Southern politics in the 1960s: a readable, reliable account

January 24, 1993|By James C. Clark | James C. Clark,Orlando Sentinel




Jimmy Carter.

Times Books.

223 pages. $22.

After five tries, Jimmy Carter finally has gotten the hang of book writing. In fact, he now has produced one of the best books ever by a former president.

His first book, "Keeping Faith," was a memoir of his administration, but it was very much like its author, overly serious and preachy. The next three weren't all that much better, although Mr. Carter's writing improved with each book.

This time, Mr. Carter has done it right, producing a book that captures the spirit and feel of the South in the early 1960s as few others have. "Turning Point: A Candidate, A State, and A Nation Come of Age" looks at a single, decisive year in the life of a Georgia state senate district.

In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that changed state legislatures throughout the country. The ruling -- known as one-man, one-vote -- held that representatives in the legislature had to be based on population, not geography. Until that ruling, rural districts with tiny populations controlled the legislatures. In Florida, for example, just 10 percent of the voters elected a majority of the state senate.

Redistricting was ordered in Georgia, and Jimmy Carter, a former Navy man come home to run the family peanut business, decided to seek a state senate seat. He challenged the incumbent, who made up in underhandedness what he lacked in popularity.

At the time, there was something of a tradition in the South that called for some election officials to hold back the results until it was clear how the election was going. If their candidate were trailing, they could then come up with enough ballots to turn the tide. When Lyndon Johnson ran for the Senate in Texas in 1948, he appeared to have lost. Then, after all the ballots were supposedly counted, some "lost" ballots turned up at the last minute, and Johnson was declared the winner by 87 votes. Mr. Carter was counted out in his race in the same manner.

His opponent, a warehouse operator, used nearly every dirty trick to win re-election. Mr. Carter entered the race as a naive optimist who believed that the person who got the most votes won the election. But in a matter of weeks he learned how nasty Georgia politics could be. His opponent not only stuffed the ballot box, but also moved one polling place to a new location on election day and had a supporter tear up the ballots of Carter voters.

Mr. Carter learned to fight back, although proving vote fraud in Georgia was nearly impossible, and even proving it did not ensure that anything would be done to correct the situation. But Mr. Carter went to court and eventually was declared the winner of the seat.

Even if Jimmy Carter had not gone on to become president, this would be a book worth reading. His story is typical of what was happening in elections throughout the South in the 1960s. As a result of the one-man, one-vote ruling, the membership in state legislatures changed significantly.

Mr. Carter was one of hundreds of new politicians swept into office. In some cases, these new legislators reflected what became known as the New South, racial moderates who were more forward-looking. But others clung to the racist pattern of their ancestors, vowing to resist the growing civil rights movement.

This is also the story of what could be called the Other South. In the 1970s and '80s, the Sun Belt became the hot area as millions of Americans moved to the South. But large parts of the South were bypassed by the growth. Rural areas, such as most of Mr. Carter's state senate district, actually lost population. Thriving small towns became little more than a collection of closed stores as residents moved to larger towns looking for opportunity.

One of those small counties was Quitman County, which by the 1960s was down to fewer than 3,000 residents. Mr. Carter quotes the state representative from Quitman County who was urging the passage of election reform laws to prevent the kind of corruption that nearly denied Mr. Carter a victory:

"I'm from one of the two smallest counties in the state, maybe the smallest by now. We're going to reapportion this session, and Quitman County will never again have its own representative. Pine trees are replacing our folks . . . I know I won't be back next year, and some laws need to be changed. These local bills are our last chance to have honest elections."

The reform bills passed.

"Turning Point" has the human elements lacking in "Keeping Faith." It may give new hope to those who long for readable, reliable presidential memoirs.

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