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January 01, 2003

Human Rights Heroes: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter

by The Editors

It's a fairly safe bet that few Americans had ever heard of Jimmy Carter before he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in May 1971. The issue focused on “the new South” and contrasted the politics of Georgia’s new Governor Carter—then halfway through his first year in office—with those of old-school conservatives and segregationists like George Wallace. Two years later, Carter still had not gained much national recognition: when he appeared on the television show What’s My Line? in 1974, no one was able to guess what he did for a living.

This was hardly the case in 1976, when Jimmy Carter won a close election to become the thirty-ninth president of the United States. Notice that this presidency would be nontraditional was served early on—directly after the Inauguration Day speeches, in fact, when the Carters dismissed their limousine and instead walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, hand in hand, to the White House. This unexpected move gave the country a glimpse of the active partnership the two would bring to the office.

Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley wrote that “no first lady, up until then in American history, had as important a role as Rosalynn Carter. In the sense of her husband’s decision making . . . she was probably his number one advisor in the White House.” Within the first month of office, she announced formation of a new President’s Commission on Mental Health—an issue she had championed since the 1960s. She regularly attended Cabinet meetings, vocally supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and was named Volunteer of the Decade by the National Mental Health Association.

The tone set by these inaugural moves continued throughout Carter’s presidency, which accomplished significant foreign policy and human rights gains: the Panama Canal treaties, the International Covenant on Human Rights, the Camp David Accords (which many consider a landmark diplomatic achievement), the treaty of peace between Egypt and Israel, the Salt II treaty with the Soviet Union, and the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. Domestically, the Carter administration created new Departments of Energy and Education; implemented deregulation in energy, transportation, communications, and finance; and established environmental protection as a legislative priority.

A bit more than twenty years later, the Carters’ goals remain firmly fixed in peace and protection for all peoples. The PBS show American Experience claimed that Jimmy Carter has “redefined the role of ex-president, using his status to help broker peace and fight disease worldwide.” Two years after leaving office, the Carters—believing they needed an active legacy in addition to a presidential library—established the Carter Center, dedicated to resolving political conflict, furthering human rights, and combating disease worldwide. A full partner with the president in all the Center’s projects, Rosalynn Carter is co-chair of the Center’s Board of Trustees. From the start, the couple prioritized two international goals: access to democratic voting rights for all people, and eradication of Guinea Worm Disease, which causes blindness and at the time ran rampant throughout the rivers of Africa.

Between February 1990 and the present, the Carters monitored elections in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Zambia, Guyana, Ghana, Paraguay, Jerusalem, Jamaica, China, Venezuela, Nigeria, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, Indonesia, Mozambique, Peru, and Mexico. During the same period, they planned worm-eradication programs during visits to Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Togo. In addition, the Carters’ skills in mediating political conflict led to meetings with Yasser Arafat in Paris; with North and South Korean leaders to discuss nuclear disarmament; with outgoing Haitian leaders, averting a U.S. invasion; with warring Bosnian Muslims and Serbs to broker a four-month cease fire and the resumption of peace talks; and with Cuban officials, calling on the United States to stop the decades-old embargo and challenging Fidel Castro to introduce democratic reforms. In their spare time, the Carters have taught at the university level; written, separately and together, a total of twenty books; and continued their active participation each year in building projects for Habitat for Humanity, which they began supporting in the early 1980s.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that the Carters would fail to be recognized by a TV quiz-show panel today—the real challenge would be assigning them to only one job description. Among their many public awards and honors are the first United Nations Human Rights Prize—awarded on the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and most recently, Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize. Accepting the award not as a leader but “as citizen of a troubled world,” he reiterated the philosophy of action that he and Rosalynn Carter have embodied:

War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children. . . . God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes—and we must.

The Editors
Human Rights