MACON, GA. — Jimmy Carter flashed his trademark smile and laughed when a well-meaning Mercer University student approached a microphone and said that “generations” in his family had greatly admired the former president.
“Generations?” responded the 84-year-old Carter, joking that he hoped the praise didn’t go back to the student’s great-grandfather.
President Carter spoke on “Our Endangered Values” (the title of his 2005 best-selling book) yesterday (Oct. 23) in Macon, Ga., for the Mercer University President’s Lecture Series begun last year by Bill Underwood, the university president. Carter and Underwood, two Baptist laymen, dreamed and planned the diverse and well-attended Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant held in Atlanta earlier this year.
Carter called for renewed commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly nearly 60 years ago on Dec. 10, 1948, in response to the atrocities of Nazi forces. The declaration affirmed the value and equality of every person and called for specific commitments such as: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The lecture focused heavily on racial and gender equality which the former president has addressed in other settings. But his exchanges with students seemed to create a more personal connection across the “generations.”
In 1920, the 19th Amendment to U.S. Constitution was passed, Carter noted. He asked if anyone knew what that amendment provided.
A bright student on the front row replied: “It gave women the right to vote.”
“That’s not the right answer,” said Carter, causing bewilderment on the student’s face and all other hands to go down.
“It gave white women the right to vote,” the former president said.
Then Carter told of growing up in the largely African-American community of Archery, outside of Plains, Ga., where his black playmates were not given the same opportunities as whites. He told of riding in different parts of the train into Americus, Ga., with his close black friend and sitting in different parts of the movie theater before heading back home sometimes hand-in-hand.
Social customs forbid blacks to enter a white family’s home from the front door or attend white churches or eat in the same restaurants.
“That’s the America in which I grew up,” said Carter of those customs. “I complied…, but I saw my mother ignore them.”
Carter said his “life was transformed” in July 1948 when President Truman called for the elimination of racial discrimination in the military. Carter was a Navy submarine officer at that time.
Returning to Southwest Georgia after his military career, Carter said he “found the racial situation unchanged” from earlier discrimination. His efforts to bridge the gap between races led to boycotts of his farming operations.
Interracial participation in school sports — after public school integration — “changed most Southern attitudes,” said Carter.
Yet, following his first inaugural address as Georgia’s governor in 1971, in which he stated that “the time for racial discrimination is over,” Time magazine considered the statement worthy of prominent coverage and the Ku Klux Klan showed up at the governor’s mansion.
Human rights have long been Carter’s focus — before, during and after serving as U.S. president. “America did not invent human rights;” he quoted from one of his presidential addresses, “Human rights invented America.”
Through the Carter Center, the former president has continued to advance human rights causes as well as counter the impact of poverty. The rights to assemble, worship, vote, etc. “fade away,” he noted, if you don’t have food, shelter, health and peace.
Though in the homestretch of a contentious presidential race, Carter bit his political tongue and did not address the candidates directly. He did, however, say that “America has abandoned its role as a champion of human rights.”
When asked by a student what an incoming president could do in the first 100 days to re-establish America’s standing in the world, Carter said such could be accomplished in 10 minutes.
In the opening of the inaugural address, Carter urged the new president to make strong human rights commitments including to torture no person and to abandoned the practice of preemptive war which has “been our policy since George Washington – until six years ago.”
Concerning gender equality, Carter said “twisted scriptures” by Catholics, Orthodox and Southern Baptist Christians — among others — have created the “foundation” for inequality. He told a concerned female student to come see him in Plains if she finds the workforce unwilling to pay her the same salary for the same work as a man.
“I’ll go to Washington and talk to the president about it,” Carter promised.
When asked about his motivation to run for president after serving as a governor, Carter said the opportunity to get involved in foreign affairs attracted him.
“Except for Dwight Eisenhower, I served in the military longer than any other president since the Civil War,” he said.
One student, who said she was not religious, asked Carter how she could bridge the gap of trust and understanding between her Middle Eastern friends and relatives in the military. He detailed some of the difficult negotiations between the leaders of Egypt and Israel that led to the Camp David Accords in 1978, a treaty that has held to the present day.
Always the Baptist, Carter added that he would like to talk with the student about her faith and that the Declaration of Human Rights is not a replacement for the New Testament.
Carter said that while his lecture had a “somber” tone and included “some extremely critical remarks,” he sees a promising future.
“I’m the ex-president of a remarkable democracy,” said the 39th president. “We need to set an unblemished example for the rest of the world to follow.”
Carter said being an ex-president is a “very wonderful thing” and that he now writes books for living. His 24th book was sent to the publisher just prior to coming to Mercer.