Genesis of moral leadership

ATLANTA, Ga. — Candler School of Theology welcomed former U.S. President and Emory University Distinguished Professor Jimmy Carter to campus, where he spoke to an audience Feb. 12 of Candler students, faculty and staff as part of the James T. & Berta R. Laney Legacy in Moral Leadership. From the values he learned as a child in rural Georgia to the Carter Center’s ongoing work to end sexual slavery, Carter shared formative experiences and common threads from his leadership narrative.

President Carter at Candler

Former U.S. President and Emory University Distinguished Professor Jimmy Carter spoke to an audience Feb. 12 of Candler students, faculty and staff as part of the James T. & Berta R. Laney Legacy in Moral Leadership.

Carter opened by describing his early years in the 1920s and 1930s in the small community of Archery, outside Plains, where his white family was a minority in a majority African-American population.

No guidance from white preachers

“I grew up surrounded by my black neighbors in a segregated society,” Carter said. “My life was shaped by my neighbors.” Watching his mother, a registered nurse, serve both black and white residents introduced a young Carter to what he called “the millstone around the neck of my black neighbors.”

As Carter struggled to grasp the injustice of segregation, white ministers in Plains showed no sign that it was wrong. “The point I want to make to this group from Candler is this,” the former president said. “I did not get any guidance from white preachers, who were not particularly interested in changing their own privileged positions.”

I did not get any guidance from white preachers.

In fact, Carter said he counts five people as particularly influential in his life; three of those five were black. Their early influence on the development of what Carter calls “moral values” shaped his political career, as he focused his leadership on improving civil and human rights.

Worst human rights abuse

Carter’s legacy continues today through the Carter Center, an institution that partners with Emory University to promote human rights and to alleviate human suffering. He closed his talk with a segment on one of the Carter Center’s newest initiatives: advancing the human rights of women and girls.

Calling it “the worst human rights abuse on earth,” Carter decried the mistreatment and deprivation of women and girls around the world, noting that 160 million girls are “missing from the face of the earth” today, victims of gender-based infanticide.

“We have more slavery now than ever before,” Carter said, adding that 60,000 people in America live in sexual slavery, including between 200 and 300 sold into slavery each month in Atlanta alone.

Too often, Carter pointed out, women and girls are thought to be inferior due to misinterpretation of religious scriptures. And in American Christianity, violence is seen as the norm, he said.

Where is commitment to peace?

“Where is the commitment to peace?” Carter asked. “Ostensibly, it’s among Christians. But we don’t speak out.”

The former president reminded his audience that its members are on the forefront of creating change. “Ministers of the Gospel are part of the cadre to stop this,” he said.

“We have problems of great magnitude still existing in the world,” Carter emphasized. “Peace and justice, equity and human rights, the alleviation of suffering … Where should be the focal point for that constantly expansive and courageous statement? I say it would be among people just like you, who commit yourself to a life of religion.”

Editor's note: Named for former Candler dean, president of Emory University and U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea James Laney and his wife, Berta, the Laney Legacy in Moral Leadership at Candler School of Theology enables students to cultivate effective leadership skills within their communities, as well as an understanding of the cultural and religious differences that now span the world. The Rev. Dr. Robert Franklin Jr. serves as the inaugural Laney Professor in Moral Leadership.

Candler School of Theology, one of 13 seminaries of The United Methodist Church, is grounded in the Christian faith and shaped by the Wesleyan tradition of evangelical piety, ecumenical openness and social concern. Candler is part of Emory University, a premier research institution consistently ranked among the top 25 national universities by U.S. World & News Report. An intellectually vital, internationally distinguished, and intentionally diverse university-based school of theology, Candler remains at the heart of Emory’s commitments and campus.

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