President Jimmy Carter turned 96 years old today, and that’s worth a celebration! It also brings back some personal memories.
The 1976 campaign, when former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter took on the incumbent Gerald Ford, was the first time I was eligible to vote for president. A few weeks before Election Day, I was in Philadelphia as a young college student studying history and historic preservation, attending the National Trust Annual Preservation Conference — the first of 41 I attended over my career.
Philadelphia in 1976 moved me. I loved exploring a real city, a gritty city at the time, with my friends and classmates. It was so different than Murfreesboro or even Nashville. We ate food that had never before passed my Southern lips and heard strange accents that sounded foreign to my ears. I was able to see and touch Independence Hall and Carpenters Hall, iconic places that I had explored only in books as my interest in the past expanded and deepened. Being in the room where the delegates debated concepts such as the self-evident truths of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness made it all come alive.
And the real-time relevance of history and place exploded in my face during that trip. I was there near the end of the presidential campaign, the first time the people would have a voice after the upheavals of Watergate. Jimmy Carter was scheduled for a massive downtown rally late in the week. Several classmates and I wedged our way into the tens of thousands of people who filled four streets that came together at the intersection where the candidate would speak. My heart raced as I heard the roars for that now-familiar Southern lilt coming from a man who in a few short days would be president-elect. My mind thrilled as I realized that here I was, in the city where the concept of a government, deriving powers from the consent of the governed, had its most powerful realization. Somehow, I also understood that, in casting my first vote for president, which went to President Carter, I would soon be a part of what Abraham Lincoln noted was the ongoing fight to see if a nation dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal” can long endure.
Two years later I was living in Americus, Georgia, just ten miles from Carter’s hometown of Plains. I was the first historic preservation planner in a joint program between what were then called Area Planning and Development Commissions and the state historic preservation office. I had moved to a place with a complex history, as histories usually are. Beside the stories of racial injustice and Jim Crow terror, I found the existence of the interracial Koinonia Farm, which began on land outside Americus in the 1940s. The commitment to racial equality, pacifism, and economic sharing brought “bullets, bombs and a boycott” — to quote the farm’s own history — as the Ku Klux Klan and others attempted to force closure of this radically intentional Christian community in the 1950s. They failed, and it is still in existence, as it was when Jimmy Carter was elected president and I arrived in town.
There was a pride in Carter’s life and accomplishment along with a desire to showcase the best the area had to offer. That was one reason I was there, as the rich, layered, and sometimes troubled history was being considered worthy of preservation. I had the opportunity to recognize the places in Plains that were integral to Jimmy Carter’s development, and on one trip to the small town I had the chance to meet Mrs. Carter and tell her of our work. I helped in the early efforts to resurrect one of the triumphs of Americus, the community’s iconic Victorian-era Windsor Hotel, with its mix of tower and turret, balconies, and a three-story open atrium lobby. Joining a small group of local preservationists, we also worked with the city to begin a community development project to preserve and upgrade the simple vernacular homes of the city’s black citizens. Those were great times that I treasure.
Carter’s legacy and impact as president has grown through the years, although he was voted out in the Reagan revolution of 1980. Among the great ironies is that Jimmy Carter, who is universally recognized for the way he lives out his Christian faith on a personal and public level, was targeted for defeat by none other than the Moral Majority founded by the father of the now infamous Jerry Falwell, Jr.. I noted recently in another post that Former President Carter has had what many believe is the most successful post-presidential career in history*, all built around service to others. His work empowers those who didn’t have the privilege that he enjoyed as a white, male Southerner growing up in the 20th century.
Wonkette had a wonderful and touching tribute to President Carter today that included the following:
“A spokesperson for the Carter Center in Atlanta said the former president would be celebrating his birthday at home in Plains with his wife, Rosalyn….Back in July, the Carters released a photo reminding folks to wear face masks and to keep each other safe. In March, as the pandemic spread, the Carters sent a message to donors asking them to forgo their next planned donation to the Carter Center and instead give to local groups helping out with the pandemic, because that’s the kind of people they’ve always been: believers in community, and in the power of people to help each other — not just through individual giving, but through making government work for everyone, too.” (my emphasis)
The story also included this skit from SNL, which has some laugh out loud moments and captures a snippet of the craziness of life in the 1970s:
“In 1977, President Jimmy Carter had a problem, according to presidential tax historian Joseph Thorndike. Carter’s federal tax burden for 1976 had been zeroed out by a massive investment tax credit he earned for purchasing equipment and buildings related to his peanut farm.
Carter was upset, as he told The Washington Post at the time, because he had a “strong feeling” that wealthy people like him should pay at least some taxes. So he voluntarily paid the Treasury Department $6,000, the equivalent to 15 percent of his adjusted gross income and slightly more than the 14 percent paid by average taxpayers that year.”
God do we miss that type of leadership and character in these troubled times.
Happy birthday, Mr. President! Yours has been a life well-lived. May you continue to live comfortably while you inspire us all.
More to come…
*Others may argue for John Quincy Adams, who served 17 years in the House of Representatives after losing his presidential re-election bid to Andrew Jackson. Adams, a fervent anti-slavery Congressman, is credited for the effort that did away with the “gag rule,” which automatically nullified anti-slavery legislation. Adams suffered a stroke on the floor of the House in 1848 and died two days later.
Photo courtesy of The Carter Center via Twitter.