James Earl Carter was born on 1 October 1924 in the small town of Plains in a rural part of Georgia. Members of his family had been peanut farmers for generations, but Jimmy’s father had earned his money primarily by running a general store he had opened. Shortly after the birth of the first son, the family relocated several times and finally settled, now with four children, in a town called Archery, which had a population that primarily consisted of Black cotton farmhands and their families. Back in these days, races were mostly strictly segregated, especially so in the South. It is reported however, that Jimmy maintained friendships with Black kids as well. Later, as a teenager, he began a peanut farming business on lands owned by his father.
In economically dire times during the Depression, the family nevertheless could afford to send Jimmy to school for eleven years. Afterwards, he went to the naval academy at Annapolis, making a long-nursed dream come true. After graduating from there in 1946, Carter married his childhood sweetheart Rosalynn Smith, who would move from one naval base to the next with her husband for the following years, living in Hawaii and California and other places. In 1947, the couple’s first child, John William, was born, two more children followed soon thereafter. In 1952, Carter was promoted to submarine commander.
One year later, Jimmy Carter served a tour in New York at the time, his father died suddenly. As the first born child, Jimmy now had to make the decision whether he should continue to pursue the naval career he had sought for so long or if he should return home to the plantation business, which his wife did not like. Finally, he decided in favor of the family tradition, but soon had to realize that the change was everything but easy. In fact, the family had to live in public housing for a longer period, before the peanut plantation finally developed successfully. Like many others, Carter and his business came into the eye of the political storm in the 1950s. In those years, liberalization or abolition of segregation laws were widely discussed and Carter, who by virtue of his time spent in the North and his childhood years held a liberal stance in this issue, was criticized by many Whites for it. When the Supreme Court ended segregation in schools in 1954 and emotions in the public discussion in the South went hot, some organizations called for a boycot of Carter’s plantation, because he had voiced his support for the decision.
Maybe these head winds added to the fact that Carter subsequently intensified his commitment to the hometown community. However, he got into politics by chance, when in the course of a reform of the election system in 1962 a seat in the Georgia senate opened up. He announced his candidacy a mere two weeks before the elections and, after a number of complications, he actually got elected. In those years, politics revolved around the segregation question and Carter voiced his support, although cautiously, for the end of race segregation.
After running a campaign for the post of Georgia governor in 1966, already failing in the party primaries, Carter pursued the same plan four years later with more diligent preparations. Opinions on the evaluations of his campaign differ greatly. Jimmy Carter chose a significantly more conservative approach than he had applied and some campaign elements were at least bordering racism. Some say these reflected Carter’s true opinions, while others sse it as a strategic means which finally helped him win in staunchly conservative Georgia. It should be noted though that Carter’s gubernatorial politics from 1971 on differed greatly from the sharp actions of the campaign. In his inaugural address, he announced that the time of segregation in Georgia was over and that no Black citizen would have to suffer from discrimination in the future. This speech caused astonishment and disappointment among the conservatives who had supported his campaign. In other aspects, the new governor also quickly made it clear that he didn’t believe in in rope teams. He expanded the governor’s authorities and appointed many Blacks to influential positions in the state.
From early on, Carter attempted to make a name for himself beyond Georgia’s borders and in national politics - a very strenuous task in the beginning. Outside of his home state, almost nobody knew who he was. This was still the case when he announced his candidacy for the presidential elections and this was a fact that should prove to be one of his main assets. After the nation had witnessed the Watergate scandal, many people saw politicians and especially those in the Washington inner circles with distrust and were prepared to give their vote to an outsider; even more so, because he promised to clean up in Washington’s establishment. Additionally, Carter once again demonstrated his campaign skills: While he presented a mildly progressive image in the North, he acted much more conservatively when campaigning in the South. In the end, his Republican opponent Gerald Ford won the electoral votes of all states in the Western USA, while Carter won the entire South and most of the Northeast.
When Jimmy Carter’s career is analyzed today, it is often noted that the years of his Presidency from 1977 to 1981 were not the most remarkable chapter of his biography. In Presidential rankings, which are popular in America, Carter regularly scores in the last third. He had begun his Presidency with a general amnesty for everyone who had dodged the draft for the Vietnam War; a widely applauded move. Soon however, public opinion changed and especially the second half of his term brought a dramatic loss in the President’s approval rates. It must be said however that Carter was President in difficult times: He had to guide the country through the energy crisis and a deep recession, as well as the Iran hostage crisis, in which 52 American diplomats were held captive by supporters of the Iranian revolution for more than a year. Meanwhile, Carter tried to develop a profile in foreign politics. He initiated the return of the Panama Canal to Panama and arranged a meeting between Israel and Egypt at Camp David in 1978, where a first peace treaty in the Arab-Israeli cinflict was signed. On the other hand, the East-West conflict intensified in that time, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the USA, in reaction, boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games 1980. The successful negotiations with Breshnev to reach the SALT II agreement for the reduction of nuclear weapons have been interpreted as a weakness of Carter in this context. Altogether, public opinion of Carter had turned so significantly during his Presidency that he stood no chance against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections and only won the electoral votes of merely six states.
Returning to Georgia from the White House, Carter went back to his peanut farm business, but more importantly, he engaged in various projects. He traveled to the Near East repeatedly, had contacts with Syria’s Assad and leaders of Hamas. In North Korea, he held talks with Kim Il-Sung about a treaty for nuclear disarmament and in Cuba, he met with Fidel Castro. Carter more than once used these opportunities for criticism of the policies of the then-current American administrations, for example in terms of the relations to Cuba, the incidents at the Guantanamo detention camp or the war in Iraq.
Most widely known however is the former President’s work for the Carter Center, a non-profit organization founded in 1982. The Carter Center is committed to the ideas of human rights and democracy and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. The organization’s goal is to facilitate the access to knowledge and education for the world’s poorest people to enable them to self-help in difficult situations. Further, it maintains health programs in the poorest regions of the world. Carter is also working for Habitat for Humanity, an organization building affordable, stable homes for people who otherwise cannot afford to build a house.
Jimmy Carter’s reputation today has grown to decidedly higher rates mostly thanks to these initiatives after his Presidency. He is today a sought-after speaker, author and patron. In August 2015, Carter announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer. He has since begun radiation therapy.