Seven years ago when James Carter was elected Alabama's first black tax assessor in modern times, his white namesake had not yet become a household word.
So his election attracted little notice. Blacks were moving into public office wherever their voting strength was substantial, and rural Bullock County, with a solid black majority, was no exception.
Though reelected in 1977, Carter ends this year locked out of his office. The judge who took this unusual action against an elected official is the brother of George Wallace,who as Alabama's governor became a national symbol of resistance to judicial activism.
Circuit Judge Jack Wallace, a pillar of conservative support for his brother over the years, could not have found a less palatable case. Faced with what he regarded as a breakdown of the local tax system, the judge feared, in his words, that "anarchy will reign supreme."
To prevent that, he placed the county tax assessor's office under control of the state revenue department on Dec. 5. Carter says the next time he went to the courthouse locks had been changed on his office doors, and state officials there suggested he stay away.
This week the state finance director in Montgomery sought a court order to require forefeiture of Carter's performance bonds. A Bullock County grand jury, however, declined in November to indict Carter or bring a bill of impeachment against him.
Explanations differ as to how the full power of the state became arrayed against a county tax assessor, but all agree the trouble began with a statewide property reappraisal two years ago.
A federal court had ordered Alabama's widely varying property taxes equalized. Assessment of most major landholdings had remained unchanged for generations. Elected tax assessors were normally aligned with property holders.
The statewide reappraisal was unprecedented and had profound and unpredictable effects on local governments. Tax officials were to adjust the rates to keep payments from going too high, but those most immediately affected were the wealthy and powerful.
Bullock County was among the first to complete the project. The outside firm that performed the appraisal under contract was accused of numerous errors.
James Carter had a degree in business administration and accounting but no experience in tax offices. Alabama tax assessors are elected more than a year before the beginning of their terms in order to learn the ropes.
Carter now claims that the disgruntled incumbent he defeated refused to instruct him, so he began with what he could learn from a short visit to another county's tax office.
It was not enough. State revenue officials say that for weeks they provided field representatives to help Carter indicated that he perceived them as adversaries, and sought instead to hire clerks loyal to him.
Last year's tax abstract -- the listing of assessed properties on which taxes are collected -- was late. Carter was sued in wallace's court by the county governing board, the city of Union Springs and the county hospital board, al of which had to borrow money to operate because no taxes were coming in.
Under order from Wallace, Carter and state employes finished the abstract in July, 11 months late. When this year's abstract missed its August deadline, state employes left, saying they did not intend to share the blame.
The judge's patience had run short. Last month he turned the tax office over to the state temporarily, and called a special grand jury. "If they don't indict you, we will have an impeachment trial," he told Carter.
About two weeks later, after the grand jury had refused to indict or begin impeachment proceedings, Wallace made his temporary order permanent. The judge wrote that without taxes coming in, the courthouse and city hall would be locked, there would be no police or government and "anarchy will reign supreme."
Carter attributes his downfall to a concerted effort by the landowning class, a minority in Bullock County. He denies that his records were shot through with errors, as state employes claim, and he says the grand jury's action convinces him he still has the voters' support and would "definitely win," if there were another election now.
In fact, argues Carter's wife, Patricia, Wallace's action is seen by many voters as protecting landowners from much-needed, hard-nosed tax assessment. "We'd get even more votes now," she said.