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Carter funeral, Rustin biopic show lives getting deserved reexamination

Posthumous depictions demonstrate standing for justice doesn’t just happen

Rosalynn Carter, center, watches as husband Jimmy Carter recites the presidential oath of office administered by Chief Justice Warren Burger, left, on Jan. 20, 1977.
Rosalynn Carter, center, watches as husband Jimmy Carter recites the presidential oath of office administered by Chief Justice Warren Burger, left, on Jan. 20, 1977. (Mickey Senko/CQ Roll Call)

In an ideal world, those who promote peace are heralded, those who elevate nonviolence held up as examples to imitate. In real life, not so much. In recent weeks, grown-up men challenging other grown-up men to fights have shown that acting out faux manliness and toughness is the quickest way to generate all-important buzz.

That doesn’t mean those who choose to follow the golden rule are unicorns. Throughout American history, time after time, leading with kindness demonstrates the truest image of strength.

This week, the rich and poor, the powerful and not-so, the old and young, are paying tribute to Rosalynn Carter, former first lady of the United States. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff, former presidents and first ladies attended a memorial service, paying respects to Rosalynn Carter’s life and achievements.

I was a little surprised that her passing hit so hard. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I know journalists who have benefited from grants through The Carter Center’s Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. “Informed journalists can have a significant impact on public understanding of mental health issues as they shape debate and trends with the words and pictures they convey,” she said.

I could not put it any better.

At Tuesday’s service in Atlanta, when her daughter, Amy, read a love letter from Jimmy Carter to his beloved Rosalynn, it was a reminder that devotion to the partner that is perfect for you can touch the heart.

Just this October, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood traveled to Charlotte, N.C., to build houses, continuing the project the Carters started though their Habitat for Humanity work. The country music stars were there, too, on Tuesday, honoring their friend.

When he was president, Jimmy Carter was sometimes described as weak. The Naval Academy graduate was depicted as stupid in editorial cartoons that imagined the family’s move into the White House with the worst stereotypes of the South.

There was none of that this week, as the former first lady was admired for her courage, her smarts and the steel she showed throughout her life, starting when, as a teen, she helped support her family after her father died. Her husband certainly valued her worth, and he was at her side at the end.

The real deal, I’ve seen in comments since Rosalynn’s death, a characterization often used to describe the two as one.

I’ve been thinking about Americans whose past is getting an overdue reexamination. In the same week of the former first lady’s passing, I got the chance to view “Rustin,” a movie that looks back at civil rights icon Bayard Rustin through the lens of his strategic organization of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Rustin credited A. Philip Randolph with the original idea of a march, an impossible idea brought to glorious life by the two, with the help of a host of leaders and workers who organized everything from bus routes to security to the lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches preferable to cheese in the D.C. summer heat.

Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin speaks at Mason Temple, Church of God in Memphis, Tenn., in support of workers in a 1977 furniture strike. (Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

Rustin has not gotten all the recognition that is certainly due him, no doubt in part because, as the brilliant actor who portrays him, Colman Domingo, says in the film when facing prejudice from civil rights leaders: “On the day that I was born Black, I was also born homosexual. They either believe in freedom or justice for all, or they do not.”

An earlier scene, one that recreates an event that happened in 1942, made clear Rustin’s moral clarity and belief in nonviolence. As he walked to the back of a bus he boarded in Louisville, a white child who reached for his bright tie was admonished by her mother, using a racist expletive, for making that very human connection. As Rustin years later said in an interview with the Washington Blade: “If I go and sit quietly at the back of that bus now, that child, who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, ‘They like it back there.’”

Rustin took a brutal beating for his principled stand, making those who would deny him his basic rights face the result, an act that took incredible bravery and a lot more courage than fighting back.

I look at squabbles in Congress that threaten to turn physical with the drop of a hat. I read the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., whose interpretation of the Bible stands in punitive judgment and fails to elevate those who are bullied for being their full selves.

And I both mourn and celebrate those Americans with visions of justice, those who realized that a life doesn’t just happen.

It’s up to each of us to make a choice.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.

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