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Jimmy Carter: Plains Speaking

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2000

The row of attached, two-story buildings, just down the road from the Plains, Ga., train depot, looks like a Hollywood set for an abandoned mining town.

The 100-year-old structure houses the town's commercial center: five stores, including a shuttered bait shop. Only two are open this Sunday afternoon. Out front, the dusty little main street is empty.

But a remarkable thing happened here. From the tiny wood-plank depot, Jimmy Carter launched a presidential campaign that embodied the most profound and treasured principle of the American Dream: that anyone can grow up to be president.

Sam Donaldson, Tom Brokaw and Robert Redford no longer visit Plains. But cars and buses filled with tourists from around the world still come. For many, it is a pilgrimage.

The entire town of about 600 souls, including Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, is a National Historic Site. Carter's Sunday school class, open to all who come, has been a tourist attraction for years. And last month, the National Park Service added what it hopes will be another draw: the farm where Carter spent his boyhood years harvesting peanuts and shoeing mules alongside the black farm workers his father employed.

Carter's library in Atlanta tells the story of the 39th president's administration. The town of Plains and the nearby farm tell the story of the place that made the man.

The 31/2-hour drive from Atlanta to Jimmy Carter's home town is a reminder of how far Plains is from Washington, in more ways than one. Just a few miles from Atlanta, you hit a gigantic farmer's market. A short while later, the highway begins to ribbon past miles of rich red dirt and white puffs of cotton left behind by picking machines.

Since the only guest house in Plains is closed until March, I head to the nearest big town -- Americus, population 18,000. It's nearly dark when we hit, just outside the town, a gas station plastered from top to bottom with handwritten Bible verses, most of them about God's ability to heal.

The next morning, I drive the 10 miles to Plains and enter the sanctuary of Maranatha Baptist Church. It might seat 250 people, if they aren't too stout. Some weeks, 800 or more people come and spill into the aisles and fellowship hall, where Carter's class is carried live on video.

The simple sanctuary with avocado green carpeting, which could have come from a 1960s basement rec room, holds just over 100 people this Sunday, a week before Christmas.

Rosalynn Carter, in a simple red dress, is already in church talking with friends when Jimmy Carter, wearing cowboy boots, brown slacks and a sports coat, arrives. He asks people who are new to the church to raise their hands and tell where they are from. Most hands go up.

He points and people respond: We're from Oklahoma, Japan, Illinois, Russia, Maine, Oregon, Australia, Korea. Then Carter calls on my 8-year-old daughter, who says, "Washington, D.C."

"I used to live up there," Carter says wryly. My daughter whispers to me, "I didn't know he'd be funny."

Carter begins by taking questions from the audience, which is more interested in politics than religion. He responds frankly.

The Carter Center, which monitors elections in emerging democracies, would not have accepted the recent presidential election, he says. "No discredit should be brought on Bush or Gore," he continues, "but five men in the Supreme Court brought discredit to the Supreme Court."

He would be happy to serve on a blue ribbon committee to improve the election process, he tells the congregation. "I believe President Ford would serve with me."

Carter in October severed his lifelong ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, in large part over its ban on women serving as pastors. His lesson today, about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, mother of John, resonates his beliefs, and his own life.

"These two women lived in a backward region. They were nothing special; not the daughters of a queen. But these two unknown women were anointed to transform the entire world. . . . All of us have the ability of Mary and Elizabeth, to be extraordinary servants in God's kingdom."

At the end, he invites the congregation to accompany him and Rosalynn just down the road to Mom's Restaurant after church, and says photo availability will also be after church. So of course everyone stays for the main sermon.

Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who has attended a number of Carter's lessons, says it's a classy variation on the Salvation Army's demand that you listen to the sermon before getting the soup.

"There's also an element of the campy roadside attraction," says Brinkley, author of "The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House." You can see the world's largest Jesus in Arkansas, the Catholic grotto in Colorado and Jimmy Carter teaching Sunday school in Plains.

But in another sense, Brinkley adds, "the point is seeing a man who was once the most powerful person in the world being humble, building a house for poor through Habitat for Humanity, or teaching in a little church."

People used to visit Independence, Mo., hoping to see ex-president Harry Truman in the local barbershop. But Brinkley said he knows of no other analogy to the phenomenon in Plains.

After the main church service, as promised, Carter poses for pictures with individual congregants and their families. Then most of the congregation heads to Mom's Restaurant, which is really a fluorescent-lighted cafeteria with formica tables.

"This is the reason Carter was elected," says an Australian woman, a history teacher, as she watches Carter wait his turn in the long, slow food line. "It's also the reason he got unelected; he didn't fit the mold of the imperial president."

The line for fried chicken and meatloaf is long, and I grab the opportunity to ask if we can talk before I leave town the next day.

"Sure, stop by the house tomorrow morning," he says. "See the boyhood home, then come by whenever you're done."

Later, he gives his home number to a Fulbright scholar studying the presidency.

Jimmy and Rosalynn attended Plains High School, which, despite its name, took them from grades 1 to 12. It's now a historic site filled with exhibits but still hints at the central role the school played in the town, and Carter's life.

The principal also taught, kept the boiler running and drove the school bus, says National Parks Service Superintendent Fred Boyles. Every child in Plains knew the sayings of the math teacher and school superintendent, Miss Julia Coleman. Carter quoted her in his inaugural address: "We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles."

I drive down the main street, past brother Billy Carter's famous gas station, now closed, and his widow's flower shop. The tiny, unheated train depot, like the school, is open to the public. Light and cold air flow through the cracks between wide plank boards. But as the largest available building in town with a bathroom, Boyles says, it became campaign headquarters.

Three miles down a country road is the farm where Carter and his siblings lived in an otherwise African American community. The farm, dedicated in a ceremony last month, is open daily.

The recorded voice of Carter tells stories in every room of the one-story, clapboard farmhouse built from a Sears floor plan. In the living room, his voice draws attention to an old-fashioned radio.

Daddy was stingy about our listening to the radio, Carter's voice says, because he didn't want to run down the battery. But when Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling, the tape continues, "our neighbors came and asked Daddy if they could listen."

Earl Carter wouldn't have thought of inviting them inside. But he turned the radio toward the open window, and soon, 40 or 50 black farmworkers and sharecroppers gathered in the yard.

The fight was rife with racial overtones, and Louis almost killed the white German. Louis's arm was raised in victory.

"Our neighbors, observing Southern proprieties, walked out of our yard without a sound," Carter's voice says. "When they got to a nearby house, we could hear the yelling across the fields. They celebrated all night."

It's one of the stories the farm tells about a small Southern boy's experience in the complex and tortured arena of race relations. But it's also America's story.

Carter had insisted that the park service tell the story of Jack and Rachael Clark, an African American couple who worked the farm and shared with him a gentle warmth often missing in his relationship with his father.

Their three-room shack, which had been moved years before, was hauled back to its original place just a stone's throw from Carter's house. Carter spent many nights with the Clarks, sleeping on a mattress filled with corn husks.

A few yards away is the store where Carter's family sold supplies to their workers. Carter's voice tells how he almost never ate dinner uninterrupted: Invariably, a knock would come to the door, his father would throw him keys, and he'd have to leave the table to sell a nickel's worth of plug tobacco, liniment, candles.

Back in Plains, I arrive at Carter's modest ranch house, which he and Rosalynn have willed to the National Park Service. The Secret Service anxiously follow me. Carter opens the door and motions them to return to the guard house.

I tell him I heard a hint of resentment in his telling of his nightly store duties.

"My memories tend to focus on the rosier moments, but I suffered a loss of liberty and freedom," he says. He was expected to be up and working an hour before dawn, and had to rush home from school for chores.

The only block of free time came on Saturday afternoons. Sometimes, he says, "my parents would take Gloria and Ruth to Americus to the movies, and Daddy would tell me to turn the sweet potato vines. I resented it."

But he took pride in being treated as a responsible human. Then he adds, "My Daddy was very severe. Like Admiral Rickover, he never congratulated me if I did a good job. It was just expected. If I didn't meet expectations, the criticism was severe. Five or six times he gave me a harsh whipping. I'd cry; I'd resent it."

When his father was dying, he says, "I realized that the things I had resented about my daddy were the same ways I was treating my boys." His eyes fill with tears.

I say it seems that he loved Rachael and Jack Clark.

"And they loved me," he replies.

Yet he never, as a boy, questioned their station in life. He doubts they did, either.

"We were encapsulated in a society that was unchallenged," he says.

The Supreme Court, and those who interpreted the Bible, taught that separate but equal was God's mandate, he says. It was clear that blacks and whites were not separate. "Our lives were intimately intertwined," he says. It was equally clear that blacks were not treated as equals.

But only after he served in the Navy, he says, "did I realize that the system I grew up in was neither inevitable nor acceptable."

And why does he still teach Sunday school?

"There are a few things I do in my life as an obligation. My commitment to Plains is one, my commitment to my church is another."

The church, he adds, has a unique ministry. Many come up to him afterward and tell him it's the first time they've been in church, and say how much it meant to them.

Proceeds from audio and video tapes of the lesson fund a missionary, as well as projects in Plains. And he likes helping the economy by bringing customers to Mom's.

His boyhood home is not about him, he says, it's about a time, and a place.

"It shows how life was in the pre-civil-rights era in a rural Southern community during the Depression," he says. "It's a profoundly significant, but historically ignored, piece of American history."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company