The speakers may have been seated in big, comfy
easy chairs, but the subject of conversation between former President
Jimmy Carter and church scholar Martin Marty was anything but soft.
"What Happens to Children in Peril?," the second installment
of the Family Forum Series 2003–2004, is what brought the
two men together on the School of Law’s Tull Auditorium stage,
Tuesday, Oct. 14.
Marty, Robert W. Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary
Religious Studies, played the part of interviewer, prompting Carter
for comments on subjects ranging from his own childhood to the struggles
of children in the developing world.
Perhaps the best term to describe Carter’s answers would be
"challenging." Especially to any law students sitting
in the audience of more than 300.
At the end of Marty and Carter’s conversation, which ran about
50 minutes, Carter fielded questions from the floor, a rare occurrence.
One question came from an audience member who had visited Angola
and had seen many children in poverty, on the edge of survival.
What would be the first step in helping? he asked.
Carter, as a preface to his answer, said he was intrigued by the
idea of the Family Forum Series, which is part of the Center for
the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion’s (CISR) three-year
study "The Child in Law, Religion and Society." Marty
is co-directing the project with CISR Director John Witte.
No doubt the project participants will produce several volumes,
Carter said. "But what is the Emory law school going to do
about it?" he continued, referencing the problems in Angola
brought up by the questioner.
"I would guess nothing," Carter said. "Zero impact
from this forum will benefit that child in Angola. But there are
things an individual student in law school might do. There are good
places to go." Carter suggested churches; he mentioned the
"Each person has to decide: How much am I going to do?"
Individuals were not the only recipients of challenges from Carter.
He also spoke to law schools—not just Emory’s but all
of them, calling for the beginning of a fight to end what he called
"What can we do about the gross discrimination against minorities
in our communities," he said. "No law schools or ministers
said much against segregation, and it’s almost as bad now
as it was during the 100 years of legal racial discrimination. If
[law schools spoke out], I think it would send reverberations through
the legal community."
To back up his thoughts, Carter told a somewhat chilling story.
"All three of my boys smoked pot [growing up]," he said.
"I knew it. But I also knew if one was caught he would never
go to prison. But if any of my neighbors got caught," Carter
said, adding that his neighbors were black, "they would go
to prison for 10, 12 years. No law school has had the temerity to
look at what is fundamentally wrong with our legal system, which
discriminates against the poor."
"In fact, we’re addressing many of the problems President
Carter mentioned," said School of Law Dean Thomas Arthur, afterward.
"For example, our Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic helped
draft legislation expanding the protection of children in Georgia’s
foster care system; our students are working with Stephen Bright,
director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, on unjust death
penalty cases; and my predecessor and alumni worked with the Chief
Justice’s commission on indigent defense to develop and pass
legislation that provides adequate public defenders."
Seated in the School of Law’s largest auditorium, Carter clearly
knew who his audience was, and while he was able to make strong
statements on a variety of subjects, he also spent a great deal
of time addressing the forum’s core issue—the plight
of troubled children at home and around the world.
Responding to questions from Marty, who kept their discussion moving
at a comfortable pace, Carter reflected on his own childhood, which
he described as "privileged," not only because he came
from a stable household but also because he was white.
He recalled one instance when he was a teenager, walking with two
black friends, both of whom would step back, letting Carter go first
when necessary. "Their parents had impressed on their minds
that they had to be subservient," he said.
Marty seized on Carter’s mention of a "privileged"
upbringing and asked him about the perils faced by children from
relatively affluent backgrounds. Carter said many children now do
not have the strong family structure he had while growing up.
"There’s no doubt that I had a life of stability, nurture
and protection," Carter said, adding that while his father
was very strict, as long as he did his work, he was given a great
deal of freedom. "But in many homes there is the opportunity
or impetus for children to depart from family and cast their lot
with peer groups who can seduce them away from the love of their
parents into a life with temptations such as alcohol, drugs and
sex. Living a life without constraints may lead to privileged children
Carter also spoke on the United Nations’ Convention on the
Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by 192 nations—but
not by the United States or Somalia. The reason he gave is that
this country insists on the right to execute children convicted
of capital crimes. Carter said that by not ratifying the convention,
the United States is "not setting a good example" for
"We don’t reach out to them, and we don’t have
the motivation to do it," he said. "There is an extreme
and unacknowledged division between rich folk and poor people who
we don’t care about at all."