C. VANN WOODWARD, the eminent historian who taught at Johns Hopkins before going on to Yale 30 years ago, once remarked that you can't study Southern history without becoming "an addicted ironist." The trenchancy of that observation was brought home with great force last week when family matters took me to Georgia for several days.
From the Atlanta airport, I rented a car for a three-hour drive down through the heart of the state. January is not the best month in Georgia; it is usually overcast and misty, the fields are barren, the trees leafless, and there is a damp chill in the air which penetrates the bone. But by happy coincidence, the dreariness of the trip was alleviated by the inauguration of a new governor, carried live on Georgia Public Radio.
A standard feature of the inauguration, it seems, is the passing of the Great Seal of Georgia -- a device which imprints the state's insignia -- from the old governor to the new.
Now, the Great Seal has an interesting history in Georgia. In the aftermath of the Civil War, with Reconstruction at hand, Georgia's governor, a formidable man named Charles Jones Jenkins, fled the state, taking with him the Great Seal to prevent its defilement at Yankee hands. Years later he brought back the Great Seal, unsullied, and presumably it has been passed on to generations of governors ever since.
But if Governor Jenkins were at the 1991 inauguration in spirit, he must have been startled, to say the least, when he heard the first words of his successor who now holds the cherished Great Seal. At the outset, Gov. Zell Miller paid warm tribute to "that distinguished son of Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr." He even suggested that Dr. King's dream had been fulfilled, that the day had come when the sons of slaves and the sons of slave-owners could sit down together at the table of brotherhood in the red hills of Georgia.
The ceremony ended as I reached my destination, the languid little South Georgia town of Albany. As a child, I had spent countless Saturday afternoons just walking its throbbing streets, or, if I had a quarter to spend, seeing a Western movie with Tom Mix or Hopalong Cassidy -- blessed respite from the cheerless ennui of the farm.
I remembered that Albany had been the site of what was universally known in the white community -- I do not wish to be offensive, but I must be accurate -- simply, "the nigger college." It was a leading state institution for producing teachers to sustain the segregated schools of the time, and teaching was about as high a station as an ambitious black youngster could hope to reach in those days. I remembered that I would pass the college regularly on my way home from the state university, and it never once occurred to me that "those" people had any desire whatsoever to go to "my" university.
Another vivid memory of Albany was a little booth which stood just outside the "colored" waiting room of the local Greyhound bus station. From that booth, a black person could obtain a free one-way bus ticket to Baltimore, Detroit, any distant point north, and $5 in spending money for the trip. No doubt public funds financed this squalid enterprise.
Against that background, it is close to a miracle that today Albany is thoroughly integrated in schools, businesses, political offices -- just about everything except, of course, Christian churches. At the community hospital, where I went to visit a family member, patients and staff were thoroughly intermingled, black and white, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
On my second day there, Jan. 15, the chief speaker for a birthday tribute to Martin Luther King was none other than the young white mayor of Albany -- the one city where the civil rights leader had suffered a major defeat in his 1960s campaign of massive challenge to Jim Crow society.
After a week in Georgia I headed back, leaving early on a Sunday morning in order to get to the small town of Plains, some 25 miles north of Albany, in time for the morning worship service at the little Maranatha Baptist Church on the chance that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter might be there -- as they always are whenever they are in town.
But they weren't in town; they were away building houses for the poor, or trying to end a civil war in some obscure country in Africa, or otherwise following the example of the founder of their church.
I drove by their house, which, except for the little sentry house standing at the entrance of the driveway, was just like any other house of a fairly prosperous local farmer. On the way out of town I stopped at the town Bar-B-Q stand for one of its World Famous Sandwiches. I asked the owner about Plains' most renowned citizen, and he replied, as casually as if he were remarking on the weather, "Yes, Jimmy passed the other day in his pickup, and we waved."
As I turned northward, I paused for one last glimpse back at the moribund little town, unchanged since I first set foot there nearly 40 years ago. And I truly wondered if I were not experiencing some strange, inexplicable hallucination when it occurred to me that 10 years ago to the very day, my friend was serving his last day as the 39th President of the United States.