July 24, 2024

11 min


Gift Article

PLAINS, Ga. — History remembers him as Jimmy Carter’s closest childhood friend.

In his best-selling memoirs and poetry, the former president detailed his adventures with Alonzo “A.D.” Davis, the nephew of Black tenant farmers who labored on Carter family land in Depression-era southwest Georgia.

At a time of violently enforced racial segregation, the boys grew up together, the 39th president wrote: They wrestled, hunted rabbits, caught catfish and slipped off to the movies, forging a bond that led a 14-year-old Carter to question the Jim Crow norms that barred his “primary playmate” from joining his family at the dinner table.

Davis, who died in 1985, is immortalized as a “timid little Black boy with kinky hair, big eyes and a tendency to mumble” in “An Hour Before Daylight,” Carter’s book about his rural upbringing.

But according to Davis’s family, that narrative omits a climactic chapter of their story. The former president never spoke publicly of what happened after his companion grew up and ran into trouble, mentioning the adult Davis only glancingly in his autobiographical work.

As Carter, 98, approaches the end of his life in hospice care at home, admirers worldwide have paid tribute to the Democrat, who served from 1977 to 1981. Some people remember Carter as the peanut farmer who returned to Plains, population roughly 700, after leaving the White House. Others remember Carter as the proponent of diversity, a president who appointed more Black, Hispanic and female judges to the federal bench than all of his predecessors combined. Others remember Carter as the Nobel laureate who devoted his political retirement to humanitarian work.

Less is known about Carter the quietly influential friend, who’d stayed in touch with Davis through the decades as their paths diverged, and who had made behind-the-scenes efforts to liberate him from prison, Davis’s son and niece told The Washington Post.

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In 1969, two years before Carter became governor of Georgia, Davis, a jack-of-all-trades who’d settled in Plains, was struggling to make ends meet, they said. When he confronted an employer for withholding his paycheck, the employer responded with a knife.

Davis fought back, killing him, and was charged with murder, Sumter County court records show. He could have languished behind bars for years, his family said, if not for the intervention of a future president.

“Jimmy got him out,” his 60-year-old son, Alonza Davis, recalled on the stoop of the cinder-block house he inherited from his father — not far from where Carter lives now. “Jimmy took care of our family.”

During the civil rights movement, Carter, the son of a White landowner in the segregated South, stayed largely silent on race, fearing damage to his nascent political career. That changed once he secured the Georgia governorship, shifting from campaign rhetoric aimed at rural White voters, as his biographers chronicled it, to condemning racial injustice.

As governor — and later as president — he railed against a prison system that preyed on the poor, especially minorities, and pushed to free the unfairly convicted. That included his daughter’s Black nanny, Mary Prince, who Carter said had been wrongfully charged with murder. (He personally served as Prince’s parole officer in the White House, and she remains his caretaker today.)

In his speeches and memoirs, Carter credited his boyhood friends and caretakers as formative influences on his thinking about race.

“All of my playmates, all of my companions in the field — the ones I hunted with, fished with, wrestled with, fought with — were Black people,” he said in one 2014 speech. “My life was really shaped — perhaps as much as any other White American who ever lived — by a Black culture.”

Davis, who also went by Alvin, was a main character in the stories Carter told — shy around White adults, the former president noted in his 2001 memoir, but “carefree and exuberant” when the boys played together.

“I was perfectly at ease in his house, and minded his aunt and uncle as if they were my own parents,” Carter wrote in “An Hour Before Daylight.”

“At least during our younger years, I believe he felt equally comfortable in our house; he and I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary in our eating together in the kitchen, rather than at the table where my family assembled for meals.”

Carter hadn’t reflected much on the racial divide that governed his society, “which we accepted like breathing,” he wrote, until one day when he was about 14 and Davis was about 12. They’d been roaming the fields with another friend when the Black boys stopped at a pasture gate, waiting for the White boy to enter first. Carter wondered if they were pranking him. Then he realized his friends were observing Jim Crow etiquette.

“I reckon they had to obey their parents’ prompting. Or command,” Carter wrote of the moment in a poem called “The Pasture Gate.”

“We only saw it vaguely then, but we were transformed at that place. A silent line was drawn between friend and friend, race and race.”

By their 40s, that silent line had calcified into more of a Great Wall: After serving in the Navy and as a state senator, Carter was running for governor, and Davis was in prison for manslaughter.

Police records from the time are scarce, but Davis told his children this: It all started when his boss at a cement company, a man who went by Butch, refused to pay his wages. They argued. They scuffled. Butch stabbed Davis enough to put him in the hospital for weeks, said Alonza, his son.

Alonza wasn’t sure how his father got a gun, but through his lawyer, Davis told a Sumter County judge that he’d shot Butch to save his own life. (“Deceased had stabbed petitioner with a long-bladed knife and was trying to stab him again” when Davis pulled the trigger, his attorney wrote in a request for bail on Sept. 18, 1969.)

Court records obtained by Evan Kutzler, a history professor at Georgia Southwestern State University, show that Davis — who had been initially charged with murder — pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Dec. 10, 1969, and was sentenced to five years in prison.

He was released on parole on July 26, 1971 — seven months after Carter moved into the Governor’s Mansion.

How was Davis able to walk free? And what role did the future president play? Carter never addressed these questions publicly, and accounts differ.

A week before the 1976 presidential election, Carter’s sister Gloria told a psychohistory professor visiting Plains from New Jersey that Carter hadn’t meddled with Davis’s fate.

She brought up Carter’s “closest childhood friend,” who was “put in a chain-gang for manslaughter,” Paul Elovitz wrote in a 1977 report for the Journal of Psychohistory. He got out on parole, she said, “because it was a manslaughter charge.”

But Davis disputed that characterization to Elovitz, saying Carter was “instrumental” in getting him out of prison.

“Jimmy was a good boy,” Davis is quoted saying in the report. “He was always a good boy. He always wanted to do something for somebody else. He loved to help you out of tight spots.”

In “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life,” published in 2020, biographer Jonathan Alter wrote in a footnote that Carter had “privately suggested” to Davis’s trial judge that his friend had fought in self-defense, and Davis was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. (“Making his feelings known about A.D. to a judge would have been very much in character,” Alter told The Post.)

Carter’s own writings offer few clues. In “An Hour Before Daylight,” Carter briefly referred to his friend in the final chapter, summing up his life this way: Davis “eventually had twelve children, served four years on a conviction of forgery, and then lived the rest of his life peacefully in Plains.”

The Post found no record of Davis being convicted of forgery in Sumter County. Davis’s family said he had served only the 18 months for manslaughter. A spokeswoman for the Carters said she couldn’t find anyone with knowledge of Davis’s case or the former president’s interest in it.

“My best guess is that Carter didn’t want ‘my childhood friend shot a guy, but it was self-defense’ as the ending to his memoir,” said Kutzler, the history professor, who has conducted research into Davis’s life.

Publicizing that he’d helped Davis out at the time might not have played well back home.

“Things of that nature were minimized,” said Bobby Fuse, a civil rights activist from Sumter County. “The promotion of White men helping Black men is not a topic that would be broadcast.”

It was never questioned in the Davis household, Alonza said: Carter had rushed in to help, making sure food stayed on their table when his father was locked up. Alonza was 7 when the officers took him away. His mother couldn’t support the children alone.

“My dad did a little time,” Alonza said, “but he didn’t do the full time because of Jimmy.”

He isn’t sure how. His cousin, 63-year-old Idy Lester, also recalls Davis telling her that Carter had freed him. (“That man tried to kill Uncle A.D.,” she said of Butch.)

She’d never doubted the former president’s ability to do that, she said: Carter was a huge deal around here.

“We just thanked God,” Lester said.

Days after word broke that Carter had decided to begin hospice care, the cousins recalled on a balmy February evening who Davis was outside of the former president’s orbit. Little has been published from his perspective.

He was strict but gentle, hard-working but perpetually on the cusp of poverty. Alonza, who worked for a fertilizer company before an arm injury benched him, pointed to a red-brick public housing unit across the street.

“I was born there,” he said.

Davis had started his family in that apartment after leaving the Carter farm. He’d declined to join the military at Carter’s urging, Alonza said, because he’d fallen in love with his future wife, the mother of his children.

Eventually, he secured a loan to build the concrete-block house painted dark green that Alonza now sat outside. Davis was still paying it off when an author from Nebraska approached him for an interview in 1977.

Their conversation filled a chapter in a 2003 book called “Jimmy Carter’s Hometown: People of Plains.” (Author Duane Hutchinson, who had been saving material for a Carter biography, had pivoted to mini-profiles.)

Alonza flipped through the family’s worn copy, which focused on Davis’s childhood — hunting with Carter and his dog, Bozo, riding Carter’s pony, playing baseball, building a treehouse. (“I don’t know why we loved it so much,” Davis is quoted saying of their wood-plank getaway. “Just a little extension off the ground.”)

He’d hinted at discomfort in their segregated world.

“I was like one of the family. Where [Carter]’d go, I’d go, too, if I wanted to,” Davis told Hutchinson. “But then I got so I didn’t want to go so much. He’d take me to picture shows. He wanted me to go wherever he went, but I didn’t.”

“Sort of shy?” Hutchinson asked.

“Sort of shy,” Davis replied.

He rarely brought up painful memories from his childhood, Alonza said, and he rarely talked about his time in prison.

“He was very private about that,” Alonza said. “Kept it under the radar.”

Rather, Davis tended to highlight the positive.

“He and Jimmy were like brothers,” his son said. “He’d say: ‘That’s my brother.’ They just kept on living as brothers.”

Davis died on Jan. 8, 1985, shortly after his doctor found a tumor. He was 59. The funeral was modest — a tight circle of loved ones.

Alonza, then in his early 20s, remembers seeing the former president praying over Davis’s body.