Jimmy Carter attends ceremony for wife of 77 years as celebration of Rosalynn Carter continues

By: - November 29, 2023 4:00 am

A tribute to Rosalynn Carter. (Photo by Ross Williams / Georgia Recorder)

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s life of service and advocacy was celebrated Tuesday at a tribute ceremony in Atlanta attended by the current president and first lady and other dignitaries.

Carter, 96, died last Sunday at her home in Plains just a few days after her family announced she had entered hospice. She was diagnosed with dementia in May.

She will be buried at her home Wednesday after a private funeral service at Maranatha Baptist Church.

“This is a difficult day for my family, but we have been so enormously gratified by the love and support that we have felt from across the world,” said Jason Carter, who is a grandson and former state senator.

Tuesday’s invite-only ceremony held at Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University is part of a three-day send-off for Rosalynn Carter that began Monday with a public event at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Rosalynn Carter is being remembered as a first lady who broke the mold for the role. She served as her husband’s closest advisor, catching flak at the time for sitting in on cabinet meetings, and she carved out her own legacy as a champion for mental health, caregiving and women’s rights.

“Without Rosalynn Carter, I don’t believe there would have been a President Carter. She and the two of you set an example for all of us,” said journalist Judy Woodruff, who spoke at Tuesday’s service.

Former President Jimmy Carter attended Tuesday’s service in a wheelchair but did not speak. Carter, who is 99, has been in hospice care since last February and had not been seen in public since September when the couple made a surprise appearance at the Plains Peanut Festival. The two were married for 77 years.

Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter embraces his wife Rosalynn after receiving the final news of his victory in the national general election, November 2, 1976. (Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

“My mom spent most of her life in love with my dad. Their partnership and love story was a defining feature of her life,” said daughter Amy Carter. “Because he isn’t able to speak to you today, I’m going to share some of his words about loving and missing her.”

She read from a letter Jimmy Carter wrote to Rosalynn 75 years ago when he was serving in the Navy: “My darling, every time I have ever been away from you, I have been thrilled when I returned to discover just how wonderful you are. While I’m away I tried to convince myself that you really are not, could not be as sweet and beautiful as I remember. But when I see you, I fall in love with you all over again. Does that seem strange to you? It doesn’t to me. Goodbye, darling. Until tomorrow, Jimmy.”

In a statement after her death, Jimmy Carter called Rosalynn an “equal partner in everything I ever accomplished.”

The tribute service was attended by four living former first ladies – Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also served as Secretary of State – and sitting first lady Jill Biden. President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton were also there, leading Jason Carter to quip: “Secretary Clinton and Dr. Biden, we also welcome your lovely husbands.”

Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp, and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens were among the more prominent officials in attendance.

But none of these power brokers spoke. Rather, the service featured colleagues who became family friends and members of the Carter family, including children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who took turns sharing memories and reading scripture.

“Her tenure as first lady of the United States was just one chapter in a life that was really devoted to caring and doing good for others,” said Kathryn Cade, former White House Projects Director to Rosalynn Carter.

Shortly after Jimmy Carter was inaugurated in 1977, the President’s Commission on Mental Health was established with Rosalynn serving as honorary chairperson. The Mental Health Systems Act that called for more community centers and important changes in health insurance coverage passed in 1980 at her urging. And she continued to influence behavioral health policy in the decades that followed.

After a bruising defeat in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, the Carters returned to Georgia and founded the Carter Center in Atlanta with a mission to “wage peace, fight disease and build hope.” The former first lady also founded what is now the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers at Georgia Southwestern State University, her alma mater and one of the first stops on the multi-day motorcade route.

The two have also been major supporters of Habitat for Humanity for decades and have their own special annual project, with both regularly volunteering on work sites.

The appearance of Biden at the tribute ceremony did, however, draw a small group of demonstrators who gathered along the motorcade route in Atlanta with signs with slogans like “Free Palestine.” An organizer of the protest said the group is calling for a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Palestine and for the American government to stop sending to money to the Israeli government.

“We’re not here to disrupt Rosalynn Carter’s tribute,” said Satya Vati with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, which organized the protest. “We’re joining the millions of people across the country that are going wherever Biden is going and protesting him.”

But the people who were there Tuesday to pay their respects easily outnumbered the demonstrators.

Alicia Carew bundled up to wait along the route to catch a glimpse of the motorcade before heading back to her nearby condo to watch the livestream of the ceremony.

“It was a matter of respect. I admire her. I admire a life well lived. I think especially in this contentious time, so many people taking sides and the bitterness one to another, they always seem to embrace peace and love, and they are people of faith,” Carew said.

“They’ve stayed out of the political fray, as far as the bitter politics we have today, they’ve always taken the high road. I think it’s a great example.”

Back inside in the church, the focus was all on Rosalynn Carter.

Chip Carter credited his mother with helping him receive treatment for addiction, saying “she saved my life.”

And grandson Jason Carter provided some levity with stories about his grandmother’s love of adventure and the mountains she climbed, but also how “down to earth” she was. She once handed out pimento cheese sandwiches she made to strangers on a commercial flight during a family vacation. She also sent him a birthday card with a $20 bill in it even when he was well into his 40s.

“When she started in politics, she had never talked to a group of people bigger than her Sunday school class, and then she elected a governor and a president,” Jason Carter said. “She shaped our national policy. She faced down dictators herself on issues of human rights. She built the Carter Center from an idea into a powerhouse for human rights.”

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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