January 6, 2022
Most National Park sites represent “old” history, i.e., events that happened before I was born. The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is different. I was old enough to vote in the presidential election that pitted Jimmy Carter (D) against Gerald Ford (R). I remember many of the key events, both good and bad, that happened during the Carter administration – OPEC-caused gas shortages, the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, and the Iran hostage crisis.
Carter attended the segregated Plains High School which is now the visitor center. Other sites I found interesting were the Plains Depot (his Presidential campaign headquarters), his boyhood home, the public housing unit he lived in, and his current residence (not open to the public).
He was not raised in Plains but in the nearby, largely black town of Archery. Although he grew up on a farm in the segregated South he didn’t strike me as a typical Southerner of that time. His religious convictions seem genuine but he doesn’t preach. Carter’s family was neither poor nor rich. He helped work the farm, rising early to do chores, and developed a strong bond to the land.
His character was shaped by his family and his church. His parents, James Earl and Lillian, instilled values like honesty, civility, and community. His mother was a nurse and rare Southern progressive who defied segregation and treated everyone alike. His father treated all his customers with respect and fairness but believed that whites and blacks should be segregated.
Several of his teachers and administrators, in particular Plains High School Superintendent “Miss Julia” and Principal “Mr. Sheffield”, also had a profound impact on him. Miss Julia once said, “Any schoolboy, even one of ours, might grow up to be President.” Many teachers have said that, but she was one of the few who was right.
The visitor center highlighted the lie regarding the “separate but equal” doctrine. Several exhibits highlighted the unequal character of white and black education in the segregated South. Both Jimmy and his wife Rosalynn graduated from Plains High School.
He dreamed of attending the Naval Academy but spent the first few years after high school at Georgia Southwestern College in Americus, GA and Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He was finally admitted to the Naval Academy in 1943 and graduated with a degree in engineering in 1946. Soon after graduation he married Rosalynn Smith. He resigned from the Navy in 1953 after his father died. On returning to Plains, Jimmy, Rosalynn, and their three children moved into a public housing project.
In 1962, his first attempt at elected office was seriously tainted by fraud. A Supreme Court ruling in 1962 forced a change to Georgia’s county-unit rule in which small counties were grossly over represented in the state legislature. At that time too Georgia’s public school system was threatened with closure if it was integrated. Jimmy wanted to prevent that so he ran for the state senate. Under existing election rules, designed to benefit incumbents, only 10 days were allowed for campaigning. Jimmy ran against Homer Moore who was hand-picked by Joe Hurst, a powerful rural political boss in Quitman County.
On Election Day one of Rosalynn’s cousins reported a serious problem in the Quitman County seat. A friend of Jimmy’s went to the county courthouse and saw Joe Hurst forcing voters to mark their ballots in front of him and telling them to vote for Homer Moore. He also saw Hurst remove and discard ballots from the ballot box. Of the 333 people who voted in Quitman County, 360 voted for Homer Moore and 136 for Jimmy Carter. So there were more votes than people who voted.
A reporter from the Atlanta Journal got involved and learned that 117 voters had lined up in alphabetical order. Many voters were dead, in prison, or living elsewhere. The ballot box was found under Joe Hurst’s daughter’s bed. One hundred ballots had been rubber banded together. A “do-over” election was called and scheduled to begin in 6 hours. In that election Quitman County voted overwhelmingly for Jimmy, 448 to 23, and he won the election.
Eight years later, Jimmy Carter was elected governor of Georgia. Four years after that, he set his sights even higher.
How he ran his race for the Democratic nomination and won the presidential election in 1976 is pretty astounding and is told at his campaign headquarters at the Plains Depot.
Like most presidents, his legacy is mixed with great successes and startling failures.
He might be considered a visionary, viewing green energy sources, like wind and solar, as a path to energy independence.
Because he believed in equal educational opportunities and was witness to the inequalities, he fought to create the Department of Education.
He signed the Civil Service Reform Act to increase the Federal government’s accountability to the American people. He signed the treaty that turned the Panama Canal over to the Panamanians.
When Iranian militants took Americans hostage, he believed diplomacy was the best way to ensure their safe return.
He made real progress in Arab-Israeli relations. Thirteen intense days of negotiations between Israel and Egypt resulted in the signing of the Camp David Accords by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
After his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Carters returned to private life but continued to do good. They founded the Carter Center which is dedicated to human rights. The Carters are also avid supporters of Habitat for Humanity.