Learn about the life and achievements of the 39th president of the United States.
Jimmy Carter was born on October 1, 1924, in Plains, Georgia; he was the first president to be born in a hospital. As a child growing up in Georgia, Carter helped with chores on his father’s peanut farm. The schools he attended were segregated, or separated by race, meaning Black children attended one school and white children attended another. Carter's parents encouraged him to play with both Black and white kids, however. His mother, a nurse, treated African American patients, which was unusual for white nurses to do at the time.
After high school, Carter attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Soon after he graduated, Carter married Rosalynn Smith, a friend of one of his sisters, and began a career in the U.S. Navy working as a nuclear submarine engineer.
From farmer to governor
After his father’s sudden death in 1953, Carter left the Navy to manage his family’s farm in Georgia. Around this time, many Black people across the country started demanding that they receive the same rights as white people. This was called the civil rights movement.
In Carter’s hometown of Plains, an organization called the White Citizens Council formed to fight back against the civil rights movement. Carter was the only white man in Plains who refused to join. Some white people boycotted his farm in protest, but Carter still wouldn’t join the group.
Upset by racial discrimination in Georgia, Carter decided to run for the Georgia Senate and served as a state senator from 1963 to 1967. During his time in the Georgia Senate, Carter helped repeal, or end, laws that kept Black people from voting. In 1970, Carter was elected governor of the state, a position he held until 1975. In his inaugural speech, he said he would work to improve civil rights and declared that "the time of racial discrimination is over.”
As governor, Carter increased the number of African American staff members in Georgia’s government by 25 percent. He also hung portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other important Black Georgians in the state’s capitol building. Before then, only portraits of white Georgians had hung in the building; the all-white group the Ku Klux Klan even protested Carter’s actions.
Running for president
In 1974, Carter announced that he would run for president in the 1976 race. At first, no one took him seriously because he was mostly unknown outside his home state of Georgia.
So Carter published a book about his life called Why Not the Best? to introduce himself to voters. He also positioned himself as a political outsider who was scandal free, a message that many people liked. Former president Richard Nixon had resigned from office just a year earlier after being involved in illegal activities, and most citizens were tired of feeling bad about the country.
Carter won the Democratic Party nomination and eventually the presidency. In a close race, he defeated then president Gerald Ford—who was appointed to the post only because Nixon had resigned. In 1977, Carter became the country’s 39th president.
A rough start
Voters liked that Carter was an outsider—someone who hadn’t been involved in national politics or the recent presidential scandal. But once he was in the White House, being an outsider made things hard. Congress didn’t take him seriously and often refused to help pass his bills.
Carter also had to deal with a bad economy at the beginning of his presidency. Many people couldn’t find work, and inflation, or the increase in the prices of goods and services over time, was high. That meant that prices increased so much on everyday items like bread, eggs, and gas that many people couldn’t afford them.
One of Carter’s biggest concerns was how much energy people used. He thought U.S. citizens were using too much to light their homes and drive their cars, and that the country was becoming dependent on oil from other countries. (In fact, this was one reason gas prices were so high during this time, because oil-producing Arab countries imposed an oil embargo on the United States, meaning they stopped providing oil to the nation. These Arab countries were upset that the United States supported Israel in an ongoing war with some of the oil-producing Arab nations.)
To solve the problem, Carter created the Department of Energy to research wind and solar power. He also encouraged citizens to use these and other alternative energy sources long before most people were thinking about this—he even added solar panels onto the White House. Many people didn’t think much of his ideas; the solar panels were even taken down after he left office.
Carter also supported human rights all over the world. He withheld money from the South American countries of Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, whose leaders Carter accused of mistreating their citizens. And when the Soviet Union (now called Russia) invaded Afghanistan, he organized an international protest. That included a controversial boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow (the Soviet Union’s capital), which meant that many countries didn’t send athletes to compete.
One of Carter’s greatest accomplishments in office was a step toward peace in the Middle East. The countries of Israel and Egypt had been at war many times since 1940s. The tensions made that region—an important area for oil production—very unstable, so peace was important for the entire world. So Carter brought leaders from the rival countries to Camp David in Maryland, a vacation spot for U.S. presidents. In 1978, Carter helped create an agreement between the nations called the Camp David Accords that established peace between Israel and Egypt for the first time in history.
Iran hostage crisis
Carter’s greatest international challenge began in 1979 when angry college students from the Middle Eastern country of Iran stormed the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. The students were upset that President Carter allowed an Iranian leader who had been thrown out of the country to seek medical treatment in the United States.
Iranian officials voiced their support for the students and didn’t stop the takeover. At first, Carter tried to resolve the issue with peace talks. But when those didn’t work, he signed off on a secret military rescue in 1980. It was a disaster: Some helicopters got stuck in a sandstorm, others had mechanical failures, and one crashed into another aircraft. The rescue attempt killed eight U.S. soldiers and one Iranian civilian.
After 444 days, Iran finally agreed to release the hostages—but they didn’t free anyone while Carter was running against then California governor Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign. People saw this as a reason to vote against Carter, who lost to Reagan in a landslide. The Iranians waited to release most of the hostages until after Reagan was sworn in as the United States’ 40th president; therefore, many people gave Reagan credit for the citizens’ return instead of Carter.
At just 56 years old, Carter began what is now the longest presidential retirement in U.S. history. Since leaving the White House in 1981, he’s written more than 20 books, many of them best sellers.
Soon after his presidency ended, he and his wife, Rosalynn, founded the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Through this organization, Carter has worked to negotiate peace agreements between nations, create fair elections in other countries, and improve health in developing nations. They even helped build houses for people who needed affordable homes.
These actions helped Carter earn the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Only three other presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Barack Obama—have received this honor. Carter is the only one to be recognized for his achievements after he left the presidency.
Carter has also been called “America’s Greenest President,” thanks to his forward-thinking environmental actions and concern about climate change. In fact, it wasn’t until Obama became president in 2009 that another U.S. president would focus on fixing climate change. (Obama reinstalled solar panels onto the White House—they’re still there today.)
Still, historians tend to rank Carter in the bottom half of U.S. presidents, calling him a better person than he was a president. Many people respect and praise his actions after he left office, which has helped make him one of the most successful ex-presidents in U.S. history.
- Carter was the first president to use a nickname (Jimmy) when he was sworn into office.
- Carter can speed-read at a rate of 2,000 words a minute.
- Carter’s favorite U.S. president is Harry Truman because he admires the leader for not trying to make money off his presidency.