Forty years ago this month, Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, delivered an extemporary address that established his credentials as a liberal and fearless politician who was willing to tell the truth, even to powerful interests.
In what one journalist in attendance described as “a bastard of a speech,” Carter expressed his solidarity with those on the margins and upstaged the keynote speaker, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, then considered the frontrunner for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination.
One of the venerable traditions at the University of Georgia Law School is Law Day, an occasion to honor student achievements as well as to invite distinguished guests. Two hours after Ted Kennedy delivered his speech, Carter told the gathering that his understanding of justice derived from two sources. The first was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his mandate to establish justice in a sinful world. The second source for Carter’s sense of justice was Bob Dylan. It wasn’t until he heard Dylan’s “I Ain’t Gonna Work on Maggie’s Farm No More,” Carter said, that he began to appreciate the plight of the poor.
Carter then unleashed a blistering extemporaneous critique. “I’m a Sunday school teacher,” Carter said, and the Christian faith demands “that you shall love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself – a very high and perfect standard.” He then observed that while perfection may be elusive, we must continue to strive for equality. That task, however, is more difficult because “the powerful and the influential have carved out for themselves or have inherited a privileged position in society...”
Carter lit into lobbyists and noted the incestuous relationship between corporations and the agencies regulating them. He concluded by sounding the populist theme he was already honing for his presidential bid. Any hope for the future, he said, lay in “the combined wisdom and courage and commitment and discernment of the common ordinary people.”
Carter’s Law Day address captured the attention of a journalist in the audience, Hunter S. Thompson, the self-proclaimed “gonzo journalist” of Rolling Stone magazine. “I have heard hundreds of speeches by all sorts of candidates and politicians,” Thompson wrote later, “but I have never heard a sustained piece of political oratory that impressed me any more than the speech Jimmy Carter made at Law Day at the University of Georgia on that Saturday afternoon in May 1974.”
That speech, forty years ago, effectively, though not yet officially, launched Carter’s campaign for the White House. As president, Carter sought to act on the principles of fairness and equality he articulated. He was successful on some initiatives and frustrated on others. Since leaving the White House, however, Jimmy Carter has been remarkably effective in his pursuit of peace, justice, and care for those Jesus called “the least of these.”