Rosalynn Carter, influential first lady, dies at 96

by MMC
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Rosalynn Carterformer first lady and wife of Jimmy Carteras well as a dedicated housing and mental health advocate, died Sunday, November 19, at her home in Plains, Georgia, while surrounded by her family, on The Carter Center announced. She was 96 years old.

“Rosalynn has been my equal partner in everything I have accomplished,” former President Carter said in a statement. “She gave me great advice and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in this world, I always knew someone loved and supported me.

“In addition to being a loving mother and extraordinary First Lady, my mother was a great humanitarian herself,” their son, Chip Carter, said in a statement. “His life of service and compassion was an example to all Americans. She will be greatly missed not only by our family, but also by the many people who benefit from better mental health care and access to caregiving resources today.

In May, it was announced that Rosalynn had been diagnosed with dementiaabout three months after Jimmy, then 98, decided to forgo “further medical intervention” and enter palliative care at the Carter home in Plains, Georgia.

At the time of her dementia diagnosis, the Carter Center released a statement alluding to Rosalynn’s extensive work as a mental health advocate: “We recognize, as she did more than half a year ago century, that stigma is often a barrier that prevents individuals and their families from seeking and obtaining the support they so desperately need. We hope that sharing our family’s news will increase important conversations at kitchen tables and in doctors’ offices across the country.

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born on August 18, 1927, in Plains, Georgia, a small town in the southwest of the state near the Alabama border. Rosalynn grew up poor and her father died of leukemia when she was 13. Rosalynn not only helped care for her younger siblings, but also contributed to the sewing her mother took up to support the family. On top of all this, she finished high school and enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College, where she graduated in 1946.

Rosalynn and Jimmy – who also grew up in Plains – began dating in 1945 and married the following year. After Jimmy’s graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and his subsequent enlistment, the couple moved around a lot, with stints in Virginia, Hawaii and Connecticut. They had three sons – Jack, James III and Donnel – each born in a different state; years later, in 1967, the Carters welcomed a daughter, Amy.

Jimmy left the Navy in 1953 and moved the family back to Plains after his father died. Together, he and Rosalynn took over and ran the family businesses, including a famous peanut farm. As Rosalynn recalled in her 1984 memoir, First Lady of the Plains, the couple gained prominence and notoriety in their small community by fighting for school desegregation. This fight in part propelled Jimmy into politics, and Rosalynn not only supported him but played a key role in his successful 1962 campaign for the Georgia State Senate.

Rosalynn remained just as involved when Jimmy launched his first run for governor, in 1966, and again when he won in 1970. During the election campaign, Rosalynn met many individuals and families struggling with mental health issues and learning disabilities; as first lady of Georgia, she made it her primary focus. Rosalynn admitted in her memoir that she “had a lot to learn” about the issue, but she committed herself wholeheartedly, attending every meeting of the special commission set up to improve services, volunteering one day a week in a regional hospital and visiting other establishments in the surrounding area. the state.

The commission contributed to a total overhaul of Georgia’s mental health system and, as Rosalynn wrote: “When people ask you, ‘What was the most rewarding thing you did as first lady of Georgia?’ I always answer: “My work with the mentally ill.”

In 1974, near the end of his first and only term as governor of Georgia, Jimmy announced that he would run for president. Rosalynn once again played a major role, campaigning in more than 40 states on her husband’s behalf as he successfully secured the Democratic nomination and then the presidency.

And once again, as first lady of the United States, she played an active role. She participated in cabinet meetings and briefings, and even served as a presidential envoy during official visits to Latin America and Southeast Asia. She attempted to lobby for the Equal Rights Amendment, which ultimately failed, and continued to work on mental health issues, serving as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

“I like to know what’s going on,” Rosalynn said People in a 1979 interview. “I have to meet people and hold press conferences. They ask me questions about what’s going on. It’s not just that I want to be informed, although that is the case. I’ve always worked with Jimmy that way, ever since he ran for governor in 1966. I needed to know where he stood on issues. We studied together, we wrote thematic documents together. Now that he’s president, am I supposed to not be interested?

After Jimmy lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, the Carters returned to Georgia and, in 1982, launched the Carter Center. The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization has anchored the couple’s extensive humanitarian and diplomatic efforts around the world, advocating for peace in conflict zones from the Korean Peninsula to the Middle East; observe elections in 39 countries; advance human rights and contribute to the establishment and strengthening of health care systems in Africa and Latin America; and work to eradicate Guinea worm disease. Rosalyn and Jimmy also became involved with Habitat for Humanity, with Rosalynn later serving on the organization’s advisory board.

Mental health advocacy has also remained an important part of Rosalynn’s work. She has written several books on the subject with co-author Susan K. Golant and, through the Carter Center, launched the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. In 2007, she successfully lobbied and testified before Congress for legislation to ensure that health insurance covers mental illness on par with other illnesses.


In many ways, Rosalynn reshaped the role of first lady, including being the first to establish an official office in the East Wing of the White House. But when asked about his legacy in an interview with C-SPAN, Rosalynn was quick to say she hopes it “continues to be more than just a first lady.” She then mentioned the work of the Carter Center, saying, “I hope I have contributed something to mental health issues and helped make the lives of people living with mental illness a little better.” »

From there, however, she talked about the small, but monumentally rewarding, moments of her humanitarian work, focusing on the Carters’ efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease. Recalling her visits to villages where the disease had finally been eradicated, Rosalyn suddenly became emotional as she said: “It’s so wonderful – just to see the hope on their faces. Something good is happening.

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