"The Year of Birmingham," 1963, was a cataclysmic turning point in America’s long civil rights struggle. Child demonstrators faced down police dogs and fire hoses in huge nonviolent marches against segregation. Ku Klux Klansmen retaliated by bombing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young black girls. Diane McWhorter, daughter of a prominent Birmingham family, weaves together police and FBI records, archival documents, interviews with black activists and Klansmen, and personal memories into an extraordinary narrative of the personalities and events that brought about America’s second emancipation.
In a new afterword—reporting last encounters with hero Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and describing the current drastic anti-immigration laws in Alabama—the author demonstrates that Alabama remains a civil rights crucible.
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from Chapter 8: Pivot
The Colored Guests
The chasm between blacks and whites in Birmingham had never seemed wider, even as the city's ruling white men were breaking their first racial taboo to sit down with Negroes, almost man to man. The controversy that was making integrationists of segregation's former custodians had barely registered in the black community. The imminent closing of the parks was "a minor problem," a black spokesman told the Wall Street Journal, compared to the whites-only lunch counters and the police department. "We will not miss what we have never had," ACMHR vice president Ed Gardner pointed out. When Fred Shuttlesworth and the Movement's security chief, the barber James Armstrong, had showed up at the all-white public golf course in the fall of 1959 to set up the constitutional test to integrate the parks, they had had to borrow golf clubs and were happy to have been arrested before revealing their ignorance of how to swing them.
Shuttlesworth's attitude toward the white country clubbers trying to save parks they wouldn't deign to use was condescension: "They just don't all of a sudden love us, but let's pretend that they do and maybe it will come to be." The World editor, Emory O. Jackson, actively resented them. In a foul humor, he reported to Sid Smyer's integrated meeting on December 21, in the study of the Episcopal bishop at the Church of the Advent downtown (which had been the Interracial Committee's old haven). There were thirty-eight men at this one, including the Reverends J. L. Ware and Herb Oliver, and, on the white side, News publisher Clarence Hanson, Birmingham-Southern College's liberal president Henry King Stanford, and Jim Head, who felt that the only thing that could be said for Smyer's previous meetings on the parks issue was that they took place at all, and under Chamber of Commerce auspices.
Before this one, Head had gone to the chambers of Judge Hobart Grooms, a friend of his and a fellow Big Baptist in a town dominated by Methodists. Grooms had agreed to grant a sixty-day stay, similar to the plan approved by the federal court in Memphis, during which the parks could remain open on a segregated basis. Smyer's opening speech at the December 21 meeting solicited the black men's opinion of the plan.
The "colored guests," as Herb Oliver viewed them, spoke noncommittally of the need to "go forward," until the Reverend C. E. Thomas, bishop of the C.M.E. Church (and a former Interracial Committee member), offered some sharp words about the newspapers' coverage of racial matters. After feebly defending the News, Clarence Hanson left the meeting early with another white "host" to play golf. Emory Jackson took the opportunity to huff out, in protest of the meeting's being declared off the record which did not prevent him from announcing to his World readers that the Big Boys, as he called his black establishment peers, were "selling them down the river."
Miles College's talented new president, Lucius Pitts, recognized the territorial Jackson's rants for what they were: a gauntlet thrown down at him to justify his presumption to speak for Birmingham's blacks. The parks meetings had been Pitts's first venture as a "Negro leader" willing to do business with white folks. He responded to Jackson's challenge by nudging the Movement into its next stage.
Until recently, the word "demonstrations" had an anachronistic Old Left ring. Demonstrations had been the pride of the Communists in the thirties and the last refuge of the fifties' anti-nuke pacifists, but they had not been mustered by the modern civil rights movement until the spring of 1960, when the militant youths of Nashville led a mass march downtown that froze white onlookers into a glacier of fear and awe. Confronted softly at the end of the demonstration by Diane Nash, the moderate mayor, Ben West, admitted that it was not "morally right for someone to sell 'em merchandise and refuse 'em service," and he had desegregated his city's lunch counters.
In the past couple of months, demonstrations had joined the canon of modern liberation art. In Albany, a pecan and cotton center in southwest Georgia ("the tenth fastest booming city in the U.S.A.") that the locals called Al-BIN-ee, a scrappy SNCC field secretary named Charles Sherrod, veteran of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, had ignited the broadest-based community campaign since the Montgomery bus boycott five years earlier. A hotheaded twenty-two-year-old Baptist minister who had grown up on a squalid street in Petersburg, Virginia, Sherrod had staged the first Albany sit-in at the Trailways white waiting room on November 1, the day that the new Interstate Commerce Commission ruling desegregating bus and train facilities in response to Robert Kennedy's petition went into effect. Soon after, in spectacular defiance of legendary black factionalism (as well as of the "massah" tradition bred by the nearby hunting retreats "plantations" of industrialists such as Coca-Cola's Robert Woodruff), the entire local black community, from the NAACP, to the Federation of Women's Clubs, to the ministerial alliances, banded together as the Albany Movement. Its goal was to stamp out segregation not simply seating on buses or at lunch counters but, for the first time, the entire system.
The Albany Movement had gone demonstration crazy since spontaneously enacting, in late November, the first major demonstration after Nashville. There had been so many arrests that the Movement for the first time had a real shot at the Gandhian goal of filling the jails. Albany became a new civil rights mecca. SNCC was sending pilgrims there, and on the weekend of December 16 came "de Lawd" himself. Martin Luther King was arrested along with Ralph Abernathy, who had just moved to Atlanta to take over a church there at King's urging. Abernathy bailed out the night of his arrest in order to be back at his church in time to introduce his Men's Day speaker, Fred Shuttlesworth, but King vowed to spend Christmas in jail.
Albany now had a world-class martyr, and the news coverage to match. The campaign seemed to be soaring into history, as the Movement's long-awaited follow-up to the Montgomery bus boycott. But after less than two days in jail, King changed his mind and bailed out. The Albany Movement went into a tailspin of sectarian recrimination, with SNCC furious at SCLC's Wyatt Walker for trying to take command of their fight, in his crisp field marshal fashion. The news media, which hadn't really had the vocabulary to cover a sustained grassroots protest, now played the story not as one of black against white, but of black against black: "Rivalries Beset Integration Campaign," read the New York Times headline. Albany was "one of the most stunning defeats" of King's career, according to the New York Herald Tribune, "a devastating loss of face."
Somehow the story always came back to King, but strategic miscues had also hampered the Albany campaign. The protesters had aimed their demands at city hall, essentially asking elected officials to commit political suicide by abolishing segregation. In Birmingham, where Bull Connor was jailing the Greyhound station manager for desegregating his cafe in compliance with the ICC ruling, the Movement was realizing that it was time to stop fighting city hall. The activists had decided to take advantage of their new "friendship" with the city fathers since the parks misfortune and apply pressure to white men who were motivated not by politics per se but (as their embarrassment over the Freedom Rides had proved) by the economic consequences of "bad" politics.
By December, the new Miles College contingent of the Movement President Lucius Pitts as well as Frank Dukes and his classmates was ready to move beyond politics and take on the real power, as Bob Zellner had discovered the previous month. He had arrived in Birmingham hoping that his grandfather, an unregenerate local Klan racist who had disowned Bob's "nigger-loving" father, wouldn't find out he was there. Zellner had become SNCC's first white field secretary not long after the Freedom Rides capped off his education at Huntingdon College. The person who had recruited him was Anne Braden, of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, which had close ties to the student movement. It was SCEF that paid Zellner his modest salary, to carry on the old Southern Conference mandate as the SNCC staff member designated to proselytize white students. So far, however, Zellner had been busy bonding with his black comrades. On the steps of the courthouse in McComb, Mississippi, where SNCC was conducting a voter registration campaign, he had recently been choked by white men, gouged in the eyes, and kicked in the face, and then, still clutching his Bible, hauled off to jail. That baptism had made him a SNCC legend by the time he showed up in Birmingham and headed for Miles College to see if he could be of assistance.
Though they received him politely, Frank Dukes and his classmates were eager to avoid any appearance of being "agitated by outsiders." Zellner respected their concerns and unofficially helped Dukes and his lieutenants draft a statement, "This We Believe," whose dignified wording hardly disguised its radical intent: "We do not intend to wait complacently for those rights which are legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time." Forming an Anti-Injustice Committee, the students began conducting a quiet investigation of local department stores. For a "school project," Dukes got figures from the unsuspecting Chamber of Commerce. The stores, he learned, operated on a 12 to 15 percent profit margin. "Negro dollars" made up 25 percent of the gross, or $4 million in an average week. This meant that cutting black business by half could tip the balance into the red. They began discussing a boycott that would paralyze the city's retail trade.
By chance, Sid Smyer's historic biracial meetings had suddenly put the Miles College president, Lucius Pitts, in a position to get his students' message across. Pitts was a crafty man. During the parks "talks," he had been reasonable without being subservient. He was the type of black man who made whites liberals like Head, conservatives like Smyer feel comfortable. And Pitts had plans for their budding "friendship." He knew that intimations of a department store boycott alone would fall under the "empty threat" category of what J. L. Ware called "little nigger causes." For a boycott to succeed, there would also have to be demonstrations a presence of Negroes to offset their boycotting absence to trigger a white person's worst nightmare of rampaging black people. This would incite a secondary boycott by white customers wanting to stay away from potential violence.
Fred Shuttlesworth had never proposed demonstrations for his town because he knew he had neither the troops nor the support of the middle class. And in truth, Pitts was hardly counting on actual demonstrations; the white folks merely had to think that they were going to happen. He began "tipping off" his new white acquaintances that he was trying to maintain order but didn't know how long he was going to be able to keep the Shuttlesworth crowd off the streets massive demonstrations, you know.
"Niggers at the Krystal"
Now that the Klan's old sponsors were joining forces with their former common enemy to phase out segregation, the vigilantes turned desperate to guard their diminishing domain. As if to restore the authority of the DeBardelebens to the enterprise, Troy Ingram had recently returned to the Klan fold; and when he did he was welcomed into the highest Imperial councils. He was the new old face in the usual lineup of bored husbands at the United Klans' November meeting of the North Alabama Province. The Eastview rank and file had grown fidgety, basically having done nothing since the Freedom Rides. Exalted Cyclops Robert Thomas seemed to be losing control of the klavern. Rather than giving or withholding approval for the "missionary work," he would say he didn't want to hear about it one way or the other.
When Klansman Al Peek had left a recent Thursday Eastview meeting to go get a sack of burgers down the street at the Krystal Kitchen, he had gotten so upset at the sight of "niggers at the Krystal" that he had barely been able to spit out the password for the Night Hawk to let him back in. On the first Saturday in December, Eastview's all-stars, including Gene Reeves and Tommy Rowe, teamed up with some rookies to defend the klavern's unofficial mess hall. The Krystal was crowded when they arrived. One of Troy Ingram's new recruits, from the old DeBardeleben precincts, was so hepped up by all the "nigger" talk brainwashed, he later said that when a black customer stood beside him, he cocked his fist and knocked "hell out of him." Another novice, Buddy Galyean, considered "mentally deficient" by one of his ex-employers, hit him with brass knuckles, according to Rowe's report to the FBI, and knocked out his eye. As the veteran Klansmen piled on, two football players from Woodlawn High School and another white man, Rodney Cooper, came to the victim's aid. The senior Klansman in the group, Gene Reeves, who had been one of the select Klansmen on the Freedom Rides detail, wrestled the white defenders out onto the sidewalk. Tommy Rowe swung at anyone handy.
Policemen appeared in the parking lot and arrested a bystander who had been "acting like a bantam rooster," according to Ingram's recruit, "doing a lot of crowing but no fighting." The police department's continuing sympathy with the Klan was perhaps a function of sentimental reflex, now that the stakes of the collaboration had degenerated from the industrial economy of a great workshop town to a ten-cent hamburger.
Copyright © 2001 by Diane McWhorter
Table of ContentsContents
Introduction: September 15, 1963
Part I: Precedents, 1938-1959
- The City of Perpetual Promise: 1938
- Ring Out the Old: 1948
- Mass Movements: 1954-1956
- Rehearsal: 1956-1959
Part II: Movement, 1960-1962
- Breaking Out
- Freedom Ride
- The Full Cast
Part III: The Year of Birmingham, 1963
- New Day Dawns
- Mad Dogs and Responsible Negroes
- Two Mayors and a King
- The Threshold
- Edge of Heaven
- No More Water
- The Schoolhouse Door
- The End of Segregation
- The Beginning of Integration
- All the Governor's Men
- A Case of Dynamite
- The Eve
- Denise, Carole, Cynthia, and Addie
- General Lee's Namesakes
Abbreviations Used in Source Notes
A Conversation with Diane McWhorter
1. Why a book about the "Battle of Birmingham" in 1963? What is so important about this time and place?
"The Year of Birmingham" -- Martin Luther King's huge demonstrations, followed by the fatal bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church -- was the turning point of the civil rights revolution. The federal government was forced to finally make good on the U.S. Constitution and abolish legal segregation, or apartheid, in this country. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the direct result of Birmingham, is one of the masterpieces of American democracy.
2. Why is our understanding of Birmingham during the 1960s important to life in 2001?
Just look at the national headlines surrounding the April 2001 trial of the church-bombing suspects. Carry Me Home documents how the Klan was shielded and even directed by City Hall and by the business community of Birmingham.
3. Why did it take 37 years to bring these last two suspects to justice?
The initial investigation was compromised. The local police force had a long history of collaborating with the Klan. The FBI was concerned about concealing the crimes committed by its own informant inside the Klan. Governor George Wallace protected some of the Klan higher-ups from prosecution. In 1977, the State of Alabama got a conviction against the archperpetrator, Robert Chambliss, but the evidence against the chief suspects was circumstantial.
It took a big commitment of time and manpower for the FBI (under the Clinton administration) to develop the current cases, which are based mainly on self-incriminating statements the defendants are said to have made to third parties. No one involved in the bombing has ever talked.
4. How will Carry Me Home change the way we look at the civil rights revolution? What's new here?
Bull Connor usually comes off as a cartoon villain, but I've shown how the city's heavy-manufacturing business elite put him in City Hall and gave him his racist mandate.
The book also provides a fresh perspective on Martin Luther King. We tend to see him now as this Rushmore-esque great national leader. But the truth was, at the start of the Birmingham campaign, he was passive and unfocused, and his movement was going nowhere slowly. King had to be goaded into greatness by Birmingham's confrontational civil rights minister, Fred Shuttlesworth. And Shuttlesworth paid a price for standing up to King.
5. What was it like for you, as a white child of Birmingham, to live through the civil rights movement? Will white Birmingham reexamine its past as the bombing suspects go on trial?
My family was on the wrong side of the revolution. My father attended mysterious "civil rights meetings" to plot how to stop the Movement. I thought Martin Luther King was a bad person. The grown-ups told us that the "trouble downtown" was the work of "outside agitators" who had stirred up our happy colored people. That sort of denial is still apparent in the local "lone-gunman theory" about the church bombing -- that it was the work of isolated haters rather than the natural outcome of a long communitywide conspiracy. I'm not sure the trial will expose that conspiracy. But the fact that a trial is taking place is a tremendous gesture to four black Birmingham families: Society still cares about the young daughters they lost.
(Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 1963 most of us who had a conscious either were incensed at the vision of police dogs attacking black children, or turned our heads the other way . . . afraid we would have to act on our revulsion. Carry Me Home will not allow us to turn our heads from the horror of racial bigotry and hatred. It is riveting, holding our hearts and minds over the fire of righteousness, daring us to let our God given freedoms be denied to citizens of any color. Brilliantly written!
There is no doubt Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution is testimony to McWhorter's nineteen year mission. Her conviction to expose the truth is on every page. What makes Carry Me Home so compelling in the unflinching examination of McWhorter's own family's beliefs and involvements in the tumultuous time of civil unrest. Interjecting personal biography give the book a unique drama. The detail with which McWhorter writes allows readers to not just walk in the footsteps of history but experience as if they are walking side by side in real time.
McWhorter's The People's Historian, September 4, 2002 Reviewer: A reader from Chapel Hill, NC USA Of all the histories of the civil rights era, Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home is easily the best. She packs more passion and insight into a single sentence than most of her competitors do in entire chapters. The wooden-prosed Garrow comes to mind. For those of us who grew up in the lower South who may be tempted to join the current "reconciliationist" impulse to gloss over how truly bad the "bad old days" were, Carry Me Home is a full immersion baptism in the cold, cold waters of reality, a healthy antidote to our generation's cheap therapeutic dreams of "closure." Her portrait of Fred Shuttlesworth reminds us, in this leadership-challenged age of smarmy black spokesmen like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, of a time when giants roamed the earth. Especially moving were McWhorter's personal reminiscences of her privileged Mountain Brook girlhood and her family's intersection with the dark currents running through Birmingham's racist power elite. If the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce had any sense instead of restoring the statue of Vulcan they'd erect a monument, if not to Shuttlesworth, then to Ms. McWhorter and let it shine as the beacon that the Magic City has long deserved and long been denied. The Pulitzer Prize Committee got it right. Carry Me Home carries us home.
As her uncle said in a Birmingham newspaper, this book is 'creative fiction.' How this won an award for Non-Fiction is unreal. Sadly, this book offers nothing new for those interested in civil rights in Birmingham. Her writings simply duplicates the works of other writers and attempts to add flavor by using a rather trite 'my father is a klansman' first-person narrative. The Manis book on Fred Shuttlesworth ('A Fire You Can't Put Out') is much better. It was also the first to recognize that Shuttlesworth was the unsung hero of the movement. The author also seems to have borrowed extensively from Glenn Eskew's 'But for Birmingham' and other sources.
This book represents a very interesting and provocative view at the civil rights movement in Birmingham. Through this work, I become more interested in the grassroots civil rights movement and sought out more information about this important event in U.S. History. I am sure that this book will continue to stimulate emotion and create an environment in which 1961 in Birmingham will have new meaning.
I have recently finished reading this book and within a few pages was transported to Alabama. I found this to be an highly detailed, and sometimes daunting, historical account of the Civil Rights Revolution. I was particularly touched by McWhorter's struggle for understanding, both personal and historical of this era, and learned much more than I had expected. I am grateful to her for that. McWhorter's account of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing was particularly painful - I was moved to tears by the brutality, inhumanity and profound sadness of the senseless death of those four little girls. Those haunting images will remain with me forever.
McWhorter does a very good job of telling an important story. For a fuller view of the story's real hero, Fred Shuttlesworth, readers should see A Fire You Can't Put Out, by Andrew Manis.
The stuggles of Birmingham Al. vividly brought to life by the authors having spent her life there in a protected family setting. Research and documentation are unusually detailed and well validated. Her interviews with her family members are sensitiveand poingnant.