Jordan, Hamilton. “A Boy from Georgia: Coming of Age in the Segregated South”, edited by Kathleen Jordan, University of Georgia Press, 2015.
An Unfinished Memoir
Hamilton Jordan died of peritoneal mesothelioma in 2008, leaving behind a mostly finished memoir, a book on which he had been working for the last ten years of his life. His daughter, Kathleen (with the help of her brothers and mother) took over the editing and completion of the book. “A Boy from Georgia” is the result of this posthumous father-daughter collaboration and it chronicles Hamilton Jordan’s childhood in Albany, Georgia and examines his moral and intellectual development as he gradually discovers racism, religious intolerance, and southern politics. In this book we get an intimate look at the state of Georgia and her wheelers and dealers.
Jordan was raised in a middle-class family and as a child, he was aware of the civil rights battle that was being waged in the halls of power of the legislature of the state. He sat on the line between the southern establishment and civil rights movement in which he believed. His family did have political power and he went into politics so that he could get his ideals to be put to work.
He eventually became a key aide to Jimmy Carter and was the architect of Carter’s victory in the presidential campaign of 1976 and he later served as Carter’s chief of staff. He was very smart and a fine writer. He was there when the civil rights movement and it agenda was formed and he made it his own personal mission to tear down racial barriers when it came to hiring staff in both Carter’s governor’s office and the White House.
Many expected Jordan to write about foreign policy in his memoir but instead he chose to write about his life in Georgia. He has actually written his coming-of-age story and it is quite witty and filled with mysteries in his family and political intrigue. In reading about Hamilton Jordan we read about the composite white southern male and become very aware of Jim Crowism and the move to progressivism that really saved the south.
Jordan was one of the most intelligent and charismatic political minds of the 20th century and we still feel his influence in the 21st century. His career as Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff is known to many but his inspirational battles with cancer is also something many of us have read about. What makes this book so special is his experiences as a boy and how he was shaped into the man he became from them. The details of his life are amazing. He was known for his perception of people and how to connect with them. This began in his youth.
Jordan had the extraordinary ability to plan political maneuverings but that is not what we find here. Rather we learn about his boyhood and how he was raised. He dealt with some of the major figures of America including Dr. Martin Luther King and a young Andrew Young.
Let’s look at something about Jordan that I bet few of you might know. When he was 20 years old, he learned that his family was not a typical Christian Southern family. He was at the cemetery service for his maternal grandmother, Helen, and he notices that her burial plot was alongside that of a Jewish family. These were his ancestors.
His grandmother was Jewish and she had married his Baptist grandfather before the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was framed for a murder he did not commit. But this was the a South back then and Jews were seen as unacceptably different. His own mother would never mention her Jewish roots.
As Kathleen Jordan edited her father’s memoir, she decided it would be fascinating to trace his moral journey in the racial context. She says that she feels the moment that caused her father to become more of a civil rights activist came when he was standing in the cemetery and realizing that his family was Jewish but that had been kept a secret because of the way Jews had been the victims of persecution. When he asked his mother she answered him, “Hamilton, I’ll never talk of this.” Jordan let that be.
Jordan, we learn here, spent the rest of his life trying to connect with the Jewish community. He had been baptized Baptist but raised his children Episcopalian. He was drawn to Judaism and it had an impact on his relationship to the civil rights movement by making it personal. There are two watershed moments for him: one was seeing his family maid marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown Albany [Georgia] and his then thinking ‘what am I doing?’ and realization that everyone he loves and respects was a segregationist.
When Jordan died, his memoir was 85 percent finished. The book explains how he got to be a politician and how he came to have opinions. Jordan’s story in a lot of ways is President Carter’s story regarding civil rights. That is what brought the two men together. They both had the common background of growing up where segregation is passed generation to generation, and when it falls into your lap, you realize you have a choice. It was empathy and human rights thread that tied them together into a common mission.
Prejudice and race happen in the South but it happens other places as well. The difference is that in the South it is spoken about unlike Boston, for example, where you do not hear a word and rarely see Black people in certain neighborhoods.