In his memoir An Hour Before Daylight, thirty-ninth president Jimmy Carter paints a provocative, personal picture of what life was like in rural Georgia during the Great Depression era. There are several themes and aspects that Carter speaks of great detail (poverty, politics, and race relations are just a few), but the one that stood out to me most in my reading is the role land, and how it played a central role to Carter’s formative years. Archery, it seems, is more than a backdrop to Jimmy Carter’s story: it is a character in itself, having as much influence on Carter as his father, or Jack Clark.
In the opening chapter, Carter writes, “My most persistent impression as a farm boy of the earth. There was a closeness, almost an immersion, in the sand, loam, and red clay that seemed natural, and constant” (Carter 2001, 15). With these words, Carter makes clear the significance of his early surroundings. There was nothing more natural than the earth itself, and from the earth the Carter family sustained themselves and prospered, in a modest sense. The way they did this was through sharecropping, which Carter describes “a way of life” (Carter 2001, 49) not only for the Carters themselves, but also for many of the African-Americans in the Archery area, many of whom were field hands and tenants on the Carter family farm.
Carter recognizes how sharecropping often gets a bum rap, acknowledging, “The very word suggests powerful and ruthless landlords perpetrating something like a system of peonage on innocent and long-suffering serfs. There were certainly abuses to the system… but it would have been difficult if not impossible to devise a reasonable alternative” (Carter 2001, 49). Sharecropping did indeed have its faults, which Carter addresses and refuses to romanticize. One of these aspects was working “on halves,” which took advantage of day laborers and their families. An honorable and fair landowner, James Earl Carter was not a fan of the halves system, “and traded with more dependable and competent families to work on our land. They had their own livestock and equipment and worked on ‘thirds and fourths.’ In exchange for use of the land, family allotted one-third of the cash crops and one-fourth of the corn to the landowner” (Carter 2001, 51). There is an important lesson in James Earl Carter’s actions here: although a system may have its faults, there is always room for improvement which ought to reward hard work and strive for equality, even in the face of rough times.
As a “young pup,” Jimmy Carter was expected to perform a variety of tasks and learn the inner workings of the farm, often working on weekends and after school. During those years of fetching water for laborers, milking cows with Jack Clark (J.E. Carter’s right hand man), and plowing the fields, Carter was instilled with the virtues of diligence, persistence, conservation, and learned the importance of community and co-existing. Even when the working day was over, Carter was encouraged to spend his free time outdoors, and often enjoyed picking berries, wrestling, hunting, and fishing with his father and his friends, many of whom were African American. I was especially touched by the relationships Carter maintained with A.D., and Jack and Rachel Clark. “Rachel was the one who taught me how to fish,” Carter writes, “and on our long walks together… she would tell me about the flora and fauna around us, and let me know that God expected us to take good care of his creation. 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 2001, 76). In this passage, we see that not only did living in a rural setting enrich the spiritual lives of those who lived on it, but a closeness to nature has the capability of deepening the connection between black and white, reminding us there is only one race: the human race.
I think it’s fair to say that Jimmy Carter would not have turned out to be the person he is today if it weren’t for his unique upbringing in Archery, Georgia during the midst of the Great Depression. The land he lived and worked on throughout his childhood and adolescent years taught him many lessons and virtues, providing him with the strong back bone and compassionate heart it takes to succeed in the world of politics, not to mention all of the remarkable work he has accomplished since The White House, through Habitat for Humanity. While many ambitious politicians can’t wait to get out of their small towns to start a new life in D.C., Carter has always maintained a deep loyalty and admiration for his hometown of Plains. In the chapter “Boiled Peanuts in Plains,” he sums up why: “There is a deep sense of permanence in Plains, of unchanging values and lasting human relationships, and the town has been a haven for us during times of political or financial crisis…. There is a sense of harmony here, of mutual respect between black and white citizens, a common willingness to join in ambitious projects to improve our town…” (Carter 2001, 130).
In An Hour Before Daylight, Carter reminiscences about his early formative years in Archery, a place that had as much influence on him as his friends and his family did. By growing up with such a deep fondness and closeness to the earth, Carter had many virtuous lessons that strengthened his character and sense of compassion, and had many unique experiences that are much harder to come by today, in this age of great technological advancement. If there is one thing I took away from reading Carter’s memoir, it was to live a well-rounded, authentic life, you must remain in touch with your roots: both physically and spiritually.