Jimmy Carter's Book a Best-Seller

Wednesday, February 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) — Each work day, ``an hour before daylight,'' a middle-aged black man who ``invariably wore clean overalls, knee-high rubber boots, and a straw hat'' would ring a big, iron farm bell.

Jack Clark's morning ritual was the signal for a young white boy named Jimmy Carter and other Carter family members to wake up and head to their barn in southwest Georgia for the start of a day of hard work.

There, the boy who years later became the nation's 39th president, helped hitch the mules and headed to the corn and cotton fields of Archery, Ga. — ``never quite a real town,'' just a tiny community outside Plains.

The pre-dawn bell-ringing provided the inspiration for the title of the former president's newest book, ``An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood.'' The book, already a best seller, is set during the Depression, when Americans — and particularly Southerners — were still living under segregation sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 ``separate but equal'' ruling.

The title is ``symbolically significant because we were in a time of darkness before the end of segregation came as a prelude to a change in our entire society's structure,'' says Carter, interviewed in Chicago during a recent book tour.

Carter's writing is down-to-earth, much like the daily chores and games of his Southern boyhood. It is also eloquent and sensitive, reflecting the complexity and hardships of the times.

Through words and photographs, Carter, born in 1924, offers a personal, candid look at life on his family farm, where he read by kerosene lamps, had no running water until 1935 or electricity until 1938, and counted black children among his best friends.

``This was a time,'' Carter recalls, ``when, because of the abject poverty that surrounded us, the black and white people were drawn together in an extremely surprising degree of intimacy or closeness. I didn't have any white neighbors; I only had black neighbors.''

Most of his playmates were black children. ``I played with them, fought with them, wrestled with them, worked in the field with them, went fishing with them,'' he says.

The 76-year-old former president's book reflects his amazing memory for details of things long ago.

As much as he might like to forget, he still, for example, remembers the ``unique taste'' of the many opossums his Aunt Ethel cooked for him. He also remembers the much more appetizing meal served at a political rally he attended with his father in 1934 as if it were last month — ``pork barbecue, Brunswick stew, coleslaw, sweet pickles,'' freshly sliced bread and sweet iced tea. He remembers selling boiled peanuts in downtown Plains and walking barefoot on the rough pine floors at school, through the manure in the barn lots and on the scorching soil.

And despite the racial intimacy of which he speaks, he also remembers segregation.

Carter describes his father, Earl, as a strict segregationist but also a man who rejected racist groups and who was considered fair and helpful by both ethnic groups.

The book tells how William Decker Johnson, a well-educated African Methodist Episcopal bishop, knew he could not use the Carters' front door when he wanted to talk with Earl but refused to go to the back door. Instead, the bishop would arrive in a chauffeured car, park in the front yard and sound the horn — a signal for Earl to come outside where the two could talk and even laugh together.

To this day, the former president writes, he occasionally visits the bishop's modest grave and considers Johnson one of the five people who most deeply influenced his early life, outside his parents.

``Even before I was an adult and able to understand the difficulty of overcoming racial barriers,'' Carter writes, ``I looked on Bishop Johnson as an extraordinary example of success in life. He had come from a tiny rural place, set his sights high, obtained a good education, and then risen to the top of his chosen profession.''

Affecting Carter's life even more profoundly was a quiet, modest black woman named Rachel Clark, wife of farmhand Jack Clark. When his parents were away, the young Carter spent many nights in the Clarks' humble tenant home, sleeping on a pallet stuffed with corn shucks.

Rachel Clark, who had ``the demeanor of a queen,'' taught Carter how to fish in the creeks and, what is more important, how to behave.

``Much more than my parents,'' he writes, ``she talked to me about the religious and moral values that shaped a person's life, and I listened to her with acute attention.''

Carter writes that some of his memories are painful, others embarrassing. He remembers, for example, going to a movie in a nearby town with his friend, Alonzo Davis, ``A.D.'' for short. On the train and in the theater, the two boys split up as A.D. headed to the ``colored'' sections.

``I don't remember ever questioning the mandatory racial segregation, which we accepted like breathing or waking up in Archery every morning,'' Carter writes.

Yet, while no one would want to return to such unchallenged segregation, he writes, ``something has been lost as well as gained'' since then.

``We knew intimately how each other lived, and there was a mutual respect between black and white people,'' he explains. ``People now may be even further apart in a personal way than we were during the Depression.''

Carter's book is more than a memoir about the color line. Dedicated to his youngest grandson, Hugo, so that he might someday better understand the lives of his ancestors, it is an album in words and pictures of Carter's childhood and family.

There are photographs of Carter as a young boy: beaming as he cradles his beloved Boston bulldog, Bozo (``the best squirrel-hunter in the Plains community''); skinny and shirtless as he shows off a baby alligator; riding his Shetland pony, Lady, as he glances back at her colt and the family's bird dog, Sue.

There also are pictures of relatives, including his well-read, racially liberal mother, Lillian, in a knee-length swimsuit and the hard-working father who called his son ``Hot,'' short for ``Hot Shot.''

It was adoration for his demanding father that prompted Carter to give up a successful Navy career and return to Plains with his wife, Rosalynn.

``Daddy was a very strict disciplinarian,'' Carter says. ``He gave me suggestions, which were the same as orders. He expected me to fulfill those directives meticulously, which I did. And when I did a perfect job as Daddy requested, he never said, 'Good job,' or 'Well done.' ... He just took it for granted. ... I knew he cared for me, but I kind of hungered for his soft expression of love. Daddy was my hero.''

And, indeed, when Carter returned to Plains to be with his dying father in 1953, hundreds of people, black and white, spoke of his father's good deeds and secret acts of generosity. So, Carter says, ``I made the surprising decision ... to resign from the Navy because I wanted to come home and be like my daddy.''

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter still live in Plains. The National Park Service owns a 12-acre historic site in Archery, which includes the Carter family's farmhouse and barn and the Clarks' home. According to the former president, it is the nation's only historic site showing how rural families lived during the Depression.