Rosalynn Carter: Honoring a Legacy

On November 28, the family of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter held a beautiful memorial service for her at the Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University. Guests included President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, former President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton, former First Ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, and Laura Bush, and Mrs. Carter’s devoted husband and partner of 77 years, former President Jimmy Carter. Several speakers paid tribute to the Carters’ long love story, including their daughter Amy, who read a letter President Carter had written to Mrs. Carter 75 years ago while he was in the Navy. Mrs. Carter’s friends, family, and pastor also all emphasized her lifetime of service to others, including her longtime leadership as a mental health advocate.

Mrs. Carter often spoke about one encounter that helped spark that service. During her husband’s first gubernatorial campaign in Georgia, she visited a cotton mill at 4:30 a.m. to meet with workers just finishing their overnight shifts and seek their support. When Mrs. Carter told one woman who looked especially tired that she hoped she was about to go home and get some rest, the exhausted woman explained that she and her husband had a child with mental health care needs and took turns with their shifts so while one was at work the other cared for her. Mrs. Carter later wrote that the image of that mother haunted her all day. That evening she surprised her husband by joining other voters in a receiving line at a campaign event, and when Mrs. Carter got to the front of the line to shake his hand, she asked how he planned to serve families with mental health care needs. He answered that they were going to have the best program in the country, and she was going to be put in charge of it. Rosalynn Carter followed up with decades of research, advocacy, and leadership.

In 2008, I was honored to serve as a keynote speaker for the 24th annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy at the Carter Center in Atlanta: “Unclaimed Children Revisited: Fostering a Climate to Improve Children’s Mental Health.” That symposium presented new research from Dr. Jane Knitzer and her colleagues at the National Center for Children in Poverty on the status of children and youths’ mental health care policy in the United States, and it built on a framework Dr. Knitzer had developed more than 25 years earlier in the Children’s Defense Fund report “Unclaimed Children: The Failure of Public Responsibility to Children and Adolescents in Need of Mental Health Services.” Dr. Knitzer had been outraged by CDF lawsuits on behalf of children and teenagers who had been sent far from home for residential treatment, and the report covered the deep need for accessible, age-appropriate mental health care and support. At the Carter Center symposium, Dr. Knitzer remembered that when the original report was published, she had said to me and our colleague MaryLee Allen that there were probably about five people in the country who would read it. In fact, “Unclaimed Children” brought focused attention to public policy needs surrounding children’s mental health care, and its impact was amplified again years later by one very influential person: Mrs. Carter and her dedicated, long-haul advocacy.

In the keynote at that Rosalynn Carter Symposium, I said something Mrs. Carter also believed: if we can change things for children, we will end up changing things for everybody. Rosalynn Carter was a change agent for countless people throughout her long life of service. She shared a very simple philosophy: “I believe that one of the most important things to learn in life is that you can make a difference in your community no matter who you are or where you live.” This lesson is a fitting legacy.