Hodding Carter III, Crusading Editor and Jimmy Carter Aide, Dies at 88
Hodding Carter III, a crusading Mississippi newspaperman who championed civil rights for Black Americans in the 1960s, and as a Carter administration official was the nation’s prime source of information on the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980, died on Thursday in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 88.
His daughter Catherine Carter Sullivan said his death, at a retirement community, was caused by complications of a series of strokes. Mr. Carter had taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill beginning in 2006.
In a career that paralleled the emergence of the New South as a region of rising racial tolerance and changing politics, Mr. Carter, a gregarious, ruddy-faced patrician with a magnolia drawl, was a journalist, author, Democratic Party reformer, national television commentator, press critic and university lecturer.
The son of the journalist Hodding Carter Jr., who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials calling for racial moderation in the old segregated South, Hodding Carter III succeeded his father as editor and publisher of The Greenville Delta Democrat-Times and as a voice of conscience in a state torn by violence and social change during the struggles of the civil rights era.
But after 5,000 editorials and years of journalistic trench warfare, Mr. Carter took his fight into politics.
“Those of us who stayed on in Mississippi and in other places in the South were always contemptuous of short-term soldiers,” Mr. Carter told The New York Times in 1977, referring to seasonal volunteers who joined protests and registered voters. “Now the question is less dramatic for a Southerner — it’s what do you want to do for the next few years? We — the South — are on the plateau the rest of the nation wanted us to get to.”
In the 1976 presidential campaign, Mr. Carter helped engineer a narrow victory in Mississippi for Jimmy Carter, who was no relation, and was rewarded with an appointment as assistant secretary of state for public affairs. As chief spokesman for the State Department, he delivered nuanced statements on foreign policy with candor and wit, and developed a good if sometimes acerbic rapport with the diplomatic press corps.
And he became the national face of the Carter administration during the Iranian hostage crisis, which broke on Nov. 4, 1979, when militants took over the United States Embassy in Tehran and seized 52 Americans. Their captivity lasted 444 days — virtually the remainder of President Carter’s single term in office, a tenure ended by a frustrated electorate that chose Ronald Reagan for president in 1980.
For months as the crisis unfolded, Hodding Carter appeared regularly on network evening news programs as President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance purposely remained in the background of a delicate standoff in which miscues by senior American officials might have jeopardized chances for the hostages’ release or even endangered their lives.
Colleagues in government and the news media gave Mr. Carter high marks for fielding tough questions on what was known, and not known, of the fate of the Americans. Aside from one episode in which he threw a rubber chicken at a persistent questioner, he coolly conveyed at press briefings the sensitivity of the diplomatic contretemps.
After the deadly failure of an attempt to rescue the hostages in a helicopter raid in April 1980, Mr. Vance resigned in protest, and Hodding Carter, a close associate, followed suit in early July. His family had recently sold The Delta Democrat-Times, and he did not return to Greenville.
Instead, in 1981, he became the anchor and chief correspondent of “Inside Story,” a new weekly PBS public affairs program that examined the performance of the press in society. It dealt with an ambitious range of often complicated stories, including coverage of a civil war in El Salvador, a series of murders in Atlanta, the leftist Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the American invasion of Grenada.
Mr. Carter won several Emmy Awards and praise from most critics, who called the program thoughtful. Others called it a flawed guide to the press that did not live up to expectations. As sponsor support faded, Mr. Carter left after four years. Over the next decade he wrote for newspapers and magazines and became a prominent television political commentator, correspondent, analyst and anchor.
William Hodding Carter III, who did not use his first name, was born on April 7, 1935, in New Orleans, the eldest of three sons of Hodding Jr. and Betty Werlein Carter. He and his brothers, Philip and Thomas, grew up in Greenville, a river town where their father had founded The Delta Star and merged it with The Democrat-Times in the 1930s. It ran a weekly book page in the heartland of William Faulkner, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote.
For decades, The Democrat, as it was known locally, stood for racial moderation in the South — steady, nonviolent progress toward justice, although it considered public school integration unwise and federal anti-lynching laws unnecessary. It condemned the Ku Klux Klan, and it covered the news of racial outrages with an accuracy and impartiality that was lacking in most Southern newspapers.
Hodding Carter Jr., the publisher, who won a Pulitzer in 1946 for his editorials, was revered by many liberals and members of the journalistic fraternity but widely regarded as the most hated man in Mississippi. There were obscene calls and death threats, effigy hangings, burning crosses and boycotts against the newspaper. The brothers sometimes saw their father sitting out on the porch with a shotgun at night, awaiting an attack that never came.
Hodding III attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire but graduated from Greenville High School in 1953 and from Princeton in 1957.
In 1957, he married Margaret Ainsworth, known as Peggy. The couple had a son, Hodding Carter IV, and three daughters, Catherine, Margaret and Finn, before the marriage ended in divorce in 1978. That year, he married Patricia Derian, an assistant secretary of state for human rights. She died in 2016 at 86.
In 2019, he married Patricia Ann O’Brien, an author and retired reporter who worked in the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau and at The Chicago Sun-Times.
In addition to his daughter Catherine, he is survived by his wife; his children Hodding IV, Finn Carter and Margaret Carter Joseph; his stepchildren Mike, Craig and Brooke Derian; a brother, Philip; and 12 grandchildren.
In 1959, after two years in the Marine Corps, Mr. Carter gave up plans to go into the Foreign Service and returned to Greenville. “We felt that we owed it to Dad and the paper to go back there and give it one year,” he recalled in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1977.
It turned into 17 years. He began as a reporter but was soon writing editorials. He eventually became editor and publisher, taking over from his father, who was losing his eyesight, resulting from a detached retina and an old Army injury that had left him blind in one eye.
The son’s early editorials were expressions of moderation similar to his father’s. But as the civil rights struggle spread across the South in the 1960s, they became more strident, condemning the brutality of the police who attacked nonviolent demonstrators and politicians who upheld white supremacy.
They were his words, but his father’s legacy.
“He had a great reputation for courage, which he deserved,” Mr. Carter said of his father in an interview with People magazine in 1981. “And yet I never knew a time when he wasn’t afraid of the consequences of what he was writing and doing. I learned from my father what courage was really about — it was being afraid, but doing what you had to do.”
Mr. Carter became increasingly active in Mississippi politics, a participant as well as a chronicler of the struggle for full Black participation. In 1964, he worked for Lyndon B. Johnson’s successful presidential campaign. He later co-founded the Mississippi Loyalist Democrats, an amalgam of civil rights advocates that edged out the state’s white party regulars at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
After his work in the Carter administration and as the anchor of “Inside Story,” Mr. Carter wrote columns and articles for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other publications. He also held positions with ABC, NBC, PBS and other networks. He won another Emmy and the Edward R. Murrow Award for his documentaries.
In 1994, he became a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, and from 1998 to 2005 was president of the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports excellence in journalism. In recent years, he taught leadership and public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he lived.
He was the author of “The South Strikes Back” (1959), about White Citizens’ Councils formed to resist racial integration, and “The Reagan Years” (1988).
Shivani Gonzalez contributed reporting.
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