Hodding Carter III, Crusading Editor and Jimmy Carter Aide, dies at age 88

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Hodding Carter III, a crusading Mississippi journalist who championed civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s and served as the nation’s primary source of information on the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980 as a Carter administration official, died Thursday in Chapel Hill, NC. turned 88.

His daughter Catherine Carter Sullivan said his death, at a retirement home, was caused by complications from a series of strokes. Mr. Carter had taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2006.

In a career that paralleled the emergence of the New South as a region of increasing racial tolerance and shifting politics, Mr. Carter, a gregarious, blushing patrician with a magnolia accent, was a journalist, author, reformer of the Democratic Party , national television commentator, press critic and university lecturer.

The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hodding Carter Jr. 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 conscientiousness in a state torn apart 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 plunged into politics.

“Those of us who stayed in Mississippi and other places in the South always had contempt for short-term soldiers,” 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: what do you want to do in the coming years? We – the South – are on the plateau where the rest of the nation wanted us to be.”

In the 1976 presidential campaign, Mr. Carter helped win a narrow Mississippi victory for unrelated Jimmy Carter and was rewarded with an appointment as assistant secretary of state for public affairs. As chief spokesman for the State Department, he made nuanced foreign policy statements with candor and humor, and developed a good, if sometimes acrimonious rapport with the diplomatic press.

And he became the national face of the Carter administration during the Iranian hostage crisis, which erupted on November 4, 1979, when militants took over the US embassy in Tehran and seized 52 Americans. Their imprisonment lasted 444 days—virtually the remainder of President Carter’s only term, a term ended by a frustrated electorate that elected Ronald Reagan president in 1980.

For months as the crisis unfolded, Hodding Carter appeared regularly on network evening news programs, while President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance deliberately remained in the background of a delicate standoff in which abuses by senior U.S. officials threatened the hostages’ chances. could have endangered. liberate or even endanger their lives.

Colleagues in government and the news media gave Mr. Carter high marks for answering tough questions about what was and wasn’t known about the fate of Americans. Apart from one episode where he threw a rubber chicken at a persistent questioner, he coolly conveyed the sensitivity of the diplomatic setbacks during press conferences.

After the fatal failure of an attempt to rescue the hostages during a helicopter attack in April 1980, Mr. Vance resigned in protest, and Hodding Carter, a close associate, followed 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 covered an ambitious series of often complicated stories, including coverage of a civil war in El Salvador, a series of assassinations in Atlanta, the leftist Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and the US invasion of Grenada.

Mr. Carter won several Emmy Awards and was praised by most critics, who called the program thoughtful. Others called it a flawed press guide that fell short of expectations. As sponsor support waned, Mr. Carter left after four years. Over the next decade, he wrote for newspapers and magazines and became a leading political commentator, correspondent, analyst, and television host.

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 Werlin 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 had a weekly book page at the heart 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, non-violent progress toward justice, though it considered public school integration ill-advised and federal anti-lynching laws unnecessary. It denounced the Ku Klux Klan and covered the news of racial misdeeds with an accuracy and impartiality lacking in most Southern newspapers.

Hodding Carter Jr., the publisher, who won a Pulitzer for his editorials in 1946, was revered by many liberals and members of the journalism fraternity, but widely regarded as the most hated man in Mississippi. There were obscene telephone calls and death threats, hangings of effigy, burning crosses and boycotts against the newspaper. The brothers would sometimes see their father sitting on the porch at night with a shotgun, waiting for an attack that never came.

Hodding III attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, but graduated from Greenville High School in 1953 and Princeton in 1957.

In 1957 he married Margaret Ainsworth, better 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 passed away in 2016 at the age of 86.

In 2019, he married Patricia Ann O’Brien, an author and retired reporter who worked at 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 enter the Foreign Service and returned to Greenville. “We felt we owed it to Dad and the newspaper to go back there and give it a year,” he recalled in a 1977 interview with The New York Times Magazine.

It turned 17 years old. He started out as a reporter, but soon wrote editorials. He eventually became an editor and publisher, taking over from his father, who was losing his sight due to 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 civil rights struggles spread across the South in the 1960s, they grew fiercer, condemning the brutality of police who attacked nonviolent protesters and politicians who upheld white supremacy.

They were his words, but his father’s legacy.

“He had a great reputation for bravery, 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 is really about: being afraid, but doing what you have to do.”

Mr. Carter became increasingly active in Mississippi politics, both a participant and 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 defeated the state’s white party regulars at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Following his work in the Carter administration and as an 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 at 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 served as president of the Knight Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports excellence in journalism. In recent years, he has taught leadership and public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he attended.

He was the author of “The South Strikes Back” (1959), about White Citizens’ Councils formed to oppose racial integration, and “The Reagan Years” (1988).

Shivani Gonzalez contributed reporting.

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