Commentary: First lady Rosalynn Carter's modesty flustered fashion industry


PLAINS, Ga. – While I have had the privilege of meeting several presidents and attending the inauguration of one president, I only met one first lady, Rosalynn Smith Carter. I met Jimmy Carter when he was governor of Georgia. In fact, I brought a church group to Atlanta from North Carolina in 1971, and he was coming down the steps in the rotunda of the state Capitol as our group was ascending the stairs. I introduced myself and told him that we had 45 senior adults visiting Atlanta and the surrounding area on a three-day excursion. He stopped and spoke to our group for at least 5 minutes and told us about his Baptist background.

Having met Jimmy Carter in 1971 and knowing that he was a Christ follower, I was fascinated when he was elected president and pleased we had a Baptist in the White House.  I did not always agree with his politics, but I was always impressed with what I learned about the first lady.

I remember the criticism she received when she wore the same dress to the presidential inaugural ball that she had worn a half dozen years earlier when her husband said his vows to uphold the constitution of the state of Georgia. It was also reported that she had her sewing machine moved to the White House. The media criticized her for her modest dress and frugality; and the fashion industry derided her for not modeling an original gown by some prominent designer. She did not fit into the mold of  “the high and flighty” and I appreciated that. 

Early in her husband’s campaign for president, Rosalynn Carter made it clear that she would make the welfare of the nation’s mentally ill her priority. She not only kept that promise during her days in the White House but continued to make that a priority in her life as long as her health permitted that. I was grateful for that emphasis, because I had a sister with Down Syndrome and the subsequent mental challenges that typically accompany that condition.

Finally, on December 2, 2018, I had the privilege of driving down to Plains and preaching at the Maranatha Baptist church where Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were members. I was so excited to have that privilege. Secret Service agents were obviously present to secure the location for the protection of the former president and first lady.

I deliberately got there early enough to attend the Sunday school class taught by President Carter. The lesson was from the book of Isaiah, and it was obvious that the teacher was well prepared; and the church auditorium was packed on the uncomfortably cold and rainy morning. In fact, there were far more people present for the Sunday School hour than the worship service and my sermon on Philippians 2:5-11.

I was instructed by a woman who seemed to be in charge that after the service President and Mrs. Carter would be happy to meet with me in the pastor’s study. The president could not have been more congenial and affable, and even complimented my sermon. It was then that I learned that Mrs. Carter had also taught Sunday School in the church and that she had initiated a food distribution ministry for her church.

During those moments we were together, I had the opportunity to tell her about my sister’s disability and thank her for her extensive advocacy for people with mental illness and special needs in the United States and around the world.

Inasmuch as Rosalynn Carter had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, it is ironic that she had a vision of a world without dementia. Interestingly, it will be a relief to all who loved her to know that today she is not only in a world without dementia, but in a glorious haven of rapturous revelation where she has perfect knowledge. The Apostle Paul said it this way, “For now we see through a glass darkly; then then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12).

J. Gerald Harris is a retired pastor and journalist who served as editor of The Christian Index for nearly two decades.