OPINION: Saying goodbye to Rosalynn Carter, from the side of a Georgia road

Flowers and signs are shown at the Carter Presidential Center sign in remembrance of former first lady Rosalynn Carter at the Carter Presidential Center, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Flowers and signs are shown at the Carter Presidential Center sign in remembrance of former first lady Rosalynn Carter at the Carter Presidential Center, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

They didn’t know her personally, but they came to say goodbye anyway. Men and women, Black and white, standing alongside Georgia roads hoping to catch a glimpse of the funeral procession of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

There were the schoolchildren along the rural highway and the local garden club members with American flags in hand. There were onlookers on highway overpasses and mourners on city streets. As Carter’s procession made its way from her hometown of Plains to Atlanta and back again, Georgians from all walks of life were there to wave her home.

The famous faces at Tuesday’s Atlanta funeral for Rosalynn Carter were a testament to her global impact as first lady and beyond. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood sang for her, while CEO’s and leaders, including Gov. Brian Kemp, paid their respects. But it was the people who turned out this week without an invitation, standing from street corners to hillsides in Atlanta and around the state, who were the best expression of how much she truly meant to Georgia.

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They were bidding farewell as much to a woman as a way of life, when a person could grow up on a Georgia farm without running water, as Jimmy Carter had, and still become president. Or when people of good character like Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter still wanted to run for office, instead of run away from it.

So much of politics has turned mean today, but Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter never did. The people on the road in Atlanta Tuesday spoke about the way they treated people, the values they embodied, and the kind of person Rosalynn Carter was herself.

Kevin Burke and his wife, Jane Florkowski, stood in the cold Tuesday morning, with the wind whipping their coats, as they waited on Clifton Road for the motorcades to come.

“Their values were compassion, fairness, respect, especially even if someone didn’t agree with you, you still treat them with respect,” Florkowski said, “Strength, morality, character, truth, being honest….”

“Hard work,” her husband added. “Rosalynn ran that peanut business. It’s so different from people today.”

Do you think we’ll go back to politicians with those values, I asked. “I don’t know if we’ll ever shift back,” Jane said. “It would be nice.”

Local supporters and media gather on the Jackson Street Bridget to view the motorcade accompanying Rosalynn Carter along Freedom Parkway to the Carter Center on Monday, Nov 27, 2023.  Carter’s funeral is Tuesday, Nov 28, 2023 on Emory University campus. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

Zach Zyntek had been visiting from Austin last week when he went to the Carter Center for the first time. He was so moved by Rosalynn Carter’s story and accomplishments that he wanted to witness her funeral procession pass through the city.

Waiting further down Clifton Road was Sydney Cleland, who recalled meeting Rosalynn Carter in 1975 when the former first lady campaigned for her husband at Valdosta High School. “I remember how gracious she was,” Cleland said. Since then, she watched the Carters “live their values.”

Cleland went on to become an attorney and teacher, and worked in the state Capitol in 2022 when the General Assembly passed legislation expanding mental health care, as Rosalynn Carter had long advocated.

Standing up the road from Cleland was Davis Fox, whose mother had been a delegate for Jimmy Carter from Maryland in 1976. “The Carters are just good people,” he said, praising what he saw as their honesty, and morality.

Some people on the road remembered other parts of Rosalynn Carter’s work. They talked about the guinea worm that the Carter Center has nearly eradicated and the many, many homes she helped build through Habitat for Humanity.

“She built houses for people who didn’t have one,” said G. Thomas. “Sometimes people have no home through no fault of their own, but she built houses for them no matter what.”

The official motorcades moved swiftly down Clifton Road in waves. First came the Vice President’s car, flags flapping in the wind, then came President Biden’s. Finally, when only the hum of police motorcycles could be heard, came Rosalynn Carter’s procession — 48 motorcycles, two by two, then the SUVs of the First Lady’s Secret Service detail, still guarding their charge one more time. Then Mrs. Carter.

As the hearse bearing her casket drove past, some people held their hands over their hearts, others waved, some cried. Lots, including the curious Emory students, took out their phones to capture history. A homemade sign read, “God bless the Carters.”

The scene inside Glenn Memorial Methodist Church was as elegant as a White House reception. White roses adorned a memorial wreath. Every living first lady, past and present, sat on the front row. Both of Georgia’s U.S. senators sat nearby.

In his eulogy for his mother, Chip Carter said that despite the heights his parents attained, the people Rosalynn Carter always felt the most comfortable with, and the people she enjoyed the most, were the ones who weren’t famous, people from all walks of life, including those without anything much.

Rosalynn Carter would have liked it on the side of Clifton Road on that cold November day. The people there certainly loved her.

An earlier version of this article quoted David Fox. The correct name is Davis Fox.

Remembering Rosalynn Carter: Full coverage from AJC

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