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Rosalynn Carter, the generous and principled Steel Magnolia committed to grassroots democracy

Rosalynn Carter, the generous and principled Steel Magnolia committed to grassroots democracy
Former first lady Rosalynn Carter. (Photo: Frederick M Brown / Getty Images)

Rosalynn Carter’s interest in Africa was palpable as she often came to the continent championing public health and observing and encouraging inclusive and credible democratic elections.

Former US first lady Rosalynn Carter was laid to rest on Wednesday, 29 November 2023 in her home village of Plains, Georgia. Although born and raised far away, many Africans were touched and inspired by her good works, during the Carter presidency and since then through the Carter Center’s work in Africa on the great neglected diseases, democracy, human rights and elections. Throughout her 77-year marriage to Jimmy, she was – in his words – a “full and equal partner”.

I knew her personally during my nine years as head of the Carter Center’s Peace Programs. Her interest in Africa was palpable as she often came to the continent championing public health and, in my area, observing and encouraging inclusive and credible democratic elections.

Her status ensured access to African leaders, but she always maintained that she learnt and enjoyed more during the bulk of her time spent in villages, among the poor. Her political savvy made her a skilled and influential advocate, whether in the White House or as a village elder in Plains, or as co-chairperson with Jimmy of the Carter Center.

Rosalynn Carter

Former president Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter applaud their grandson, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, as he makes a concession speech to a crowd of supporters gathered for an election party at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 November 2014. Carter was defeated by incumbent governor Nathan Deal. (Photo: Jessica McGowan / Getty Images)

She was born in 1927, just after women in America were granted the right to vote. And in Plains, extreme racial apartheid predominated, as it did throughout the southern states, with less-formal forms of discrimination still rampant there and throughout the US. Only in 2020 did Georgians send their first black senator to Washington.

Before, during and after the Carter presidency she worked tirelessly to educate Congress and the public on issues of mental health and to redress the stigma that prevented timely and adequate treatment. And Jimmy credits her with convincing him and the legislators to nominate and approve the appointment of unprecedented numbers of blacks and women when he was governor and later president. She continued these pursuits in subsequent decades at the Carter Center.  

The timing of the passing of this generous and caring woman should remind voters that the resurgence of Donald Trump excites fears and anger among his supporters that their prejudices may finally be denied.

She was known in Washington as the “Steel Magnolia”, a term she told me she relished. Yet for all her influence, first as a pathbreaking “co-president” and later as the co-chair of the Carter Center, she rarely if ever betrayed personal anger or, to my knowledge, demeaned anyone.

Carter biographer Jonathan Alter, who spent many hours interviewing her, said he almost never heard her complain, except when she had visited a re-segregated swimming pool in Georgia and snapped that Ronald Reagan “made people comfortable with their prejudices”. It was not, in my view, an inaccurate comment.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter wave to the crowd following his speech on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, on 24 July 2004. (Photo: Mike Mergen / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Rosalynn Carter

A law enforcement officer walks past an advertisement with the face of former first lady Rosalynn Carter on a window of an antique store in Plains, Georgia, on 29 November 2023. A private funeral service was held at the Maranatha Baptist Church for Carter and a private interment afterwards. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

And the timing of the passing of this generous and caring woman should remind voters that the resurgence of Donald Trump excites fears and anger among his supporters that their prejudices may finally be denied.

She remained ever conscious, as Jimmy did, of the dominant racist circumstances that prevailed in Plains and throughout their lives. They tried their best to rectify that from the top down when they had the power, and from the bottom up when they didn’t.

Grassroots democracy

By moving back to Plains after leaving the White House, and to the simple one-storey home she and Jimmy helped build in 1953, they demonstrated the real meaning of grassroots democracy, and the hard, endless efforts this entails. She endeared herself to her fellow citizens and encouraged their moral obligations to promote greater inclusion and equality for all.

The political realities that this kind, tolerant and principled woman struggled to navigate struck me one day when I was passing through the Center’s Peace Pavilion to my offices. The circumstance seemed incidental, but the images have stuck with me.

Inside, Rosalynn was merely engaged in a familiar late-afternoon session of her preferred exercise, the ancient Chinese posture and balance training of tai chi. The scene reminded me of how committed the Carters had been to mitigating and preventing conflict between China and the US. Most famously, during the Carter presidency, relations with the People’s Republic of China were finally normalised. More work needed to be done and the Center’s China programme had initiated a series of quiet consultations, first between senior Chinese and American former officials about possibilities for cooperating, directly or indirectly, for improving African development.

A woman watches as a funeral procession with friends and family members of former first lady Rosalynn Carter passes through Plains, Georgia, after a private funeral service at the Maranatha Baptist Church on 29 November 2023. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Jack Carter speaks during the funeral service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, on 29 November 2023. Rosalynn Carter, who died on 19 November at the age of 96, was married to former US president Jimmy Carter for 77 years. In her lifetime she was an activist and writer known to be an advocate for the elderly, affordable housing, mental health and the protection of monarch butterflies. (Photo: Alex Brandon / Pool / Getty Images)

We were at the time reaching out to Africans and getting positive feedback, providing African agency prevailed in setting goals and priorities, which we felt at the time China and America could accept. Today, such confidence-building measures are even more necessary.

But looking outside provoked thoughts of the domestic challenges that the Carters chose not to ignore. Barely a few metres away was the knoll of a hill that her husband told me was briefly the command post for the Union General William Sherman as he won the Battle of Atlanta just before embarking on his devastating march through Georgia that proved decisive in the 1864 re-election of Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery in the US. A reminder that wars are sometimes necessary when politics fail, and even decisive in the short run. Unless justice is inclusive and promotes equality, reactionary forces may regain political dominance. 

Throughout their long partnership, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter demonstrated that even under daunting political injustice, democracy demands patience, ingenuity and hard, sustained effort – but it can prevail and bring the satisfaction of lives well led. DM

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