An Hour Before Daylight

Former President Jimmy Carter’s memories of his childhood provide evocative descriptions of living conditions and race relations in the rural South during the 1930’s. His father, one of the wealthiest men in Sumter County, employed some 260 black sharecroppers and hired hands on his many farms. Yet the Carter home had no running water or indoor plumbing; kerosene lamps provided light, and wood stoves heat. Although Jimmy’s conservative father disliked the New Deal, he welcomed the Rural Electrification program when it reached Sumter County in 1938. Now water pumps did not depend on hand labor; there could be indoor bathrooms, electric lights in every room, an electric stove and a refrigerator in the kitchen.

The most revealing parts of Carter’s memoir, especially for persons who did not live through the 1930’s, are his descriptions of race relations in the pre-Civil Rights era South. Segregation went unchallenged. Most of his playmates were black and they played as equals, but his black friends walked to inferior schools and were restricted to the farthest balcony in movie theaters. Young Carter never questioned that, when visiting his black playmates, he could eat with their family, yet when they visited him, he and his friends ate in the kitchen with the servants. The most distinguished and prosperous resident of the area, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was unwelcome at the front door, but unwilling to use the back door. Arriving at the Carter home in his chauffeur-driven Cadillac, the bishop waited on the road for Carter’s father to come out to discuss work and farm problems. In the 1960’s, when the local school board finally felt compelled to provide a bus for its black students, they underscored racial inequality by carefully painting the yellow vehicle’s fenders black.