President Carter had to go no farther than the East Room of the white House yesterday to stage one of the best events of his reelection campaign.
The occasion was a hastily arranged meeting with about 200 black ministers who transformed the staid setting of the East Room into something resembling a rollicking revival meeting as they shouted their agreement with the president's remarks. At the end of the session, Carter stood, surrounded by the ministers, and they all sang "Amazing Grace."
For a politician who desperately needs a large turnout of black voters to win reelection, the East Room revival was a moral boosting event for the president made to order for the television cameras that recorded it.
Earlier in the day, Carter met with and was endorsed by the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who said he feared that "the forces of insensitivity to human suffering, of racism, of militarism, of violence, of negativism are graviting in and toward the candidacy" of Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan.
Lowery pointedly refused to say whether he considered Reagan to be a "racist," saying his opinion on the subject was "irrelevant."
"The tone and character of the Reagan candidacy and the Reagan administration were clearly reflected in the selection of Philadelphia, Miss., where civil rights workers were buried in shallow graves, as the site to raise the ugly spectre of 'states rights,' " Lowery said in a prepared statement.
Early in the campaign, Reagan spoke of his support for "state rights" in an appearance in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights were murdered in the 1960s.
In recent weeks Reagan has sought, with some success, the endorsement of prominent black leaders. Last week, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Rev. Hosea Williams, longtime program director for SCLC, came out in support of Reagan. This week, Charles Evers, mayor of Fayette, Miss., endorsed Reagan.
It was clearly to offset these inroads by Reagan that the White House yesterday invited Lowery to meet with the president and arranged for the gathering of black ministers, many of whom said they received their invitations only the day before.
Carter's voice today was raspy from the strain of three days of campaigning, but he twice brought the ministers to their feet for ovations. One of these occurred when the president said he was "deeply disturbed" by the wave of killings of blacks by "depraved human beings" in Buffalo and Atlanta and pledged federal cooperation with local law enforcement officials to see that those responsible are "put in jail."
Carter's accent became a bit more southern as, warming to the subject and obviously at home with the audience, he did some preaching himself. "We're on the road to the Promised Land," he said.
"yes, sir," many of the preachers in the audience answered.
The president concluded his sermon by recalling the closeness of the 1960 and 1968 presidential elections to stress the importance of voter turnout on Nov. 4, and said of Democrat Hubert Humphrey's defeat by Richard Nixon in 1968:
"I thought a lot about who put Richard Nixon in the White House. It wasn't the Republicans. It was the Democrats who didn't vote. . . . The Republicans voted and perhaps one of the best presidents this country ever would have had didn't serve.
"I don't want to see the same thing happen in 1980."