Sunday, May 13, 2012

Miss Lillian Carter was a Southern mother we all loved

Miss Lillian Carter (left) as her son is nominated
Democrat, Republican or Independent, we all found something to love in the plain spoken, socially active mother from Plains, Georgia, "Miss Lillian" Carter.

Today is Mother's Day and I found myself thinking about some of the unique Southern women of our time. One of my favorites, I must admit, has always been Lillian Carter. She lived a life that was as big as the times in which she lived.

Born in Richland, Georgia, in 1898 as Lillian Gordy, Mrs. Carter was known to people around the world as "Miss Lillian." She was raised in a home where women were taught to take a strong role in changing the world around them. These were lessons she carried with her through life.

Lillian and Earl Carter home near Plains
After marrying James Earl Carter, Sr., usually known as Earl Carter, in 1923, she and her new husband made their home in Plains, Georgia. Carter ran a farm and farm supply business there and Miss Lillian worked as a registered nurse in the local hospital. She became a strong opponent of segregation and her son, future President Jimmy Carter, eventually would challenge famed segregationist Lester Mattox in one of the fiercest gubernatorial elections in Georgia history.

Like many of the other mothers of Plains, Miss Lillian guided her family through the dark days of the Great Depression instilling her children a belief that all things were possible. She also often provided nursing care for patients who could not afford to go to the doctor, volunteering countless hours working among her neighbors, both black and white.

In 1946 she saw son Jimmy graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy and accept an officer's commission in Admiral Hyman Rickover's famed American nuclear submarine fleet.

Plains, Georgia
By the time her husband died from cancer in 1953, she had lived a full life. Sadly, the Earl died from pancreatic cancer, a disease that would also kill Jimmy Carter's two sisters and younger brother.

After Earl's death, when Jimmy and Rosalynn came home to run the family business, Miss Lillian launched a second career of service that would continue through the rest of her life. From 1955 to 1962 she served as a house mother to a fraternity at Auburn University and then in 1966, when she was already in her late 60s, she entered the Peace Corps and served as a volunteer in India for two years.

She ran a campaign office for Lyndon Johnson and crisscrossed the country making more than 600 speeches for Jimmy when he was running for President. She became a popular fixture on television news during Carter's administration, known for her outspokenness and feisty Southern charm.

Lillian Carter was named recipient of the Synagogue Council of America's Covenant of Peace Award in 1977 and became honorary chair of the Peace Corps National Advisory Council three years later. She died in 1983, even as her son was following her example and beginning a post-presidential career modeled in many ways after her own years of service. Jimmy Carter's involvement in Habitat for Humanity alone inspired millions of people around the world to support the efforts of that organization leading to a massive private initiative to build homes for those in need.

You can learn more about Miss Lillian in Plains, Georgia, today, where her legacy is a much loved part of the community's history. Her life is among those interpreted there.

To learn more about Plains and the Carters, please visit: and