Excerpt from An Hour Before Daylight by Jimmy Carter, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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An Hour Before Daylight

Memories of A Rural Boyhood

by Jimmy Carter

An Hour Before Daylight
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2000, 280 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2001, 288 pages

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My great-great-grandfather Wiley Carter is an example. He died during the war, in 1864, and in his will he left to his twelve children forty-three slaves, 2,212 acres of land, and other property and cash, or $22,000 for each. Neither he nor his heirs realized at the time that the slaves would soon be free, and that the Confederate money would be worthless. His children ended up with small farms, and they and their descendants retained a deep-seated belief that only the land had any real and lasting value.

Another legacy of the war was the refusal of white people to accept the children of liberated slaves as legal or social equals. Having been effectively disenfranchised themselves if they had been loyal to the Southern side, white leaders considered themselves justified in using every means to control the political system when Northern domination finally ended. Elections quickly came to be decided solely by the Democratic Party primary, from which black citizens were carefully excluded, and rural dominance was guaranteed by basing election results on counties (regardless of their size) instead of on the votes of individual citizens. For more than a century after the war, and even when I first ran for public office in 1962, each vote in some of the smaller counties of Georgia was worth a hundred votes in Atlanta.

Someone had to be blamed when the ravages of the Depression years struck, and many of the smoldering resentments against Yankees and the federal government were given new life in my childhood. Yet, with the racially segregated social system practically unchallenged, it seemed that blacks and whites accepted each other as partners in their shared poverty. So there were negative and positive aspects of our white Southern heritage. Our white families were generally close-knit, relaxed in dealing with black neighbors, deeply wedded to the land, and penurious with our cash holdings, especially as we saw them dwindling away during the hard years of the 1930s.

Despite the legal and social mandate of racial segregation, the personal relationships among black and white families were quite different from those of today, at least in many aspects of life on our farm, because our daily existence was almost totally intertwined. At the same time, throughout the years of my boyhood and youth the political and social dominance of whites was an accepted fact, never challenged or even debated, so far as I knew, by white liberals or black protesters. I recall a few instances when disreputable whites had to appeal to the larger community to confirm their racial superiority by siding with them in a dispute, but their very need to do so confirmed their own low social status. For those who were lazy or dishonest, or had repulsive personal habits, "white trash" was a greater insult than any epithet based on race.

In fact, the final judgment of people I knew was based on their own character and achievements, and not on their race. There is no doubt that black families had to overcome severe and unfair obstacles, but those who were considered to be honest, hardworking, and thrifty had at least a chance to succeed financially and to enjoy general respect, despite the unalterable social distinctions. This was true even though they still came to the back door of a white family's home, rode in a separate part of the passenger train, sat upstairs in the Americus movie theater and in the county courthouse, and attended their separate schools and churches. They were not allowed to vote, serve on juries, or participate in any political affairs. Their spokespersons could make appeals to the local school board, the city council, or in various ways to the system of justice, but they could not participate in the final decisions made, and their appeals were often ignored if they were contending with prominent whites.

All white children around the Plains community, including Archery, attended Plains High School, from the first grade through the eleventh. Black children in our part of the county had classes in more than a dozen churches or private homes, often with all grades crowded into a single room. They were usually furnished with chairs of various sizes, a blackboard, and textbooks considered too dilapidated for use by white students. The County School Board was strict on mandatory attendance for white children, but quite flexible for blacks, assuming that their education above an elementary level was not important. This division of the two races was supposed to meet the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate of "separate but equal."

Copyright © 2001 by Jimmy Carter

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