Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 11, 2009

Getting Engaged in Plains, Georgia

headphonesymbol50Ranger Steve Part One

Ranger Steve Part Two

Ranger Steve Part Three

Jan Williams

Talking to Ranger Steve

The chats you can access by using the audio sliders above are not formal interviews by any means. Nor would that be in the spirit of Plains. So, starting from top to bottom, here’s how you can take a virtual visit to Plains, Georgia.

Part One: In which Steve and I consider how Plains, Georgia (and Miss Julia too) shaped the values and principles of the 39th President of the United States of America. Need a hint? Just call him Jimmy.

Part Two: In which Steve and I talk about what growing up on a farm teaches you; and I take a pic of the most photographed “building” on Jimmy Carter’s boyhood farm. C’mon, take a guess.

Part Three: In which Steve and I explore a little bit of social history, visit the house, and consider times of transition.

Talking to Jan Williams

Part Four: In which I steal Jan away from her stitching group to talk to me about just about anything anyone would want to know about Plains, Georgia.

By the way, Jan is/has been a retired teacher, a friend of the Carters, Amy Carter’s teacher and governess (she moved with them to the White House to help Amy get settled in), and a retired banker. She is currently the Manager of the Plains Historic Inn and Antique Mall, and a tour operator (with her own bus). She is someone you really must stop by and say hello to when you visit Plains.

So, please feel free to tag along with us (Steve, Jan, and me) on a virtual tour of Plains, Georgia.


Getting engaged? Perhaps I should rephrase that

When I say “engaged,” I am referring to what my friend and colleague Julie Bayly (a cultural anthropologist in the most comprehensive sense of the term) recommends that travellers always try to do. I’m paraphrasing, but she says, “When you go to a place, participate as best you can. Get involved. Engage.”

Being a Canadian eh, I tend however to be a tad “on the outside looking in” — a wee bit detached I suppose. Perhaps reserved or reticent are more appropriate descriptors. It’s part of our Canadian nature to hold back just a little bit.

But you know what? When I’m in the American South, something comes over me. I get this urge to talk to folks, to say hi y’all, to pass the time of day, to just be … um … sociable.

And this was for me very much the Plains, Georgia experience.

And this time, it all started at the Plains High School. Now you should know that I am a retired teacher d’un certain âge, and actually attended an elementary school and a high school that looked, felt, and smelled just like Plains High. And I even taught in one of these very retro institutions in my first year as a callow fledgling teacher. So when I saw those highly waxed wooden floors, the austere and very serious classrooms (no warm and fuzzy here), and the up and the down staircases (metaphorically speaking), it was a major flashback.

And then there was Miss Julia.

Now Miss Julia was Jimmy Carter’s teacher (a formidable looking woman judging by her official photograph at Plains High) to whom he actually paid tribute in his Presidential Inaugural address, crediting her with inspiring in him a love for reading.

He said, “I was a relatively isolated and awkward country boy from Archery, Georgia, and the life of a high school boy in Plains could have been a difficult and unproductive time. But Miss Julia Coleman was there…”

And it would appear she was there for Jimmy and others, instilling in them her fundamental message of “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”

And when Ranger Steve took me on a visit of Plains High, and subsequently of Jimmy’s boyhood farm outside Plains, I had the sense that Miss Julia was along for the ride. I just hope she didn’t think Ranger Steve and I were indulging in excessive levity.

Role modelling

We know that human beings learn primarily by example, through imitation; whether it be language, manners, customs and traditions, or conceptual thinking. And Plains, Georgia is all about this kind of learning. We know that such learning can lead to productive and enlightened social behavior, or it can tend to the dark side of the human condition. But in Plains, you get a deep sense of ethical thinking and ethical behaviour; it is also a good example of landscape shaping culture. So it’s not surprising that Plains, and communities like it around the world, would produce a Jimmy Carter or a Miss Julia or a Ranger Steve.

There is also in this community — and its landscape — a kind of symbiotic nurturing behavioural motif. And as any parent will tell you, being a nurturer is probably the hardest “occupation” in the world, requiring a commitment to principles and practices that accomplish both cognitive and affective goals. And patience!

This is the “balanced brain” modus vivendi which is at the core of Plains. It would appear also to have a multi-generational component that, for whatever reason, (Plains is a perfect case study for students of cultural anthropology), has led to a coherent culture of mutual respect and support. I’m quite sure this was not easily come by; such collective cultural behaviours require perceptiveness, insight, and intellectual courage; the latter is often engendered by hard times, hard choices, personal struggles, and the determination of the Miss Julias and the Jimmy Carters of the world.

Georgia and the town of Plains lie within what has been referred to as the Bible Belt, a term that may well be misused by some (with ulterior motives), but in sociological terms it is accurate usage in that this part of the American South has a higher than average (in the nation) percentage of people who self-describe themselves as practising Christians, and indeed are so. For the visitor to Plains and region (regardless of religious or philosophical “persuasion”), understanding the role religion plays in the grassroots cultural here is also one of the ways of coming to a deeper understanding of what Plains as a community represents and embodies.

Miss Lillian’s example

During my visit to Plains, I also became aware of the leadership qualities in this community that were silently communicated — by example — from generation to generation. The most obvious of such intergenerational influences is perhaps that of Miss Lillian, Jimmy Carter’s mother.

Definitely not just “the wife of” nor the “mother of,” Miss Lillian is a Plains story in herself. Having trained as a nurse, despite some family resistance, she became known for her comprehensive nursing skills; comprehensive in the personal as well as the communal sense. She also demonstrated the determination and commitment to fundamental principles of social justice, a task that she saw as integral to her role as a nurse. She obviously had a strong influence on her children’s attitudes towards race relations. It was her custom to receive African-American visitors in her home — one must remember that this was the early part of the 20th century in the South — and she insisted that they come in through the front door as opposed to the back door. It was of course a symbolic gesture of considerable importance, but it was also Miss Lillian’s way of doing things. (It was the accepted custom at the time that blacks arriving at a white person’s home, would automatically go to the back door.)

Although officially retired as a nurse while her family was growing up, she would work essentially as what today is known as a nurse practitioner in the Plains community and also engaged in quiet social activism, supporting desegregation and providing medical care to African-Americans in Plains.

When her husband died in 1953, she continued to work on behalf of the less fortunate. People who really knew her were probably not at all surprised when in 1966 (a decade before her son became President) she applied to the Peace Corps as a volunteer, was subsequently given three months training, and then worked in Mumbai, India for 21 months, including in a leper colony. She was known for her common sense approach to all things, and a certain “sassyness.” On the day of her son’s inauguration as 39th President of the United States, a reporter asked her if she was proud of her son. She replied, “Which one?”

So when you visit Plains, Georgia, try to leave any scepticism or mistrust at home. Go on. Do as I did. Get engaged.


Plains

Pioneering white men fought to claim
The land of Indians they sent West to die.
Our families moved in then to occupy
The rolling plains that gave the town its name.
There were only half a thousand souls,
White and black, the master and the slave.
Neither side forgot, nor ever gave
Each other ways to reach their common goals.

But now, as equals, free to rise or fall
Together, we have learned we must depend
On one another. Though the town is small,
We cherish it as haven, home, and friend,
And won’t let strife or mischance bring to all
our dreams—our modest, tempered dreams—an end.

From Always a Reckoning: and Other Poems — by President Jimmy Carter


RESOURCES

The Plains, Georgia website

Like the town’s main street, this website is traveller-friendly, no-nonsense, and reality-based.

Plains High School and the Jimmy Carter NHS Education Program

Not only is Plains High School now Georgia’s Official State School (what a concept!), it is also a kind of touchstone for democratic principles.

The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site

Although it is named for an actual person, as a travel destination The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is social history at a fundamental and grassroots level.

The Plains Historic Inn and Antique Mall

Because the Carters and others in the community actually contributed their labour and their vision to this historic hotel, it also embodies the principles of “Main Street” in a world in which hyperconsumerism and materialism may just be getting a touch out of hand. (Hmmm … I wonder if Miss Julia would caution me on the use of hyperbole?)

Habitat For Humanity

A visit to this international organization which began in the nearby town of Americus (and a visit to its Global Village and Discovery Center, whether in person or virtually) will once again give you a frame of reference in which you will understand why I became engaged in Georgia.

Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI)

The terms “caregiving” and “caregiver” were never used much when I was growing up, but they were certainly essential elements in the social fabric, especially in the small towns and rural areas that I knew. The fact that the concept, the practices, and the principles are now formalized and even a discipline for study and social activism (in a world in which more people now live in cities than in rural areas), is certainly significant. It bears repeating that landscape shapes culture.

The Carter Center

If Atlanta is your point of entry into Georgia, a visit to this center, which is devoted to “advancing human rights and alleviating unnecessary human suffering,” may well establish a theme for your visit to the southwest part of the state.

Jimmy Carter Library and Museum

It wasn’t until I had visited the Bill Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, that I realized that such institutions are not simply archives but are four or eight years in the life of the world.

Andersonville National Historic Site

A highly poignant, sometimes painful, but very cognitive travel experience, the National Prisoner of War Museum which preserves the American Civil War site of Camp Sumter (Andersonville prison); and manages Andersonville National Cemetery, is not be missed in Southwest Georgia.

Albany, Georgia is the perfect “hub destination” for visiting Plains, Southwest Georgia, and the other sites and attractions mentioned here.

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