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Jimmy Carter & Human Rights
May 21, 2017
by William P. Meyers

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A Note on Keeping Faith, Memoirs of a President

Memory seldom persists. Historical memory gets winnowed by time. At this point recent history is documented in detail, but no one person can absorb it all. What gets transmitted to the bulk of living people is a very thin slice of reality.

The current book, in my project of reading all the extant autobiographies of American presidents, is Keeping Faith, Memoirs of a President, by Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter was a Democratic Party member and former governor of Georgia when he won the race for President in 1976. He served only one term. He has a very good reputation among liberals now, but at the time they often found him too far to the right, so many of his proposals had to be passed by a coalition of moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans. He did some good things, in my opinion, but I just read a passage that struck me as needing a, ahem, clarification from me.

President Carter thinks he is a real gift to the human rights movement. Aside from speaking in generalities, he was a big proponent of American-style civil rights for dissidents in the Soviet Union like Andrei Sakharov. Carter pontificated on morality while he was President, and he pontificates on his moral stance in Keeping Faith. He tells of arranging a prisoner exchange with the soviets for a Baptist minister, Georgiy Vins, and others. Carter himself is a fervent Baptist Christian.

Allow me to quote his summary of his human rights record as President:

I was often criticized, here and abroad, for aggravating other government leaders and straining international relations. At the same time, I was never criticized by people who were imprisoned or tortured or otherwise deprived of basic rights.

Having lived through the period, I know there were two groups of prisoners that had supporters who did criticize Jimmy Carter's human rights records. Both classes of prisoners were in the United States. One group was the revolutionary left. The other was the masses of black men imprisoned for little or no wrongdoing by a still racist police and judicial system. I'll focus on the first group, since they were most obviously political prisoners.

There were a lot of people in U.S. prisons from radical groups, not just famous groups like the Black Panthers, Weather Underground, and Symbionese Liberation Army. There were anti-war activists, civil rights (as in anti-racism) activists, and social justice (as in working-class) activists. Jimmy Carter released none of them, to my knowledge. Few were released early from their sentences, except millionaire heiress Patty Hearst (whose sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter in 1979).

But what immediately came to my mind was: American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier. Leonard was convicted of killing two FBI agents who were trespassing on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. While two FBI agents died, the evidence against Leonard was not at all compelling, and in any case, given the background, should have been found to be self-defense.

The trial and conviction took place in 1977, when Jimmy Carter was President. Leonard Peltier is still in federal prison.

"I weep for you, the walrus said, I deeply sympathize,
With sobs and tears he sorted out those of the largest size."

So Jimmy Carter not only did not care about the human rights of leftist dissidents in the U.S., he threw one in jail. And the poor man has never been allowed out.


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