The Common Good
November-December 2001

Moral History

by Chris Byrd | November-December 2001

Birminghamians live with their history more than most Americans, and
Birmingham's story is linked to the nation's history more than most cities.

Birminghamians live with their history more than most Americans, and Birmingham's story is linked to the nation's history more than most cities. No one understands this like a native, but to tell the tale of the tragic, traumatic, and transforming events of 1963 takes a journalist's commitment to truth and fairness.

Readers of Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution will be fortunate; she came of age in Birmingham in the '60s and pursues her subject tenaciously.

McWhorter grew up, in the local idiom, "over the mountain," in a household headed by her enigmatic father, Martin. Her suspicion that he may have been in the Klan and partly to blame for the bombings directed at African Americans is the book's impetus. But her quest to determine and come to terms with her father's role in those events doesn't cloud her journalistic judgment.

Carry Me Home is a triumph as social history. To many, what happened in Birmingham in 1963 is a morality play in which Birmingham's infamous Public Safety Commissioner, Bull Conner, unwittingly advanced the civil rights cause when he turned attack dogs and fire hoses on children. But the moral dimensions of the conflict of 1963, McWhorter believes, are deeper and more complicated than some may imagine. The civil rights movement, in her view, is largely connected to the struggle in the '30s and '40s of labor unions and others on the Left to organize steel workers and coal miners into a strong movement for social change. This movement threatened the "Big Mule" industrialists who controlled Birmingham.

Segregation was the chief weapon the Big Mules used to retain power. It divided poor whites, who were often sympathetic to the labor movement, and African Americans. Carry Me Home's most significant achievement is that it helps readers understand the civil rights movement from the viewpoint of the white community: the nexus between the Big Mules and Bull Conner, the Klan and law enforcement. Whites weren't, however, as unified as some may assume. As the author documents, before the protests and the church bombing, some more-moderate whites (and even some former segregationists) saw the need to remove Bull Conner from office.

Nor was the civil rights community completely unified. McWhorter details nicely the often fractious relationship of the principal leaders of the Birmingham movement: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, "the wild man from Birmingham," and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Shuttlesworth, whose contributions to the movement receive their proper due in Carry Me Home, was frequently frustrated by King's unwillingness to confront the white power structure. Leaders of the more-militant Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee urged their elders to be more aggressive, while moderate African Americans made power plays to wrest the leadership away from Shuttlesworth and King.

Despite these internecine squabbles and the white community's failure to keep its modest promises, 1963-the Year of Birmingham-transformed the city, the nation, the movement, and its leader, King.

Curiously, Carry Me Home doesn't work as a memoir, as McWhorter fails to fully connect her family's history to the larger historical context. But as a social history, the book shines brilliantly. It's dubious whether anyone will surpass what McWhorter has achieved with this painstakingly researched, honest, yet sympathetic work.

Chris Byrd, on the staff of SHARE-D.C. Metro, lived in Birmingham for eight years.

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