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Former President Jimmy Carter created a political firestorm on Sept. 15 by charging that some of the opposition to President Barack Obama is due to continued racism in America.

Although some politicians and commentators have dismissed Carter’s charge, a prominent African-American Baptist leader has praised Carter and his remarks.

Carter acknowledged that there will be criticism of any president but believed the tone of some of the attacks went “beyond the bounds.”

“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American,” Carter stated.

“I live in the South, and I’ve seen the South come a long way, and I’ve seen the rest of the country that shares the South’s attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African-Americans,” he added. “And that racism inclination still exists. And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”

Michael Bell, president of African American Fellowship of Texas, praised Carter’s comments in an email to EthicsDaily.com. Bell was the first African-American president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

“I applaud Former President Jimmy Carter for his courage to speak to the present sociopolitical climate which I believe is becoming more and more troubling and divisive,” Bell wrote. “I have received a number of calls from pastors and laypersons expressing their concerns about the increasingly hostile responses, emanating from parts of white America, to Barack Obama’s presidency. Mr. Carter’s comments were truthful. The issues of race and racism in this country seem to always reside just beneath the surface.”

As examples of such racism, Carter pointed to some signs waved at political rallies and the outburst by South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson during Obama’s recent address to Congress.

“I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African-American,” Carter argued. “It’s a racist attitude, and my hope is and my expectation is that in the future both Democratic leaders and Republican leaders will take the initiative in condemning that kind of unprecedented attack on the president of the United States.”

Signs at the recent “Tea Party” rally held Sept. 12 in Washington, D.C., included several that critics charged contained racist messages. These included signs that had an image of Obama as a witch doctor, referred to Obama as a “Kenyan” and advocated sending him to Africa, and compared the White House to a zoo.

Wilson violated the House of Representatives’ rules of decorum by shouting “you lie” during Obama’s speech and was formally rebuked by a House resolution that passed on Sept. 15. His son quickly defended him against Carter’s charge of racism.

Wilson, who apologized to Obama, also apologized in 2003 for remarks he made about long-time South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond’s illegitimate daughter that Thurmond had with an African-American mistress.

Wilson initially challenged her claims and said she should not have made it public since Thurmond had already passed away. He called her claims, which proved to be true, “a smear on the image that [Thurmond] has as a person of high integrity who has been so loyal to the people of South Carolina.”

Bell noted that the attacks on Barack and Michelle Obama have not come as a surprise to him or other African-Americans.

“Mr. Carter and other prophetic voices are aware of the inherent danger white denial poses to future domestic tranquility and the corrosive role it continues to play in preventing an open and honest public dialogue about ‘the hidden wound’ of racism,” Bell explained. “Most African-Americans, however, aren’t surprised by Mr. Carter’s assessment. We saw this train approaching long before Jan. 20, 2009.”

Carter, the first president elected from the Deep South since Reconstruction, has been a long proponent of civil rights. During the 1976 presidential campaign, Carter credited the civil rights movement with changing the U.S. political scene so that he could make a competitive run for the White House. Martin Luther King Sr. spoke on Carter’s behalf at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. During his presidency, Carter appointed a record number of African-Americans and Hispanics to government positions.

Recently, Carter has been working to achieve racial reconciliation among Baptists. The New Baptist Covenant movement he started saw 15,000 Baptists of all races come from across the nation in 2008 for a joint time of worship, fellowship and planning for future cooperative efforts. Throughout 2009, regional meetings in Birmingham, Ala., Kansas City, Mo., Winston-Salem, N.C., and Norman, Okla., have continued this effort, with a strong focus on overcoming racial divisions among Baptists.

Carter, who spoke at all four regional meetings, urged Baptists to unite despite differences because “it was an abomination to divide Christians one from another.” He expresses his particular excitement that the gatherings brought together Baptists from various races, ethnicities and backgrounds.

During the Birmingham, Kansas City and Oklahoma gatherings, Baptists watched and discussed the EthicsDaily.com documentary on race titled “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism.” Panelists leading discussions at the regional meetings have included numerous white, African-American and Hispanic Baptists.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.

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