The play, "Transcendence" Commissioned
by the Rylander Theater and Cultural Authority
The Film: "The Jimmy Carter Story"
You have to travel a lot of back roads to get to Plains, Georgia. Highway
numbers like 26, 49, And 228, suggest some sort of individual identity for each
stretch of pavement, while actually driving these roads suggests otherwise. No
matter what the number, on either side, forever and in every direction, cotton
or peanut fields extend towards infinite horizons; and where these crops have
not been planted, Georgia pine trees rise straight up in clearly defined rows,
waiting to be harvested.
Except for the security fences, which seem like a sort of ‘Area 51'
transposed to South Georgia, the Carter homestead is a plain looking 70's style
house that happens to have an unimpressive-looking pond in the front yard. Here,
and throughout the small town of Plains, the juxtaposition of place and
Presidency is compelling. Whenever he is in town, President Carter provides the
Sunday school lesson at Maranatha Baptist Church, which also is a very ordinary
looking place with out-of-date carpeting and not so much as a stained glass
window to liven up an otherwise dull interior.
Yet beneath and between the pecan groves and magnolia blooms, some very
remarkable things have taken root in the sandy soil of Sumter County. Home to
two National Historic Sites –Jimmy Carter and Andersonville – and home as well
to the internationally renown not-for-profit organization, Habitat for Humanity,
the story that shaped the careers of the men who emerged from here was one of
conflict and internal strife giving rise to vision and perseverance. It is also
interesting to note that at one time this same small county could claim two
National Football League Coaches, Dan Reeves and Chan Gailey.
In the 1950's and 60's, like so much of the country, this area was wracked by
the social changes brought on in the wake of the Second World War. The clearly
defined social interactions between blacks and whites were being turned on their
heads as the reinterpretation of the law declared first separate but equal, only
to decide that even that was not good enough. In Sumter County, battle lines
were drawn in churches, schools, and along the streets of the county seat,
Americus. Concurrently, the Supreme Court struck down the county-unit system of
voting which gave undo political influence to these rural counties, declaring
instead one-man one vote to be the law of the land.
Somehow, the very small minority who found themselves on the "wrong" side of
the race issue –supporting the changes instead of fighting against them –would
generally go on to do remarkable things. Jimmy Carter and his family were among
the very small group who were so ostracized during this time. His peanut
business was boycotted, signs were painted across his home, "Coons and Carters
go home", and the stature in the community that his family had claimed for
generations became marginalized.
Across town at Koinonia farms, a man called Clarence Jordan was putting forth
the very revolutionary idea that black and whites should be able to live
together in peace. For this, his community was bombed and its people threatened.
It was during this turbulent time that Clarence wrote the Cotton Patch Gospels,
which became the inspiration for the Broadway play of the same name by Tom Key
and Harry Chapin.
At some point, a couple named Millard and Linda Fuller were going through
their own form of spiritual crisis and wound up at Koinonia, bringing with them
vision and an entrepreneurial spirit. From the idea created at Koinonia called
‘partnership housing,' would emerge Habitat for Humanity International, which
has now built more than 200,000 homes in eighty-six countries.
Yet, when Clarence died, Millard had to drive his body into town because no
funeral home would come to take it. When Jimmy Carter ran for governor in 1972,
his campaign was so concerned that he would lose his own county that they
developed a strategy of working from the outside-in, creating a momentum in all
the other counties in Georgia that they hoped would so overwhelm his native
county, they would have no choice but to vote for their controversial native
How formative was the social turmoil of his life in Plains in defining the
world view of a President and thus shaping events of the world between 1976 and
1980? As Director of World Communities at Georgia Southwestern State University
in nearby Americus –the county seat for Sumter County that includes Plains - I
had spent seven years living among the people who could provide the answer to
that question. .
A large part of my research involved talking to the people from the Carter
presidency. Among the people I interviewed and corresponded with -including
Jimmy and Rosalynn - were Former Press Secretary, Jody Powell; Congressional
Liason, Frank Moore; Jerry Rafshoon, the man who helped mastermind Carter's
campaign, and many others. I even traveled as far as Panama to interview the
people most affected by one of President Carter's greatest achievements in
But it was my living in Americus that provided the greatest insight into the
areas most famous native son. The nuggets of truth that would help me to make
sense of this story would fall into my lap when I least expected: perhaps at a
party or in a casual conversation on the streets of the town; at a funeral, or
even in the backroom of the local liquor store. It was in this, the least likely
of all research facilities, that I would often meet with Arthur Cheokas, the
local liquor retailer who was one of the group of men along with President
Carter who found themselves on the wrong side of the race issues and ostracized
by the community. Born in Greece, Arthur believed deeply in the dream of America
and could not stand to see the sort of racial prejudice that characterized this
Arthur became a strong supporter of President Carter in his race for State
Senate and for Governor, and continued his close association with the President
and Mrs. Carter during and after their trip to Pennsylvania Avenue. One of the
most astute observers of human nature, his insight into President Carter was
direct and right on target: "He likes to solve problems," Arthur said. "If you
want to engage Jimmy Carter, give him a problem to solve."
In fact, Arthur had done just that when he asked President Carter to
intervene in a struggle between the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul and the
Turkish Government. A fire in the library of the Patriarchate had closed it long
enough for the Turkish government to close it, according to a law stating that
if mass is not said in any Greek Orthodox Church for more than one week, the
church is closed permanently. In presenting the situation to President Carter,
Arthur offered to the president a dire scenario that suggested resolution was
impossible. This caught President Carter's attention, and he then contacted the
president of Turkey and resolved the situation entirely.
Testing this hypothesis, I asked the President and Mrs. Carter to attend the
first technical rehearsal of my production "Grace Will Lead Me Home: The
American POW Drama." The first technical rehearsal is when the technical
elements such as lighting, set, props, and costumes, are first introduced to the
actors, who have been rehearsing independent of these elements. Anyone who has
any experience in theater knows that the first technical rehearsal is an
absolute disaster. It is the time when everyone becomes convinced that the show
can't possibly come together, as lights come on at the wrong time, sound cues
occur seemingly out of nowhere, actors trip on pants that are five-inches too
long, and set pieces become dangerous weapons in search of their next
President Carter is as strict and disciplined with his time as any man on
earth. It is said that while most people talk about getting something done and
look at their calendar, Jimmy Carter looks at his watch. He had scheduled
exactly twenty minutes to attend our rehearsal that night, and we would expect
him for no more than that.
As anticipated, the rehearsal was a disaster. In addition to the usual
problems, this particular play had three huge set pieces that were moved by the
actors into different positions on stage. Thus, for a large part of the
rehearsal, we were treated to a theatrical form of bumper-cars, which almost
destroyed the set, the stage, and even an actor or two.
The President and Mrs. Carter stayed for nearly and hour an a half. As we
watched the rehearsal, I received many suggestions from the President on how to
improve what we were witnessing ("The microphone should be on when that person
is talking…"), and what should have been a disaster turned out to be a most
enjoyable experience for all concerned.
This is just one of many examples of how I came to know Jimmy Carter through
living in his home county. The more time spent understanding Sumter County and
especially the racial conflict of the 50's and 60's, the more I too, began to
understand the Carter presidency.
The result of his experience on the race issue was that Jimmy Carter and
those few who were on the same side of the race issue as Jimmy Carter, were
ultimately shown to be correct even though the vast majority of people around
them were violently attempting to show that they were wrong. It was easy to
understand, then, how during his presidency, he often took on issues that had
little public support in his attempt to assert a greater good. The Panama Canal
Treaty, for example, had about a five-percent public approval rating when the
president undertook this because he believed it was the right thing to do.
Similarly, his stance on energy conservation, health care reform, human rights
and other matters of foreign policy all had low public approval ratings and were
considered politically suicidal.
is the Christian articulation of this reach. It is, as Carter writes in his
book, Living Faith: "... about striving, stretching and searching; wanting to
know, understand, and experience God: transcendence. We find all of this in
Jesus, who showed us what it means to live the transcendent life: a life of
higher expectations, searching, stretching the boundaries of who we are, doing
not only what we have to do, but what we set as a goal for what we should do.
The most beautiful acts of Jesus as recounted in the Bible do not relate to
compliance with existing laws, but they were the extraordinary acts where he
reached beyond what was required or expected- Transcendence."
I believe this was an ideal that remained fundamental to his political
activities and was given form through his experience in South Georgia. On some
level, a perspective was created which came to believe that if everyone is
against me, therefore I must be right. From this unique set of circumstances in
this somewhat remote and certainly removed place, the stuff of a presidency was
The Jimmy Carter Story