeming" the soul of the American South. Despite gaffes on the campaign trail, most notably discussing the need to maintain the "ethnic purity" of neighborhoods before apologizing for the mistake, Carter consistently maintained powerful support among Black Americans throughout the 1976 campaign.
He did this while also carefully cultivating white Southern working-class support via formerly segregationist Democrats such as George Wallace, D-Ala., and James Eastland, D-Miss. It was a political strategy that only Carter could have employed.
Young proved to be especially important to Carter's message to Black Americans — and, indeed, all Americans — when it came to the subject of race. At the Democratic National Convention in New York City, Young proclaimed, "I'm ready to lay down the burden of race, and Jimmy Carter comes from a part of the country which, whether you know it or not, has done just that." Young's stamp of approval symbolized not just Black American support for Carter more broadly, but the growing power of Black Democrats in Congress, of whom Young was just one prominent example.
Another was Rep. Barbara Jordan, who gave the 1976 Democratic Convention keynote address. Jordan had made a national name for herself during the Watergate hearings, and her keynote electrified the nation. She posed a powerful question to the audience: "Are we to be one people bound together by a common spirit, sharing in common endeavor; or will we become a divided nation?" Jordan, and the Democrats more broadly in 1976, attempted to appeal to the ideal of "a common endeavor" during a polarized time for national politics. This idea promised healing after over a decade of rioting, protesting and deep distrust from most Americans of their government.
Carter captured this spirit when he promised on the campaign trail that he would "never tell a lie." A simple promise — yet one that many American voters yearned to hear in 1976.
But victory would not have been possible without Black American voters, especially in the Deep South. Unlike both before and after, during the 1970s, the South was hotly contested politically — more so than at any other time in American history except for the 1860s. Black voters played a key role in both eras.
The election was only 11 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but the number of Black voters across the South had climbed in dramatic — and decisive — fashion. The Voter Education Project, led by future Rep. John Lewis, added in Lewis's estimation, almost two million Black voters throughout the South. On Election Day, these new Black voters proved to be crucial to Carter's exceedingly narrow victory. Carter swept almost the entire South, losing only Virginia.
Carter's Southern background — not to mention his evangelical Christian beliefs — contributed to keeping much of the South Democratic in 1976, temporarily slowing the region's move toward the Republican Party. But over 95% of Black Americans cast their vote for Carter, providing the margin of victory in Southern states such as South Carolina and Mississippi — states that Democrats have not won in a presidential election since (and states that Carter would lose by an very narrow margin in 1980). For native Black Southerners, it was a momentous occasion. "The South is a different South — it's now part of the nation," Lewis noted.
Today, as in the past, the South is up for grabs in a presidential election — to a far greater extent than it has been in years. North Carolina, Georgia (which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1992), Florida, Texas (which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1976) and even South Carolina all appear to be battleground states for President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. Biden spent Tuesday in Georgia, and his running mate, Kamala D. Harris, will be in Texas on Friday.
Prominent Southern Black Democrats such as 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and South Carolina senate candidate Jamie Harrison have built campaigns centered around huge Black turnout. Black voter participation — and the battle to safeguard Black voters' right to vote — will continue to prove important in determining whether the newfound competitiveness in the region is the beginning of a trend, or merely another historical blip in an era of one party Southern electoral politics.
Greene is assistant professor of history at Claflin University, and the book reviews editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians. This piece was written for The Washington Post.