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March 18, 2001
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
CARRY ME HOME
Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.
By Diane McWhorter.
Illustrated. 701 pp. New York:
Simon & Schuster. $35.
here 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.
The Associated Press/From "Carry Me Home"
This photo by Bill Hudson of The
Associated Press came to epitomize the Birmingham conflict for
many newspaper readers.
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.
''I couldn't quite grasp the grandiosity that would make someone falsely claim intimate knowledge of the most horrible crime of his time,'' McWhorter writes of her father. What he actually did she concedes she may never know, but ''at least one of my childhood fears had been laid to rest: My father had not killed anyone.''
McWhorter pursued her search as both daughter and citizen, making her family a metaphor for her country. Each encounters its own wrongdoing and lives with suspicions about itself, but her family's revelations inspire more relief than what she learns about her country.
The most chilling element in this book is not the Klan, the fire
hoses, the bombings or the racist epithets. It is the portrait of the
law, and of law enforcers, sustaining injustice. We have traveled a
great distance from Birmingham, but deep character flaws in nations,
as in individuals, do not always disappear. They can lie dormant,
mutate and emerge in crisis. The invocation of ''the rule of law'' is
so central to the system of American freedom that its perversion can
shake the foundations. Law is not the same as morality. As King wrote
from his Birmingham jail cell after defying a court injunction against
demonstrations: ''Everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal'
and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was
David K. Shipler is the author of ''A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America.''