I became an admirer of Jimmy Carter shortly after he became president.
I was 12 years old, and unlike previous American presidents, I actually felt a personal connection. Like me, he was Baptist and like many of my relatives, he taught Sunday school.
Unlike Richard Nixon, who left office in disgrace and who seemed to struggle with a host of demons — and unlike Gerald Ford, whose administration was linked to a CIA attempt to destabilize the Jamaican government — Carter seemed well intentioned and decent.
So like millions of Africans, I was elated when in 1978, Carter became the first American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to make an official visit to the continent (FDR’s 1943 visit to Liberia was a brief stopover to implore President Edwin Barclay to end his country’s neutrality during World War II and expel German expatriates.)
But Carter actually came to Nigeria and hung out awhile. And for those few days, our eyes remained glued to the tube as we watched him, his wife, youngest daughter and entourage of more than 400 tour Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. My personal connection soared that Sunday when he worshipped at First Baptist Church of Lagos, my grandparents’ and parents’ home church, and a congregation where my grandmother was ordained a deaconess in 1946.
We applauded his decision to place African-Americans like Andrew Young in high-profile positions. We welcomed his efforts to help end white minority rule in Rhodesia. And we were saddened when his political career was cut short by a former California governor named Ronald Reagan, a man many blacks around the world considered insensitive at best.
But over the decades, we watched delightfully as he reinvented himself as a statesman, laborer for Habitat for Humanity, peacemaker, champion of democracy, human rights activist and warrior in the battle against diseases like guinea worm.
Carter’s efforts abroad earned him a well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, and he has been persistent in holding countries like Nigeria, Sudan and Haiti accountable on human rights issues. He has served as an election observer in dozens of countries. He has complimented authorities in those countries when the elections were free and fair. He has been outspoken when they weren’t.
At home, he’s not been afraid to take on the most controversial issues. He’s been quick to point out that much of the malicious criticism against President Barack Obama is motivated by racism. He’s not been afraid to call out Israel for its reckless disregard of the rights of Palestinians.
It’s been an unlikely path for this farm boy from the nation’s most segregated region — a man whose slave owner forebears fled to Brazil after the Civil War because slavery was still legal in that South American country.
Despite this foundation, however, Carter refused to be defined by his culture or his heritage. Like Lyndon Johnson, Obama and Bill Clinton, Carter has earned a place in the pantheon of America’s most progressive presidents on the issue of race in the last century.
Now the world watches nervously as Carter fights the biggest battle of his life: brain cancer. Since making his diagnosis public, he has handled himself with grace, courage and dignity. He seems to be at peace with himself. He even taught Sunday school at his home church in Plains, Georgia a few days after undergoing the first in a series of radiation treatments.
Historians haven’t judged Carter’s presidency kindly. His watch is probably more remembered for a weak economy, the Iranian hostage crisis and the failed attempt to rescue the hostages. In many ways, that’s a pity.
While I suspect that the views of presidential historians won’t improve much in the coming decades, I also believe the perception of Carter by people of color around the world will be markedly different. Blacks around the world will draw little distinction between the Carter presidency and post-presidency. In both roles, he tried to do the right thing.
He just did it so much better after he left the White House.
Wave columnist Lekan Oguntoyinbo is an independent journalist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.