Stories from the Road: Jimmy Carter's Georgia - Plains, GA (January 20, 2017)
Without Lillian Cunningham of the Washington Post, this story is not possible. (In case you’re wondering, yes I did thank her on twitter and yes, she did respond back.) When her podcast, Presidential, reached its episode on Jimmy Carter, Cunningham traveled down to Plains, GA to sit in Carter’s Sunday School class. Listening to his soft, southern drawl greeting his morning class, I was immediately jealous. And immediately assumed that Cunningham had been invited to some special event because of the podcast. However, I quickly googled ‘Jimmy Carter Sunday School’, just to be sure. One of the first hits is Maranatha Baptist Church with their updated schedule of President Carter’s upcoming Sunday school lessons.
Before we go any further, I feel like you may need some contextual background as to why flying halfway down the coast for less than 36 hours to meet a former president is not necessarily surprising to people who know me. I love presidential history. Probably a little more than would seem normal, even to the most history obsessed. My goal is to visit a historical site associated with each and I’ve currently crossed off 29. In August 2015 I visited Carter’s presidential library in Atlanta and was both astounded and inspired. Although his presidential legacy is debatable, his post-presidential career is nothing short of amazing. Such as helping to facilitate free and fair elections around the world. And leading the campaign to eradicate the Guinea worm disease. Just earlier this year, at the age of 92, Carter was helping to build Habitat for Humanity houses in Canada. While he is not my favorite president of all time, he is in the top three, right behind Adams father and son.
Once I found Marantha’s website and the schedule of President Carter’s classes, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I would scroll and wonder what it would be like to sit in that room. I studied the FAQ section and re-listened to the beginning of Cunningham’s podcast. Finally, my boyfriend decided maybe we should stop talking about (i.e. I should talking about it) and we should just go. We bought tickets for early December 2016. The Saturday morning of our flight, we woke up to a snowstorm. Having received no notification that our flight was cancelled, we slipped and slid our way slowly to the airport, only to find out that our flight had actually been cancelled the night before. We ran from ticket terminal to ticket terminal, in true Home Alone style, hoping to find a workable alternative. Finally we had to admit defeat in those blue plastic chairs under a huge ‘arrivals’ screen. You wouldn’t be wrong if you assumed I was crying a little bit.
Besides a cold front and snow, that November also brought the election of You-Know-Who. When we were searching through flight options, trying to find reschedule, inaugural weekend seemed like a natural choice. If Jimmy Carter’s smiling face couldn’t brighten up that weekend, then nothing could. While the departing weather in Philadelphia was fine, we didn’t realize until our plane began descent into Atlanta that Georgia was set for a weekend of nasty storms. (Some have suggested that our plane was actually struck by lightning at one point, which I can neither confirm nor deny.) While the two hour drive from Atlanta to Plains is mostly highway, a downpour seemed to steadily follow us most of the way.
But, of course, the sun was shining in Plains.
The population of Plains is slightly less than 1,000 and, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. My current hometown is somewhere around 2,000 and people miss what we consider ‘downtown’ because they blinked too quickly. Because President Carter and his wife Roselyn were both born and raised in Plaines, the town does boast all the National Park sites associated with the Carters. If nothing else, we would have those sites to visit.
Heading off the highway and towards Plains led us right to their downtown. Eight storefronts, each looking like an antique and a huge sign plastered on one building that read ‘Plans Georgia, Home of Jimmy Carter, Our 39th President’. The store underneath the sign, Plains Peanuts Store boasts the best peanut ice cream you’ll ever eat. While inside they offered us boiled peanuts to go with our ice cream as we browsed the trinkets packed on the shelves, most of them having some association with Jimmy or his presidency.
While all three National Historic Sites are nice (the boyhood farm, the high school/visitors center and the campaign headquarters), the true draw to Plains is the chance to meet President Carter. at Maranatha Baptist Church down the road past the high school. The number of people varies, but some weekends the church sanctuary is full and people have to sit in the overflow room. (Marantha’s website estimates that the sanctuary and the overflow room can accommodate about 475 people.) President and Mrs. Carter also stay behind after the service to take photos (or ‘make photos’ as the people of Plains call it) with any and all visitors.
The terrible weather continued all weekend and seemed to deter the crowd because everyone was able to sit in the main sanctuary. The Secret Service performs bag checks and metal detector screenings before any tourist is allowed inside. (The locals enter through a side door away from the chaos.) After all the rules have been laid out, a church members asked us to bow our heads in prayer and then there was President Carter standing off to the side, smiling around at everyone.
In something of its own miracle, he remained standing throughout the entire 40 minute lesson and the only thing in front of him was a Bible. No notes, no packet, nothing. He was listing societal positions in Biblical times and family trees without any trouble. He asked questions, called on people for answers and had little trouble hearing them, no matter where they were sitting in the chapel. The cutest moment was when he thought Mrs. Carter, who was seated a few rows from the front had said something, and he stopped mid sentence to ask ‘What, Darling?’
As he had returned from the inauguration only two days previously, he also had politics on his mind. A sly comment about crowd size wasn’t lost on anyone and he confirmed that President Obama’s first inauguration was the biggest crowd he’d ever seen, and he’s been to almost all of them since his own. However, his actual Sunday School lesson focused on Paul and how he worked to be a bridge between multiple groups within the community. My favorite line from President Carter’s talk was when he announced that Jesus did not intend for us to only be kind to our white, American neighbors. If only we knew then how salient that lesson would become under the Trump presidency.
While it was amazing to meet President Carter (and trust me, it was), the most amazing thing about Plains was the people. Everyone that I met welcomed me a kind heart and southern drawl to match. I will admit that when I thought of Plains, GA, as a small town in the deep south, I imagined a group of conservative people who were probably annoyed by tourists, because who isn’t annoyed by tourists? But I found the exact opposite. The locals in the antiques shop became friends as they gave out restaurant recommendations, told jokes and recounted story after story about ‘Mr. Jimmy’. The time Mr. Jimmy wore his ugly crocs to Sunday dinner. The time their mother-in-law announced that she had dated Mr. Jimmy in high school, but wasn’t too impressed. How Mr. Jimmy could talk for twenty minutes about fishing.
Because it was the weekend of the inauguration, Plains even had a small woman’s march outside their town hall. The folks running it were kind enough to let me hold one of their signs and when I asked about the politics of the town, they said that the town is pretty progressive. We saw this firsthand when a mother brought over her little daughter dressed like Wonder Woman. One of the marchers said that the Carters probably have helped to move the politics of the town towards the liberal side. The people of Plains are almost a living embodiment the Sunday morning sermon. They treated us as neighbors, even though we were actually strangers. I expected Plains to exhibit the history of President and Mrs. Carter, but I never expected them to exhibit the spirit. I learned the most about President Carter not from the sites that tell his story, but the people who are living it with him.