Bombingham

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Mar 18 09:11:34 MST 2001


NY Times Book Review, March 18, 2001

Bombingham Revisited

"Carry Me Home. Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil
Rights Revolution", By DIANE McWHORTER

A daughter of Birmingham's white elite explores the causes of the city's
civil rights violence in the summer of 1963.

By DAVID K. SHIPLER

There are few white people in America more passionately perceptive about
our vexing national problem of race than liberal-minded whites from the
South, especially those who lived through the turbulent years of the civil
rights movement. Lacking the detachment that allowed most Northerners to
make judgments without making commitments, Southern whites who valued
justice were forced to confront themselves, their families, their place of
privilege. This happened either in real time or later, in a kind of
retrospective anguish that has produced fine scholarship, fiction and
journalism and even enlightened politics.

Now comes Diane McWhorter. On Sept. 15, 1963, she was about the same age as
the four black girls who were killed by the bomb at the 16th Street Baptist
Church in Birmingham, Ala. ''But I was growing up on the wrong side of the
revolution,'' she writes. In her childhood world of white Birmingham, the
bombing's immediate consequence was trivial: a spasm of anxiety and the
cancellation of a rehearsal for ''The Music Man,'' in which she had a part.
In her adulthood outside her native city, however, she suffered a delayed
reaction: a longer, gnawing anxiety about her family's possible connections
with the violent resistance to integration. To unravel that personal story,
she had to unravel the entire story.

''Carry Me Home'' is an exhaustive journey through both the segregationist
and integrationist sides of Birmingham's struggle. There are few innocents
in her depiction, especially on the white side, where the roots of bigotry
and murder insinuate themselves into the foundation of the city's ''rule of
law'' and the bedrock of its corporate power. Scouring law-enforcement
reports, archives, memoirs, personal papers and adding her own interviews,
McWhorter, in her first book, expertly follows the tangled threads of
culpability until they reveal what she calls ''the long tradition of
enmeshment between law enforcers and Klansmen,'' which included the Federal
Bureau of Investigation as well as the state and city police. Her precision
in filling in the particulars of that collaboration contributes
significantly to the historical record.

Birmingham has stood at the confluence of some of this country's momentous
antagonisms -- between black and white, Jew and gentile, Roman Catholic and
Protestant, labor and industry, Communist and anti-Communist. Surfacing and
submerging and resurfacing, these currents of enmity shaped unsavory
alliances, and they never quite dissipated before surging through the
racial clashes of the 1960's. Back in the 1920's, the Ku Klux Klan's
anti-Catholicism proved useful to coal and steel industrialists, who
figured that if their work force of American-born Protestants and immigrant
Catholics fought each other, ''there was no danger of union solidarity even
among whites, let alone across color lines,'' McWhorter writes. (As a Klan
lawyer in 1921, Hugo Black ''won an easy acquittal'' for a Methodist
preacher who shot a Catholic priest to death.) When labor strife escalated
in the 1930's, the Communist Party tried to shoulder aside the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People by melding the causes of
Negro liberation and workers' rights. Unlike the Communists in Moscow,
those in Birmingham were on the right side of history, but their
involvement sowed the seeds of the Red-baiting that afflicted the civil
rights movement until its end.

Anti-union vigilantism committed by Klansmen on the payroll of U.S. Steel
and other corporations set a pattern that lasted for decades. When the
barons of business, known as the Big Mules, were no longer willing to dirty
their own hands, they used ''the racism they had fomented whenever the
have-nots threatened to organize across racial lines,'' McWhorter writes.
''Rather than give specific orders to the vigilantes, they would delegate
political intermediaries to oversee strategic racial violence.'' Chief
among those intermediaries was a frog-voiced radio baseball announcer named
Eugene Connor, known by his nickname, Bull; from his post as Birmingham's
commissioner for public safety, he ran Klan-based vigilantes on behalf of
the Big Mules. Among those vigilantes, McWhorter names Troy Ingram, who
learned about dynamite while working for Charles DeBardeleben's coal mining
company, and another miner, Robert Chambliss, who organized the 16th Street
church bombing with a device rigged by Ingram.

The intricate alliance among the Big Mules, the judges, the police, the
politicians, local newspaper editors and the Klan created an insular
universe in which segregationists almost never failed to exercise bad
judgment. Again and again, Connor rescued the civil rights demonstrators
from oblivion. When Freedom Riders arrived in an integrated bus in 1961, he
kept his policemen away for a prearranged 15 minutes so Klansmen could beat
the defenseless protesters. When children marched peacefully, Connor had
them met by snarling police dogs and the high-pressure hoses of a reluctant
fire department. Connor's bigoted wisecracks made great quotes. Cattle
prods, clubs and smirks made perfect pictures -- just what the nonviolent
civil rights movement needed to mobilize the conscience of the country. ''I
prayed that he'd keep trying to stop us,'' Wyatt Tee Walker, the executive
director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is quoted as
saying a decade later. ''Birmingham would have been lost if Bull had let us
go down to the city hall and pray.''

Skillful black activists understood that bad national press alone would not
bring ultimate change; integration would depend on Birmingham's influential
whites, a few of whom were eventually drawn into biracial discussions --
and were threatened as a result. McWhorter has pieced together their quiet
deliberations, their ambivalence as they looked for concessions that would
stop the demonstrations, relieve the mounting pressure from Washington and
end Martin Luther King Jr.'s sojourns in Birmingham to support the
marchers. Department store owners -- most of them Jewish and subjected to
anti-Semitism from the Klan and its sympathizers -- were the first to be
coaxed into integration: lunch counters, water fountains, fitting rooms,
rest rooms. Finally, whites got rid of Connor by eliminating his job
through a risky petition campaign and ballot initiative that changed the
form of city government.

As a journalist, McWhorter is impressive at gathering facts and sourcing
them precisely; her endnotes alone run 70 pages. She piles particulars on
top of one another in narratives and portraits that are often compelling
and artfully drawn, but not always. At times, the themes are lost in
dizzying detail, the trees overwhelm the forest. The huge cast of famous
characters and bit players, intricately intertwined, makes Tolstoy seem
like easy reading. So determined is she to let the facts speak for
themselves -- an increasingly rare virtue in journalism -- that she
forfeits some opportunities to summarize, analyze and clarify. In other
words, she makes the reader do a good deal of work, which is occasionally
annoying but very much worth the effort.

McWhorter has a keen eye for hypocrisy, even among the good guys. Her
comprehensive reporting allows for no sacred cows, not The New York Times
(which declined to publish King's ''Letter From Birmingham Jail''); not CBS
(which edged out Edward R. Murrow before he could do a documentary on
Birmingham); not John F. Kennedy (who wanted King to desist); not Robert F.
Kennedy (who authorized the wiretaps on King); not King himself, not even
McWhorter's own father. If ''Carry Me Home'' has a hero, it is not King,
who seems to appear and vanish irrelevantly like an apparition; it may be
Fred Shuttlesworth, the showy Birmingham preacher and favorite target of
Chambliss's bombings, who steadfastly ran the movement on the ground.

McWhorter subjects King to a dose of mixed reviews. He is described as
courageously embracing a white man who mounts a stage to punch him, and he
is skewered for a series of frailties: his false claim to have been at a
certain demonstration, the womanizing that gave J. Edgar Hoover ammunition
against him and his slights of Shuttlesworth, who was excluded from the
entourage that accompanied King to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in
1964.

At the end of her book, McWhorter finally exorcises the demon that has
haunted her. ''Papa, this is it,'' she tells her father, catching him at a
sober moment in the grimy office of his machine shop. ''I have to know what
you were doing.'' She tests him by reading from a list of names, asking if
he knows this one, that one.

The most he will say is, ''Sounds familiar,'' but usually it's ''Naw, I
don't believe so.'' She thinks he is finally telling the truth, which
indicates that he did not, in fact, belong to a violent klavern of the Ku
Klux Klan whose members' names are on her list. After years of gruff
bragging about his Klan affiliation and mysterious nights devoted to what
he called ''civil rights,'' he admits almost sheepishly that he was not
involved that deeply, because it would have meant murdering people.

Full review:
http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/03/18/reviews/010318.18shiplet.html


Louis Proyect
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