The latest book from Jimmy Carter, the 39th president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is about big issues — women, religion, violence and power. But it’s most effective when it tells individual stories.
When he moved into the Georgia governor’s mansion, Carter relates, all of the servants there were black; they were inmates from the women’s prison who were trusted enough to work for him.
One cook, he writes, asked to borrow $250. She showed the governor a letter that said she could be released if she paid that amount to the local court. Her husband had been an abusive drunkard who beat her and took almost all the money she earned as a practical nurse. One day, she fought back and killed him with a butcher knife.
She was sentenced to prison until she paid a $750 fine, but she had been able to raise only $500 in four years. “I had the state attorney general intercede,” Carter writes, “and the woman was set free within a few days.”
During his four years as president, Carter was often thought to be — and sometimes derided as — the nation’s conscience, reminding Americans that they too often fall short of the best that they could be. But though he could come across as preachy — he has taught Bible classes for more than 70 years — he was not simply a common scold.
As related in “A Call to Action,” Carter practices what he preaches. He is active in groups that try to use their influence to eradicate disease, raise people’s standard of living and empower those whose lives too often seem like a hopeless battle against entrenched interests.
With his wife, Rosalynn, he has visited dozens of countries, and his Carter Center has active projects in many of them. He also teaches at Emory University, where he says he often asks students this trick question:
“When did women gain the right to vote in the United States?”
The usual answer, he says, is the 19th amendment to the constitution, ratified in 1920.
But in keeping with the themes of his book — women, religion, violence and power — Carter says the real answer is 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that protected black Americans against discrimination at the polls.
“This makes the point,” Carter writes, “that racial, religious, and gender discrimination are often interrelated.”
He explores that relationship throughout “A Call to Action,” bringing the theme home in a number of ways.
Just reading the titles of the book’s chapters can give an idea of the range of causes Carter and his wife have been involved in around the world: prison reform, sexual violence, genocide, slavery, prostitution, spouse abuse, “honor” killings, genital cutting, child marriage and “dowry deaths,” where greedy husbands kill their new wives if they don’t get enough money and jewelry from her parents.
These evils are based, Carter says, on the presumption “that men and boys are superior to women and girls.” All of the problems discussed in “A Call to Action,” he says, fall disproportionately on females.
He tells how last year, he joined civil rights leaders and others to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. His thoughts turned to another speech given later by King, during the war in Vietnam, in which King criticized “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
Addressing the rights of women, what he calls “the human and civil rights struggle of our time,” Carter concludes that the fight requires confronting the same governmental actions and attitudes that King opposed.
“Clearly,” he writes, “short-term political advantages that come with being ‘tough on criminals’ or ‘tough on terrorism’ do not offer solutions to issues like persistent crime, sexual violence, and global terrorism.”
A quick look at the list of books that Carter has written — policy and poetry, memoir and meditations, even a children’s book illustrated by his daughter, Amy — shows the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his commitment. “A Call to Action” reinforces his dedication to wiping out injustice — and his ability to move others to join his cause.
Dale Singer, a former editor at the Post-Dispatch, is a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.
‘A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power’
By Jimmy Carter
Published by Simon & Schuster, 198 pages, $28
On sale Tuesday