Hudding Carter III, a journalist and crusader from Mississippi who advocated for civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s and as an official in the Carter administration who was the country’s primary source of information about the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980, died Thursday in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 88.
His daughter, Katherine Carter Sullivan, confirmed the death to the Associated Press and Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Miss. Mr. Carter attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill beginning in 2006.
In a career that coincided with the emergence of the New South as a region of rising racial tolerance and changing politics, Mr. Carter, a friendly-faced social aristocrat with magnolia charm, was a journalist, author, Democratic Party reformer, national television commentator, newspaper critic, and college lecturer.
The son of journalist Hudding Carter Jr., who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials advocating racial moderation in the segregated Old South, Hudding Carter III succeeded him as editor and publisher of the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times and as a voice of conscience. In a nation torn apart by violence and social change during the struggles of the civil rights era.
But after 5,000 editorials and years of newspaper trench warfare, Mr. Carter has taken his fight into politics.
“Those of us who stayed in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South always despised the short-term soldiers,” Carter told The New York Times in 1977, referring to the seasonal volunteers who joined the protests and registered voters. “The question now is less exciting for Southerners—what do you want to do in 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, Carter helped secure a narrow victory in Mississippi for Jimmy Carter, to whom he was not related, and was rewarded with an appointment as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. As the main spokesperson for the State Department, he delivered nuanced statements on foreign policy with candor and wit, and developed a good if sometimes acerbic relationship with diplomatic journalists.
He became the national face of the Carter administration during the Iranian hostage crisis, which erupted on November 4, 1979, when gunmen seized the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. Their captivity lasted 444 days – roughly the remainder of President Carter’s only term in office, ending the term of disappointed voters who chose Ronald Reagan for president in 1980.
For months as the crisis unfolded, Hudding Carter appeared regularly on the network’s evening news programs as President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance purposefully kept him in the background of a delicate standoff in which missteps by senior U.S. officials could jeopardize the hostages’ chances. Release them or even endanger their lives.
Colleagues in government and the media gave Mr. Carter high marks for prolonging difficult questions about what was known and unknown about the fate of Americans. Apart from one incident in which he threw a rubber chicken at the industrious questioner, he coolly conveyed at press briefings the sensitivity of diplomatic contrarians.
After the fatal failure of an attempt to rescue the hostages in a helicopter raid in April 1980, Mr. Vance resigned in protest, and Hudding Carter, a close associate, followed suit in early July. His family recently sold The Delta Democrat-Times, and he has not returned to Greenville.
Instead, in 1981, he became anchor and lead correspondent for “Inside Story,” a new PBS weekly public affairs program that examined journalism’s performance in society. It tackled an ambitious array of often complex stories, including coverage of El Salvador’s civil war, a series of murders in Atlanta, the left-wing 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 show thoughtful. Others called it a flawed guide to journalism that fell short of expectations. With sponsor support fading, Mr. Carter left after four years. Over the next decade, he wrote for newspapers and magazines and became a prominent television political commentator, reporter, analyst and presenter.
William Hudding Carter III, whose first name was not used, was born on April 7, 1935, in New Orleans, the eldest of three children of Hudding Jr. and Betty Werlene Carter. He and his brothers, Philip and Thomas, grew up in Greenville, a river town where their father founded The Delta Star and merged it with The Democrat-Times in the 1930s. She ran a weekly book page in the heart of William Faulkner, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote.
For decades, the Democratic Party, as it was known locally, championed racial moderation in the South—a steady, nonviolent advance toward justice, even though it viewed public school integration as unwise and federal anti-lynching laws as unnecessary. It condemned the Ku Klux Klan, and covered the racial abuse with an accuracy and impartiality that most southern newspapers lacked.
Hodding Carter Jr., the publisher, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for his editorials, was respected by many liberals and members of the journalistic fraternity, but widely regarded as the most hated man in Mississippi. There were calls for obscenities, death threats, effigies being hanged, crosses being burned, and a boycott of the newspaper. Sometimes, the brothers saw their father sitting on the porch with a gun at night, 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 from Princeton in 1957.
In 1957, he married Margaret Ainsworth, better known as Peggy. The couple had a son, Hudding Carter IV, and three daughters, Catherine, Margaret, and Finn, before the marriage ended in divorce in 1978. That year, he married Patricia Derian, 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, a retired author and reporter who worked for the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder and for the Chicago Sun-Times.
No information was immediately available about the survivors.
In 1959, after two years in the Marine Corps, Carter abandoned plans to go into the diplomatic service and returned to Greenville. “We felt we owed it to my father and the paper to go back out there and give it one year,” he recalled in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1977.
She turned 17 years old. He started out as a reporter but soon wrote editorials. He eventually became an editor and publisher, succeeding his father, who had lost his sight, as a result of a detached retina and an old military injury that left him blind in one eye.
The son’s early editorials were expressions of moderation similar to those of his father. But as the civil rights struggle spread across the South in the 1960s, they became more strident, condemning police brutality that attacked nonviolent protesters and politicians who supported white supremacy.
These were his words, but they were his father’s legacy.
“He had a reputation for bravery that 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’d done. He was writing and doing. I learned from my father what courage really is—it was fear, but doing what you had to do.”
Mr. Carter became increasingly active in Mississippi politics, participant and historian of the struggle for the full participation of blacks. In 1964, he worked on Lyndon Johnson’s successful presidential campaign. He later co-founded the Loyalist Mississippi Democrats, an amalgam of civil rights advocates who bested members of the state’s white party at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
After his work in the Carter Administration and as an “Inside Story” anchor, Mr. Carter wrote columns and articles for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other publications. He has also held positions at ABC, NBC, PBS, and other networks. He won another Emmy Award and an Edward R. Murrow for his documentaries.
In 1994, he became a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, and from 1998 to 2005 he was chair of the Knight Foundation, a nonprofit 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 has been living.
He was the author of Southern Strikes Back (1959), about white citizens’ councils formed to resist racial integration, and The Reagan Years (1988).
Shivani Gonzalez contributed to this report.