Thursday, June 17, 2010

Carry Me Home; Leaving Birmingham

Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
Diane McWhorter (2001, Simon and Schuster)
Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son
Paul Hemphill (1993, Viking Penguin)

If one is of a certain age--which for this purpose I am not--Birmingham is a somewhat infamous place to be from. (I lived there in 1963, the year of police dogs, water cannons, and the dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church, but I was two, and we lived ‘over the mountain’, in the leafy southern suburbs.) The civil rights history of Birmingham exerts a great fascination for some of us who just missed first-hand experience of it. To write Carry Me Home, Diane McWhorter immersed herself in that fascination for fifteen years.

McWhorter is a child of Mountain Brook, the wealthiest and leafiest of the southern suburbs. “Most of America knew of my city only as a sort of race circus--redneck freaks and Jim Crow wretches, clashing under the live fireworks of ‘Bombingham.’ But behind the scenes was a third set of principals, from whom I was learning the ordinary rituals of prosperity at the Mountain Brook Club.” Carry Me Home details the links between the Big Mules of Mountain Brook, assorted violent Klansmen, the city government, and the FBI. On the other side, the movement against segregation reflected the class divisions within black Birmingham, becoming a mass movement somewhat in spite of the traditional leadership.

McWhorter shows us large characters sometimes not at their best--Bull Connor, Fred Shuttlesworth, Robert F. Kennedy, George Wallace, as well as Martin Luther King--and hundreds who might otherwise be forgotten. From a thicket of incisive and often ironic details, a story of courage and perseverance emerges. In Carry Me Home, the martyrs and heroes of Birmingham have a worthy monument.

In the acknowledgments that end her book, McWhorter thanks the editor who ‘commanded me to shrink the manuscript to a size that could be manipulated without the aid of a forklift...’; trimmed by two-thirds, Carry Me Home still weighs in at 700 pages, with index and notes. If your reading list doesn’t quite have room for it, but you’re interested in the subject, allow me to commend an alternative.

Paul Hemphill’s Leaving Birmingham was written while McWhorter was starting her research; it’s longer on memoir, shorter on footnotes. Hemphill describes the industrial and class history that divided Birmingham into Poor white, Rich white, and Black. (He’s poor white: his father drove trucks on long hauls, before the Interstates; in a useful counterpoint, the book makes space for the voices of a black man, and a white woman from Mountain Brook. ) Like McWhorter, he contemplates the usefulness of racial division and hatred to the captains of industry. And like her, he’s passionate about the issues of justice and peace raised by Birmingham’s history, because it’s there that these are not abstractions, but visceral and deeply personal--indeed, matters of life and death.

February 2002