Jimmy Carter knows all too well the struggles that have plagued African-Americans. He's seen them through his mind’s eye.
Carter, the sole remaining original member of the world’s longest-running gospel group, The Blind Boys of Alabama, has experienced plenty in his 88 years.
His parents put him on a train and sent him to the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf and Blind in Talledega when he was 7. The man known as The Jimster played with the original Blind Boys when he was at the school, but he was too young to tour with the older members when they ventured out in the early '40s. He played with the Dixieland Blind Boys and Five Blind Boys of Mississippi before reuniting with his former classmates in 1972; he's been recording with them since 1982.
These days, Carter is hunkered down at his home in Birmingham, Alabama, awaiting a vaccine and a sign from God that it is safe to come back out. And it is at this time, more than ever before, that his faith has sustained him.
“Well, the virus has escaped me so far. So, I’m safe. I’m doin’ good,” Carter says with a chuckle. “Well, I found out the more I stay home, the more I want to stay.” It's a surprising sentiment from Carter, who is known for his love of touring.
“Traveling is all I know. So, I miss that; I miss being with the fellas. We just like family, and I miss being with them, but I’m doin’ all right here. I’m not complaining,” he acknowledges. “But I have my music. I am a music lover; I listen to all my music devices, so that keeps me going, too. But we’re all chompin’ at the bit to get out. I miss getting together with the fans.”
Carter is frank about his beliefs, which are at the center of his life and work.
“I feel this is a wake-up call for America. We have gone so far from God; this may be a wake-up call. ... This is nothin’ but God fulfilling his promises. You might not believe that, but that’s what it is.”
The coronavirus isn't the only thing waking up the country. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd's May 25 murder by police in Minneapolis may have brought the issue of racism to the forefront of the national consciousness, but it's a problem Black people have always endured.
“I have been very fortunate in some ways. I have never been really harassed by the police. I have seen some things that maybe shouldn’t have happened,” Carter says, adding, “I always have thought the police are my friends. But there are some that are really bad."
He felt the sting of segregation when he and his bands often were refused dining service while on the road in the Jim Crow South. They weren't allowed to play for mixed audiences of Black and white people until the late '60s.
“You are not born [racist]; you are taught it," Carter says. "What the Black man is really wanting from the white man, is just to listen to and see what’s goin’ on. It’s right there for you; you can see it.”
What's going on are Black Lives Matter protests across the nation and around the world to call attention to ongoing police brutality toward Black people.
Carter's advice to the Black community may seem like half-measures to some: "Just trust God, stay in your place. Do your best not to provoke anyone.
“This is my take on what’s going on right now – peaceful protest is all right with me, okay? But now, when you start rioting and looting … I don’t go for that. But peaceful protest is good.”
Peace is the theme of a song The Blind Boys of Alabama released last week; "Pray for Peace" was co-written by The North Mississippi Allstars.
"Thank heaven for the changes / I've seen in my lifetime / Now our children teach us / To be more colorblind," the song says.
What has allowed Carter and the Blind Boys to scratch their performing itch during these social distancing times has been livestreamed performances on Facebook. No upcoming virtual shows have been announced, but at 1 p.m. today, Wednesday, July 15, Pickathon will stream a 2018 Blind Boys set as part of its Concert a Day series.
But venturing out on the “gospel road,” as Carter calls it, is never too far from Carter’s mind.
“We have some dates that we have to fill that had been canceled. They were postponed. When the virus is lifted, I guess will go out and we will take it from there," he says.
The Blind Boys are no strangers to the Valley, where they have played multiple times, most recently last year at the Chandler Center for the Arts.
And what of coming back to Arizona?
“I hope so. I love Phoenix; Phoenix’s been good to me," Carter says. "The people are nice, and I get good food there, so everything’s good.”
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