Jimmy Carter photo

National Conference of Christians and Jews Remarks at the 30th Annual Brotherhood Citation Dinner.

May 29, 1979

Last September, I spent 13 days at Camp David with an Arab and a Jew. It was one of the most difficult times of my life; one of the most challenging, interesting and, ultimately, perhaps one of the most productive.

Both these leaders, President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin, were deeply religious. We were engaged in intense negotiation. But for 10 of those 13 days, they never saw or spoke to each other because the differences were so deep, and it was almost impossible for them to communicate even their most heartfelt beliefs and desires.

I had a chance to get to know those men very well, and we spent long hours speaking about death and war and hatred and bigotry and prejudice and division between one human being and another. And we spent a lot of time talking about hope and peace and brotherhood and love.

The men were quite different, and I had to orient my own schedule to accommodate theirs. President Sadat, highly disciplined, did not want to meet with anyone until about 10 o'clock in the morning, because he got up for his calisthenics, and then he took a long walk, and then he came back and rested for a while, and then he was ready to go to work.

So, one morning I saw him walk past my door, and I ran out and joined him. And for quite a while we walked in silence, and then we began a kind of fumbling conversation. I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to convince him to accept one of the propositions that had been relayed to me. But while we walked, President Sadat said, "I think that someone from the South in this country is especially qualified to recognize the damages of losing a war and of seeing people divided one from another by misunderstandings, even those who are brothers under God, and even in more recent times to see racial prejudice hold back progress among people."

He meant that as a compliment to me, and I instantaneously swelled with quiet pride. And then I recalled my own return to the South and my later service on the Sumter County School Board. I was a young ex-naval officer, idealistic, liberal for Sumter County, Georgia, living under a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court known as separate-but-equal. I was somewhat proud of the fact that my own children went to an old and relatively dilapidated school, which I had attended and my wife attended, and her parents and my parents, and the black children in the other end of Plains went to a newer school.

I asked the other four school board members, all of whom were white men, to join with me in inspecting the school system of Sumter County. It had never been done. And we went to five or six schools which were attended by black students. There were 26 of them in the back room of old houses, in the basements of dilapidated churches; few school books, no blackboards.

I remember one where 14- or 15-year old boys were sitting two to a chair, and the chair was designed for 4-year-olds. And we gave up our visits in embarrassment. I have to admit that I had served on the school board 3 months before it ever dawned on me clearly that white children were riding to school in buses and black children were walking to school.

We rationalized in those days that division of the races, because we attributed to blacks—because of their poverty and ancient discriminations—characteristics which we thought were inferior to those of white children. And we blanketly condemned or relegated to an inferior place many because of the faults of a few.

I'm not proud of this, but I think it illustrates the point I want to make tonight, because our Nation has been one of strength and dynamism and progress, inspired by the Government, by chamber of commerce attitudes, by a pioneer spirit, by a determination to excel, to explore new realms of achievement, to reach for and to grasp material progress, and we've been highly successful.

Our goals have been reached and then raised again. Our progress has been historically steady. Our per capita income in this Nation, all Americans, has doubled almost every generation. Our mean family income is now more than $16,000 a year. And the average income of an American in 3 days is equal to the annual income of many people who live in the less developed countries of our world.

We are now approaching a time when some sociologists name it a crisis of success or plenty, or perhaps even excess. Perhaps it's time now to reexamine our material achievements, because we might be faced with an era of scarcity or additional life simplicity.

Our social progress the last 200 years, however, has not been quite so steady. It has not been inspired always by government or by chambers of commerce or by organizational structures or by institutions. The social progress has been faltering, spasmodic, inspired by individual courageous human beings who rallied others with a cry of equality or justice or mercy.

Martin Luther King, Jr., forced this Nation, North and South, almost against its will, to recognize legal injustice and to do what was right. He was scorned, ignored, sometimes hated, imprisoned. But because he knew he was right and because Americans also knew he was right, he prevailed, and the laws were changed and black citizens were finally given a guaranteed right to vote. And our Nation took a major step forward and upward.

We now bask in the glory of his achievement, as a nation, assuming that perhaps our social progress has been adequate. But we cannot afford to be satisfied. In the last 2 1/2 years, we have created 8 million net new jobs, but the unemployment rate among young people who speak foreign languages like Spanish, or who are black, is still 35 percent. And there is no more devastating blight on a human spirit than to have one life on this Earth, given by God, and not have a chance to use it; to feel worthless because one doesn't have a chance to prove worth.

Last year our budget for education was the highest in history, the biggest increase in history—$13 billion in aid for children to become better educated. But still many American Indians or other minority groups or the poor are alienated within the classrooms. There are still segregated schools—more in the North, ironically, than in the South these days. And racial discrimination, protected by law in housing, is still a burden for those who suffer from discrimination to attempt to correct through a complicated and highly expensive legal system.

Our Nation is at peace. No American has lost a life in battle since I've been in the White House. But we still live in a world which perhaps more than any other time in history is spending more of its resources on militarism, on weaponry, and we still have not yet been successful in controlling the threat of the ultimate weapon—nuclear explosives.

This past year the world was shocked by witnessing the television series about the Holocaust. Many of us searched our souls, but the thread of anti-Semitism still hangs like a dark cloud in our world. Our Nation, so wealthy, still has a lower and lower standard of morality. Families are disintegrating, the institution of marriage is scorned and ridiculed by many, the unity of our Nation, threatened, as each person becomes more self-sufficient and more doubtful about the efficacy of institutions which we in the past have held so dear.

But our Nation, in spite of these threats or these faults or these opportunities, is still almost unique. We have some advantages. We are a nation of refugees. We are the mixing pot of the world. We understand diversity and how to live in harmony when we are different. And this ability to contemplate others' problems, others' attitudes, others' languages, others' heritage, is an advantage.

Not too long ago I was meeting with the Prime Minister of Japan. We were talking about refugees from Indochina. Our Nation, in the last 2 or 3 years, has accepted 190,000 refugees, and we're now processing 30,000 more—not enough. But I pointed out to Prime Minister Ohira that the Japanese have only received and processed three. And there was a general consensus around that table that the reason for that is that the Japanese are so homogeneous in their racial makeup, in an ancient island civilization, that there's an incapacity to receive aliens and to accommodate them successfully.

We still have a long way to go in our attitude toward the other nations, and we tend to adopt the ancient prejudice of the South by equating the faults or the sins of a few toward the many, and therefore rationalize a lack of action on our part to repair damage to the human spirit, to root out prejudice and bigotry and hatred and inequality.

We look at Rhodesia, and we see the acronyms ZAPU and ZANU, and we think about leaders there who have associated with socialist countries, and we say, "Well, it must be all right not to pursue majority rule with aggression and determination and idealism and commitment. Apartheid may not be so bad, because look at the political philosophy of the leaders of the blacks who seek equality." The same thing applies as an attitude in the Middle East—and affects you and me.

The most difficult single issue in the Middle East concerns Palestinians. And because some Arabs, some Palestinians, are filled with hatred and commit themselves publicly to boycotts and to terrorism, there's an unwillingness to address the basic problem of the Palestinian refugee in an open and compassionate and concerned way.

But we are a people who search for answers in spite of difficulties and who, over a period of years—sometimes, unfortunately, generations—have always made progress.

Paul Tillich said the search for the truth about our relationship with God and our fellow men is religion. And when we lose that desire to search for this truth, we lose our very religion.

The United States—and its people—is a searching nation. We are a free nation, not afraid to face defects, not afraid to expose problems, not afraid to debate differences, not afraid to correct mistakes. We want our Nation to be unified, strong, free, peaceful, with equality for our people. We want our Government to achieve greatness, to realize its ultimate potential. And we know that for a society, or for a government, the highest potential it can reach is to achieve simple justice.

That's not quite high enough. It's not the ultimate, because a single human being close to God can achieve not only simple justice but love. And perhaps that's the reason why individual human beings like Martin Luther King, Jr., have been able to reach higher and set a higher standard and achieve more in social progress and social justice than has a government. And it imposes an obligation on all of us in this room—leaders, blessed, influential—to set our standards high.

It would be a terrible day for us to awake and find that our inflation problems had been cured, we had plenty of energy, our material needs were met, poverty was eliminated, that we had then a nation with no purpose, without hope, exhausted in our struggle for material things, with the best of the American dream abandoned. Where would be our victory? What would be the measurement of our achievement?

I'm very grateful that your own slogan for this banquet, or perhaps this year, is "The Unfinished Task." Achievements have been great, but we should not ignore the challenges which face us, which are still great. I have no doubt that we, in a spirit of love, can meet this challenge. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 9:28 p.m. in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel. Prior to his remarks, he received the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Jimmy Carter, National Conference of Christians and Jews Remarks at the 30th Annual Brotherhood Citation Dinner. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/249675

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