We know much, and will soon know much more, about the stated positions of the candidates for mayor of the District on issues affecting the city. What we do not know, to a surprising degree, is who they are--that is, where they came from, what they remember or think is important about the way they got here. In recent interviews with Michael Barone, the five principal candidates for the Democratic nomination talked about their early lives--personal and political.
Echols County, Ga., is at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp: low land, water flowing in creeks and ditches and pools, a place where thin asphalt roads are built atop crowns of white sandy soil, a place where rattlesnakes can get in the house and you can get chased up a tree by wild hogs. John Ray grew up in Toms Creek, in Echols County, raised by his mother (he never knew his father) and his grandparents, who were born during Reconstruction.
His grandmother was very religious, and wanted him to be a minister; his grandfather said the Baptist minister "always had his hand out, ready to eat your chicken." As a boy, John Ray was not allowed to smoke, curse or dance, but he seems to have been influenced most by his grandfather, who remembered when blacks were promised 40 acres and a mule in Reconstruction and who followed the news on the radio, though of course he couldn't vote.
The big industry in Toms Creek was turpentine, and John Ray grew up hoping to get his own pine trees to chip and pull. He also learned how to hunt wild hogs (grab him by the hind legs and turn him over) and to take care of honeybees (you get stung "a little bit").
When he was 10 years old, the white man who owned the house his family lived in got drunk and threatened to come back and bring guns; the family took their things and moved a few miles to Haylow. Segregation was always a fact of life: John Ray rode a bus 75 miles each day to high school, which wasn't integrated until 1965, after he graduated; and while he fished and hunted with whites he understood that there were certain things you didn't do. But "I grew up feeling positive about myself." He did well in school, and his mother and grandparents seemed to expect him to do well in life.
For blacks who did well in high school in Echols County, the highest ambition was the military, and John Ray joined the Air Force after graduation. For him, "segregation was over in six hours." He literally saw the world: he lived on a base near Cambridge, England, took college courses there and traveled all over Europe on leave. After the Air Force, he arrived in Washington in time to see the 1968 riot, and managed to borrow enough money for tuition at George Washington. As a pre-law student, he knocked on former Justice Abe Fortas' door, asked for a job and, after screening by Fortas' wife and housekeeper, got one. Fortas gave him time off when he was sick with hepatitis, and he was married in the justice's house. "I've had a lot of lucky breaks," John Ray says. But then his grandfather had told him to take advantage of any opportunities.
John Ray's first experience in politics was in Echols County. In 1956, he put up signs for Herman Talmadge's first Senate campaign, and he ran errands in local elections. It was the kind of place where one or two families, wealthy by local standards, ran things, and the sheriff sat by the polling place, pistol in hand, greeting voters and reminding some of how he let them haul their moonshine. Politics in Washington came after college and law school, and is obviously a different matter: the Ray campaign hires top-flight consultants and runs expensive TV advertising campaigns. John Ray smiles and he looks up at the photo of Toms Creek on the high, pale yellow walls of his council office. What would his grandfather in Echols County have thought of all this?