Jimmy Carter's Human Rights Legacy: A Lifetime in the Making

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At the end of the Carter-Mondale administration in 1981, Vice President Walter Mondale summarized the previous four years: “We told the truth, we obeyed the law, we kept the peace.” Carter liked the words so much that he had them emblazoned on the wall of the Carter Center in Atlanta.  A few years later he would cite the words again in the preface to his new book A Full Life where he wrote, “I would add, ‘we championed human rights’.”

And indeed, he did; President Carter probably championed human rights more forcefully and consistently than any president in U.S history, and he started doing it right out of the gate. In his 1977 Inaugural Address he signaled his absolute commitment to human rights: “Because we are free,” he said, “we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom. . .” The very next day he received a letter from Andrei Sakharov, the widely admired Russian physicist who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights activism, asking Carter to join the struggle for the cause in the Soviet Union.  The president responded immediately and affirmatively, in a way that encouraged the dissidents to continue their efforts and that helped cement human rights onto the agenda of international diplomacy. He spoke frequently and passionately about the subject, telling a United Nations audience that, though the United States hadn’t always lived up to its ideals, it nonetheless had “a historical birthright to be associated with human rights.”

President Carter frequently employed two values when facing major decisions: first, he was strongly inclined to take the long view of an issue rather than seeking a quick fix or to avoid making a call altogether. Second, if there was a moral dimension to an issue - and there often was- he would reach into the moral core that enabled him to become a president strongly committed to human rights. When I asked him in a 2015 interview where that commitment came from, he said it was the result of growing up in the only white family in a small south Georgia town where he interacted closely with African American children and learned only later that his friends wouldn’t be able to attend the same school or to vote.  It sprang from what he saw as the “explicit idea” underlying the nation’s founding, a deeply rooted Christian faith and the experience of living where most of his neighbors were Black.

He sometimes told the poignant story of when he and his African American friends, all about fourteen years old, were working in a field, and as they approached what they called the pasture gate, “they stepped back to let me go through the opening ahead of them. . .” He was surprised and puzzled for a long time until he reflected years later that “I surmised that this was the first indication of the unearned deference of my black playmates toward me was the result of a cautionary word from their parents that the time had come to conform to the racial distinctions that were strictly observed among adults.” The incident clearly stayed with him; years later he wrote a poem about it, the last lines of which read: “I reckon they had to obey/their parents prompting. Or command. / We only saw it vaguely then, / but we were transformed at that place. / A silent line was drawn between/friend and friend, race and race.”

With the example of his family and especially that of his mother, Jimmy Carter determined to erase that “silent line” and replace it with a life-long commitment to human rights which culminated in his making it the centerpiece of his foreign policy when he became president.  He became the first president to visit sub-Saharan Africa. He eliminated or cut back assistance to brutal dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and elsewhere.  Most notably, his moral sensibility prompted him to seek peace in the Holy Land by persuading Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to come to Camp David for thirteen days to hammer out a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt which, following four previous wars, has lasted more than forty years.

He took on the equally ambitious and contentious task of returning ownership of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians because of the injustices visited on them when the U.S. had maneuvered to take over the Canal Zone for its own purposes. President Carter saw it as

an ongoing blemish on America’s record which impeded its ability to engage Latin Americans in serious discussions on human rights.  Not only have the Panamanians done a superb job of administering, and even expanding the canal, but in the decade following the transfer, Latin American counties demonstrated a greater willingness to consider and adopt democratic principles.

Besieged through most of his presidency by dire news on the energy and economic fronts, he early on compared the energy crisis to “the moral equivalent of war,” and encouraged people to save energy any way they could. He was sometimes mocked for doing so while wearing a sweater before a warm fire; if the imagery was not always effective, his policies usually were. His consistent emphasis on energy conservation, alternative sources of energy -- he had solar panels installed on the White House roof - and the deregulation of natural gas put the country over the energy hump and on a clear path to energy independence and a significantly reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

He courageously nominated Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve, knowing that Volcker’s harsh measures would harm and possibly doom his chances for reelection. The steps Volcker took at the Fed were as politically damaging as Carter had feared, but they had the effect of wringing inflation out of the economy – where it remained for four decades.

The Carter legacy is clearly manifold, but at its heart it lies human rights. In his farewell address, he talked about the quality that made the United States special: “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it was the other way around. Ours was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded on such an idea. It is both our history and our destiny.”

Jimmy Carter was neither a saint nor a candidate for Mount Rushmore, but he was an extraordinary man and a far-reaching president during a challenging time, serving with courage, integrity, and resolve. He was the longest living president in American history and with his wife Rosalynn used the Carter Center and his 40-plus years of retirement to promote democracy in emerging nations, resolve international disputes peacefully, and eradicate deadly diseases such as guinea work and river blindness in Africa.

In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt defined the presidency as “preeminently a place of moral leadership,” a definition that Jimmy Carter fully embraced when he reached the White House several decades later. We should remember him as arguably the most consequential one-term president in American history - and one who took the long view through a moral lens.