Jimmy Carter’s Mother Went from Plains, Georgia, to Auburn’s Plains

Greg Markley


While former President Jimmy Carter gets hospice care at his Plains, Georgia, home, we segue to a famous family member: his late mother. Needing a job after her husband died from cancer, Lillian Carter secured a position as housemother for a fraternity of 100 members at a city 88 miles southeast of her home in Plains, Georgia. The place: Auburn, Alabama. Kappa Alpha Order, known around the university as a rambunctious group, was then still celebrating Confederate Veterans Day. Lillian worked there from 1956 to 1962.

My wife and I waited 90 to 100 minutes before getting a book signed by Lillian’s oldest son, former President Jimmy Carter. We were disappointed that only four paragraphs in the book “A Remarkable Mother” were about her years at Auburn University. This book signing was in 2008 when the ex-president was 84 years old and had just returned from an extensive Middle East visit. We said we were from Auburn; he replied, “My mother worked there.”

“Now it would be necessary to make a difficult transition back to a private and perhaps even lonely existence, to assess more calmly what had happened to us,” the Carters wrote in “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life,” in 1987. “This regression from the White House to an acceptable life in Plains, Georgia, requires different attitudes and talents.”

In 2009, the AP reported that University of Alabama alumnae were upset at Kappa Alpha Order members wearing Confederate uniforms and holding battle flags as they paraded past a historically black sorority. The sorority was celebrating its 35th anniversary. (Kappa Alpha Order is the fraternity Miss Lillian worked for, but her opposition to racism and hate has been evident since childhood.)

At Auburn University, the annual parades were discontinued after Black students confronted white students who were carrying Confederate flags. The tradition of covering the front of the fraternity house with a large rebel banner was also stopped in 1992. Founded in 1865 at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, the group calls Lee its “spiritual founder.” KA’s “Old South” events were held on many Southern campuses for years. There are 131 chapters.

 Lillian was a nurse; a Peace Corps volunteer (at age 68); an unofficial ambassador on several trips for her son, the president; and a strong supporter of civil rights and women’s causes. She was the first woman recipient of the Covenant of Peace Prize of the Synagogue Council of America.

In 2000, I was working at The Albany Herald (in Georgia) on a Sunday. I was the only reporter there so I had several things to do, such as get police records from the night before and come up with a feature story. Suddenly, an editor called me from home and said that Rosalynn Carter’s mother died overnight.

Her name was Allie Smith and she was a long-time resident of Plains. The editor said, “Get a few quotes from friends of Rosalynn or her mother, or people from Jimmy Carter’s presidential administration.” 

I started calling people who were longtime locals who likely knew Smith. I had been working there for several months, so I had some contacts.

First, I called a shopkeeper who always said “I know everyone in Plains!” (Not that tough to do in 2000, when Plains had an estimated 783 residents.) He gave me good quotes, and then I reached a woman who had worked on Carter’s 1976 campaign. She also gave me interesting insights into Smith, who was in her 90s when she died.

The editor said I should not try to get a quote from Carter or Rosalynn. I agreed with that: Rosalynn’s mother died, so they would not want any reporters to call them on the day Smith died. Yet the press, especially in Georgia, would seek to write an obituary of the mother of a former first lady.

Lillian was an avid reader who always encouraged her four children to read. 

“I remember rainy afternoons with her, me and Jimmy lying across the bed, reading,” his sister Gloria once said. “ I’ll tell you what kind of a mother she was: I asked her to teach me how to play bridge. She handed me Ely Culbertson’s book and said, ‘Memorize this, and you can play.’”

 Twenty-three years after her mother died, Rosalynn is age 95. Her husband Jimmy, at 98, is in hospice care. They bought their home for $167,000 in 1960. Carter is likely reviewing the meaningful people in his life. Lillian is one, with her compassion, wit and understanding of people. She even knew how to handle 100 fraternity men at Auburn University, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a master’s in education from AUM and a master’s in history from Auburn University. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. 

An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to The Observer since 2011. He writes on politics, education and books. gm.markley@charter.net.


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