LEXINGTON, Va. (AP) _ Virginia Military Institute gave its first humanitarian award for public service to former President Carter in recognition of his lifelong contribution to human rights.

``I'm convinced that the greatest challenge we face this century is overcoming the increasing chasm between the richest and the poorest people in the world,'' Carter told the crowd of about 2,500 Thursday.

In addition to the award, VMI also donated $25,000 to Carter's international human rights center in Atlanta. Since it was founded in 1981, the Carter Center has overseen dozens of democratic elections, fought Guinea worm disease in Asia and Africa, and lobbied for peaceful solutions to civil conflicts in such places as the Sudan, Bosnia and the Korean peninsula.

VMI named the award for Jonathan Myrick Daniels, the school's valedictorian in 1961. Daniels was killed in Haynesville, Ala., four years later after stepping into a shotgun blast intended for a 16-year-old black girl named Ruby Sales.

Daniels had been registering voters _ a practice disliked by many Southern whites. An all-white jury later acquitted his killer.

``I lived in that time,'' Carter said.

After his speech, Carter called Daniels a hero and embraced Sales, now 52, who attended the ceremony.

``He really was the best choice for this award,'' Sales said.