"We hunted, fished, explored, worked, and slept together," wrote Carter in Why Not the Best, his 1976 book. "We ground sugar cane, plowed with mules, pruned watermelons, dug and bedded sweet potatoes, mopped cotton, stacked peanuts, cut stovewood, pumped water, fixed fences, fed chickens, picked velvet beans, and hauled cotton to the gin together.... We also found time to spend the night on the banks of the Choctawhatchee and Kinchafoonee creeks, catching and cooking catfish and eels.... We ran, swam, rode horses, drove wagons, and floated on rafts together."
But, he added, "We never went to the same church or school. Our social life and our church life were strictly separate." He recalled listening to the second Joe Louis-Max Schmeling prize fight in 1938, watching his father's dismay that Louis knocked out his white opponent in the first round. Black neighbors offered no reaction in front of the elder Carter. But when they got inside a house only 100 yards away, jubilation erupted at the triumph of the black fighter.
Both Carter and Clinton grew up at ease with African-Americans. DeWayne Wickham, who wrote the book Bill Clinton and Black America in 2002, told National Journal, "In black churches, there is this rhythm to the music and cadence to the speech. When he showed up there, unlike many white politicians, Clinton sunk deep into his seat while the others sat on the edge of their seats. He was comfortable and hard to move. The others were ready to get out the door at the first opportunity."
During the 1992 campaign, Bill Moyers asked candidate Clinton if there was any issue on which he would never compromise. "Racial justice," Clinton replied. Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman later wrote, "The one thing everybody knew was that Bill Clinton was at his most eloquent, most persuasive, more morally commanding when it came to race. He had been shaped, growing up, by the civil-rights struggle around him."
Of course, Carter and Clinton cannot know what it is like to grow up as a black man as Obama does, nor have they experienced the prejudice in office that has been directed at Obama. But neither man ever forgot the discrimination he saw.
In contrast, Obama grew up in perhaps the most racially tolerant state, coming to the mainland long after Jim Crow had been vanquished. "He spent most of his formative years in Hawaii and a little bit in Indonesia," said Wickham, a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and now a USA Today columnist and journalism professor at Morgan State University.
When Obama talks about the racism he has endured, it is of a different degree than what Carter and Clinton observed. "There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me," said the president on July 19, reacting to the Trayvon Martin verdict. "There are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off."