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An Hour Before Daylight
Memories of a Rural Boyhood
by Jimmy Carter
(Click for Amazon book review)
OnTheIssues.org BOOK REVIEW:
This book is the personal memoir of Jimmy Carter's childhood in rural Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s. Carter wrote this book post-presidency; he has produced a couple of policy-oriented books post-presidency, but this one is entirely policy-free.
His purpose seems to be to document what life was like in the post-Civil War and pre-WWII rural South. He succeeds masterfully -- the reader is left with as vivid an image as that produced by Mark Twain (pre-Civil War South) or William Faulkner (same period as Carter but from the aristocrats' perspective). Carter's family was land-owning, and hence middle-class, but certainly poor by today's standards, and poor by the standards of the 1930s compared to typical Northerners. Carter describes how his family lived; how they made do on little; and how their black neighbors lived too.
Those black neighbors are really the politically relevant part of this book. Carter's family farm housed dozens of black families as sharecroppers; those families made up the bulk of Carter's childhood playmates (but not schoolmates, since schools were segregated). Carter's father was tolerant of blacks -- personifying what was intended by "separate but equal." For example, he took the lead in raising tenant farmer wages from $1 per day to $1.25 per day after a farmworker strike; but would not meet blacks who came knocking at his front door (social custom of the 1930s required that blacks go to the back door of white homes). On the other hand, Carter's mother, known to modern pundits as "Miz Lillian," was much more sympathetic to blacks -- she was the attending nurse when any of the sharecropper families were ill; and she did answer the front door when blacks came knocking.
Carter describes black living conditions (poor with little hope of breaking the cycle of poverty); black school conditions (certainly separate but certainly not equal); and black voting conditions (blocked from voting even after the Civil Rights Act, requiring his personal intervention to even allow voter registration). It read to my Northerner ears as a fair book, written with sympathy for the downtrodden blacks as well as the whites.
For modern political junkies, Carter also describes the colorful characters who became known to America during his presidency: Miz Lillian, mentioned above; his younger brother Billy, the purveyor of Billy Beer; his sister the evangelist; and his other sister the Harley-Davidson motorcycle aficionado. In other words, there's something for everyone in this book: some history; some politics; some personal details. Just little about the presidency itself -- but Carter has other books for that.
-- Jesse Gordon, OnTheIssues editor-in-chief, January 2013
Memories of a Rural Boyhood
by Jimmy Carter.
Page last edited: Jan 31, 2013