BY JAMES STOVALL
In 1975, I had recently graduated from high school. The country was still recovering from the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon. I had picked up a brochure from the Carter for President campaign.
I doubted that a former governor and peanut farmer from Georgia would have much of a chance of winning the White House. I was struck by the fact that his tone was distinctly different from most southern democratic governors of his time.
Specifically, he seemed to express a strong desire to leave behind the racist past and work together as one nation. I liked this and so I decided to keep my eye on Carter and his unlikely bid for the presidency. Having grown up in south Louisiana, I was keenly aware of the racist past that could not be ignored.
Later in his campaign, I had the opportunity to hear him speak in person. He wasn’t a great speaker but he was clearly intelligent and had a low-key kind of southern charm.
Having moved to Chicago to attend college, I had become more aware of my own southern heritage. After just a few months in Chicago, I had lost my own southern accent without much effort. When people said that they couldn’t tell that I was from the south from the way that I spoke, I took this as a complement.
I became aware that in the minds of many people, “Southern” was most often equated with racism and ignorance. I had noticed that in the popular culture and the media, if you wanted to portray someone in a negative light, you gave him a southern accent.
This was one of the challenges faced by candidate Carter. He wanted to present the South in a new light. I was grateful for this. He was a symbol of a new kind of political leader in the South that acknowledged our racist past and sought meaningful ways to make amends.
In 1976, when Carter won the election, I had been living and working as a volunteer in a small rural village in Egypt as part of an international development program. One of the issues that I was able to learn more about while in Egypt was the conflict with Israel. I was able to see first-hand the wounds that had been inflicted upon Egypt by the far superior Israeli Defense forces in their fairly recent six-day war in which Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula. I also came to know more about the plight of the Palestinian people in their struggle to gain freedom from the occupying forces of Israel.
It was especially gratifying to me when Carter was able to play a critical role in the Camp David Peace Accord.
The agreement still stands today as a model of how peace is possible even in the most difficult circumstances, in the most entrenched conflicts of our time. Ten years after Carter left the White House, I had the opportunity to hear him speak in person for a second time.
As a professional mediator, I was attending a conference of people involved in peacemaking and conflict resolution and the keynote speaker was the former president. He shared with us some of his experience that grew out of not only the Camp David accord but other successful peacemaking efforts in which he had played a part.
He spoke about the patience and persistence that was required of him. He spoke about how he dealt with repeated threats to leave the negotiating table. He spoke about his efforts to build a deeply personal connection with all of the players regardless of his own views of the positions they were taking. He spoke about maintaining a sense of hope and optimism in the face of deep skepticism and hopelessness.
The conference I was attending was in North Carolina. The former president had caught a plane in Atlanta in order to deliver his speech to the gathering over lunch. At the beginning of his talk he shared with us that before leaving his home that morning he had gotten up early and mowed the lawn at his church in Plains. As one who has never been very fond of mowing lawns, I was impressed that a man of such great accomplishments and intelligence would be bothered to mow the lawn at his church. Surely a former president could have gotten someone else to carry out such a menial task. This was Jimmy Carter.
This willingness to get his hands dirty was also very evident in his long-time commitment to building houses as part of Habitat for Humanity. This commitment took him to dozens of countries where he rolled up his sleeves and joined in the hard work of building a house for someone in need.
Carter has been one of the busiest former presidents that our country has ever had. Through his work at the Carter Center, he has continued his peacemaking efforts in dozens of conflict situations around the world, where even the U.S. State Department would not go.
Jimmy Carter made it OK for me to be southern. He also made it OK for me to be Christian. In the same way that he showed the world that being southern did not equate to being ignorant and racist, Jimmy Carter also showed that being Christian did not equate to being judgmental, self-righteous and hypocritical.
From the time he first introduced himself to the nation, he made it very clear that he was a deeply committed Christian. In his case, he made it clear that this was not simply a set of beliefs that he carried around in his head. It was a faith that he lived every day. It was a deep and sincere commitment to follow in the path of Jesus; the path of justice seeking for all. His faith led him to acts of service that ranged from making peace between nations to mowing the lawn at his church on a day when he had plenty of other commitments.
So when I recently saw him on TV speaking at a press conference about his cancer and the possibility of death, it was no surprise that he spoke with a kind of quiet confidence and serenity. He is so clearly a man at peace with himself. He spoke of his own gratitude for the wonderful life that he has lived and the many blessings he has received.
I was reminded of the blessing that he has been for me.
– James Stovall is director of the Mediation Institute in Oklahoma City and a frequent contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.