Carry Me Home

by Diane McWhorter

(Simon & Schuster, 2001)

 

(This column was first published in the October 25, 2000 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

 

In a radio interview I heard Diane McWhorter tell her host that after she wrote her original draft of Carry Me Home, she had to cut her manuscript to a fifth of its original size. Good God: the result is still a 701 page tome.

 

But this War and Peace-length volume of muckraking is a remarkable, attention-holding but deeply disturbing read. It is the story, as its subtitle tells us of Birmingham Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.

 

It is a very personal narrative. Ms. McWhorter was brought up in a Birmingham suburb, but she was largely shielded from the terrible events in the city during the post-World War II years. She attended whites-only private schools and country clubs. Her father may well have played at least a peripheral role in the acts associated with the KKK and the church bomber. She is never able to pin him down but, "When I quizzed my grandmother much later about why she didn't ask her son what he was up to on those nights while he was abroad in the workshop town foiling 'civil rights,' she replied, 'Because I was afraid he would tell me.' My great fear would be that my father had consummated another perverse pairing, between country clubber and Klansman, and that he had joined forces with the city's other 'brave brawler,' Robert Chambliss." But she changed and she is able to look back on those events with both clear eyes, an unusual perspective and, even more important, access to the participants. For this I admire her and enjoyed her book.

 

Here is the kind of passage that has led me to this admiration. Recall that the central episode of those years was the church bombing that killed four little black girls. You must first plumb the horrible depth of the rationalization expressed at the end of the first paragraph but then you should see how this young woman climbed back from those depths -- but depths then common to a high proportion of southerners -- to an understanding of and rejection of her own role in those times:

 

"I believed that if you kept your nose clean you wouldn't get into trouble, and that if you got into trouble it was because you broke the rules and would have to 'accept responsibility.' There were rumors that the girls bombed at Sixteenth Street -- even if they were the black version of TKD material -- had been smoking in that basement restroom.

 

"Keen moral certainty blesses both sides of a social revolution. 'She believes that this world is a wonderful one in which to live,' the headmistress of my school said of me, 'and is the kind who helps make it so.' Indeed, I was very much a part of my place. Sometimes, for a city as well as a person, growing up means becoming what one will unbecome. This is a story of Birmingham, of holocaust and redemption in the American citadel of segregation, but it is my story, too. It began as what I believed, became what I know, and now it is what I am."

 

Indeed and I expect that young people today who did not live through those years will have difficulty believing how terribly people could act toward one another. And these are not some members of a foreign terrorist group: these are our fellow citizens.

 

Of course, one of the central villains of the book is Bull Connor who was even worse than most of us in the north thought of him. His record went way back to this episode in the old 'separate but equal' pre-war days: "Bull's men drove a peg into the lawn, tied a cord to it, and then teased it through the auditorium doors, down the central corridor, and onto the stage. History would record that Eleanor Roosevelt sat in the black section at a subsequent workshop until the police asked her to move, and then she defiantly dragged a folding chair into the center aisle. In the future context of Bull Connor's Birmingham, her action would be remembered as a gutsy moral stand rather than what it was: the wife of the President of the United States browbeaten by a crude radio personality. Connor had made his national debut."

 

But Bull Connor was aided and abetted not only by the people who called the shots in Birmingham, a behind-the-scenes group who never dirtied their own hands quite similar to Buffalo's mostly invisible ruling class. Even the seemingly positive actions were selfishly construed -- and immediately rescinded when their temporary value was past:

 

"In one of their first acts of 1954, the city commissioners had done something unprecedented in Birmingham history. They had reversed segregation, gutting the signature ordinance that barred blacks and whites from sharing any recreational activity, up to and including checkers. The law had been causing problems for the sports-crazed city ever since Jackie Robinson desegregated big-league baseball in 1947, for it eliminated Birmingham from the pro exhibition circuit. And so, in consideration of the fans, the commission unanimously amended the statute so that blacks and whites could play certain spectator sports together -- football and track, in addition to baseball.

 

"The explanation for the commission's sudden softness on segregation was Bull Connor's departure from city hall, as a result of a police corruption scandal. 'Honest Ole Bull' had for years run the police department as what one member of the media called a 'small-time gestapo,' controlling the force by rewarding loyalists ('my nigguhs') with plum assignments: the liquor detail, with payoffs from bootleggers, or the house-of-ill-repute beat, with flesh perks. And one of the nonloyalists had decided to expose just how deep Connor's hypocrisy ran.

 

"Early on the evening of December 21, 1951, the disenchanted detective, Henry Darnell, arrived at the Tutwiler Hotel with a reporter in tow and began banging and kicking on the door of Room 760, hollering for Commissioner Connor to come out. After a good twenty minutes, Connor finally opened the door. With him, also in coat and hat, was his secretary, Christina Brown. Connor was doubly compromised. Not only had he been married for thirty-one years, to the nice, overweight woman he had begun courting in sixth grade in Plantersville. But he had become quite the public moralist, denouncing girlie movies and even comic books. The ordinance under which he would be charged (by his own police department) -- forbidding unmarried, unrelated men and women to occupy the same hotel room -- had been written by his Great Man patron, Jim Simpson.

 

"Bull was at the office Christmas party on Monday, drinking punch and yelling 'Hey, Miss America!' to every female between sixteen and sixty, but his popularity could not offset this blow to his honesty. Impeachment charges against him were dropped only after he agreed not to run for reelection in 1953, though Simpson did pull off one last feat of 'Me and Jim' and successfully challenged the constitutionality of his own joint-occupancy ordinance.

 

"When the new city commission, minus Connor, amended the notorious 'checkers' ordinance on January 26, 1954 -- just in time for Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers to announce an exhibition game with the Milwaukee Braves -- it was only making legal the 'integration' that the fans had long been practicing. Whites had flocked to see the superior Black Barons, with their star outfielder, Willie Mays. Now Mays was the darling of the New York Giants, and his Birmingham salutation, 'Say, hey!' was the watchword of Gotham. Across town in the Bronx, another 'ethnic' Birminghamian, Melvin 'Mutt' Israel -- a.k.a. Mel Allen, the Yankees' celebrity sports announcer -- was patenting widely mimicked calls of his own: 'How about that!' and 'Going, going...gone!'"

 

But even that ordinance was soon gone. "The South's corrupt racial peace was over. And so was Sid Smyer's hiatus from the center stage of southern politics. Two weeks later, Birmingham's sports fans went to the polls and, encountering the American States Rights Association's referendum, voted separate and unequal baseball back in by a margin of 3 to 1."

 

And meanwhile Ms. McWhorter's people lived in their dream world: "As the state chairman of UNICEF, [Eleanor Bridges, a Birmingham socialite] had sponsored a children's art exhibition and solicited submissions from Negro schools as well as white. Not long after the winner was announced, Bridges told the camera, a distress call came from the main library downtown, where the art show was mounted. The parents of the grand prize winner couldn't get in to see his entry because, as Bridges put it, 'it's against the city ordinance for the Negro people to come into the white library.' Bridges had absolutely no problem getting the black family in to see their son's winning picture. One phone call, and a special escort came to guide them through the exhibit. 'I think art and culture belongs to everyone, and on that level I think we have very little prejudice,' she said."

 

And the politicians continued their two-faced activities:

"Fred Shuttlesworth's lawsuit to desegregate the city's sixty-seven public parks (as well as its eight swimming pools, the public golf courses, and the Kiddieland amusement park) had been going on for two years -- another encounter with segregation that might have been scripted by the Marx Brothers. (The best legal argument the city had advanced was that the zoo was only 'semi-segregated,' with racially separate concession stands and toilets.) Judge Grooms considered himself 'a good conservative, but not so conservative that I can't see what the law is.' As of January 15, 1962, he decreed, the city parks of Birmingham would be open to Negroes.

 

"Whether the Negroes would be able to get past the police was a different matter. Bull Connor announced that he would simply close the parks."

 

The church did no better: "On March 8, the auditorium was the boisterous scene of a rally by the Reverend Billy James Hargis, the Tulsa-based evangelist who generated radio broadcasts and all manner of print propaganda based on his reading of Acts 17:26 proving that segregation was ordained by God."

 

And far worse was J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI-sponsored spies among the murderers. The activities of this agency make me worry about the extra powers (together with reduced oversight) now being assigned to them.

 

Ms. McWhorter's change of heart did not go unrewarded: "In 1982, I joined the federal judges, civil rights leaders, and assorted other 'sissybritches' on George Wallace's enemies list. Condemned to a wheelchair by a would-be assassin's bullet, Wallace had just repented of his segregationist sins and was elected, with the black vote, to an unprecedented fourth term as governor. ('Black people are very forgiving,' said the Reverend Abraham Woods, the old ACMHR lieutenant who had become the tenured head of Birmingham s SCLC chapter. 'Sometimes they are more forgiving than they ought to be.') I wrote a couple of articles recalling the blood on Wallace's hands dating back to the fall of 1963, and he telephoned my uncle, whose late father-in-law had been part of his segregationist brain trust in 1963. 'Hobart,' the governor said, 'are you any kin to that Diane McWhorter?'

 

"And my favorite uncle, whose law firm handled most of the state's bond business, said he replied, 'Never heard of her in my life, George.'"

 

Of course the central episode of the book is the church bombing. Four lovely black children dressed in their very best clothes retired to a basement washroom to primp and ended their lives there. Ms. McWhorter tells us: "William Sturdivant's adult class, upstairs in the dining room of the old parsonage, was interrupted by what sounded like a loud ticking. Someone said, 'Reckon that was -- ' At 10:22 there was a resonant thud, as if someone had hit the world's largest washtub, followed by a ripping blast that sent a streak of fire above the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Closed doors flew open, and the walls shook. As a stale-smelling white fog filled the church, a blizzard of debris -- brick, stone, wire, glass -- pelted the neighborhood.

 

"A motorist was blown from his car. A black pedestrian calling his wife from a pay phone across the street was whooshed, the receiver still in hand, into the Social Cleaners, whose front door had been whipped open. Johnny Apple, the NBC correspondent, felt the blast as he was having breakfast at the White Castle hamburger joint not far from the church.

 

"Thirty blocks away, Nigger Hall [a white man] and Ross Keith were sitting in a car at Hall's brother's junkyard, recovering from the previous night's drunk. Keith observed, 'I guess it's somebody discriminating against them niggers again.'"

 

The martyrdom of those four innocent children turned the tide of history and gave us our federal civil rights.

 

This is a haunting story not only for Ms. McWhorter but for all of us. We must recognize how deeply flawed we can be, how mean-spirited and worse we can be to each other, even in these times when we rightly celebrate our best togetherness and fellowship since World War II.

 

Highly recommended.