Books and the Culture

Segregation and Steel

Carry Me Home: Brimingham, Alabama:

The May trials of Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., in Birmingham, Alabama, refocused national press attention on one of the key turning points in American race relations. On September 15, 1963, a homemade bomb left near the doorstep of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church exploded with terrible force, ripping a hole in the building’s east wall and killing four young girls–Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson–as they prepared for Sunday school class.

Over the preceding year, local African Americans, with the backing of Martin Luther King, Jr., had seized the nation’s attention with a series of protests against segregation. Although the bombers hoped that the attack would derail the movement, it had the opposite effect, increasing the resolve of civil rights activists and the pressure on the federal government to finally protect the constitutional rights of all citizens. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which signaled the death knell of Jim Crow by outlawing segregation in public accommodations, came in no small part because of the miscalculation of Cherry, Blanton, and their associates.

Diane McWhorter takes us back to the battle of Birmingham, which she rightly calls “the climactic battle of the civil rights revolution.” Carry Me Home is both epic history and autobiography. McWhorter grew up in white Birmingham, and was roughly the same age as the girls killed in the bombings. She recalls wondering where her dad went at night, when he slipped out the door muttering about “civil rights.” Later, she came to fear that he might have played a role in the series of attacks that earned her hometown the nickname “Bombingham.” But the real strength of Carry Me Home is the thoroughly researched and detailed account of the struggle for civil rights in black Birmingham, and the ferocious backlash it produced, particularly among the town’s business elite, who ran both sides of Birmingham with an iron fist.

Unlike most of the South, Birmingham was an industrial center, the southern outpost of the mighty empire of the United States Steel Corporation. McWhorter, born into one of the city’s more prominent families, begins her account with the roots of Birmingham’s post-slavery caste system, which she locates in the steel town’s industrial development and accompanying labor strife. Ultimately, it was the bombings that would become enshrined in public memory, but here in the book’s early material is the hidden history of segregation. The steel industry’s leaders–the “Big Mules,” in local parlance–were enthusiastic segregationists. For them, apartheid was about economic exploitation as much as racial superiority. Their labor force was miserable–in down times, workers slept in idle coke ovens and epidemics of pellagra, rickets, and venereal disease swept through their neighborhoods–but so divided that union organizing proved very difficult. Thus the Klan of the 1920s, which emphasized anti-Catholic nativism as much as anti-black racism, was a godsend to industrialists. “As long as their ‘native-born’ laborers were fighting the large Catholic-immigrant portion of the workforce,” McWhorter writes, “there was no danger of union solidarity even among whites, let alone across color lines.”

As McWhorter reveals, the Big Mules, including corporate lawyer James Simpson and coal magnate Charles DeBardeleben, were not above sponsoring vigilantism to maintain their hold on the city and its workforce. By 1934 DeBardeleben was the nation’s largest coal operator still fending off the United Mine Workers. A small private army, virtual minefields of bombs, and the occasional murders of organizers kept his business union-free. Black workers were kept in line by a legendary figure of unknown identity who prowled the mines “wearing a black robe, white gloves with black streaks on the fingers, and a mask with flickering flashbulbs as horns.”

Moreover, the Big Mules supported the livelihoods and political careers of men with whom they would not deign to socialize, including Eugene “Bull” Connor (a former baseball announcer) and many of the men who would later conduct the spate of bombings in the 1960s. James Simpson recruited Connor to politics, backing his run for state legislature and then for Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety. After winning the latter office, Connor made sure that union organizing and other interracial meetings in the city were promptly broken up. If his words were confused, his meaning was not: “Black and white shall not segregate together.” What the Big Mules had once had to attend to themselves could now be left up to local government.

McWhorter also digs a little deeper into history to examine earlier movements that created an opening for Southern civil rights organizers. The rise of the New Deal and the industrial labor movement in the 1930s rattled Alabama’s race-based social order, though they did not break it. Union organizers, especially Communists and the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), reached out to organize across racial lines. Alabama voters sent unabashed populists to the statehouse and to Washington, D.C. Senator (and later U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Hugo Black and Governor James “Big Jim” Folsom spoke movingly of the struggles of the common people, whose ranks included blacks as well as whites. The solid South was showing the first signs of the cracks that would widen a generation later.

By the 1950s, however, when African Americans steeled themselves to rid the nation of Jim Crow, they found the oppressive apparatus of the Big Mules alive and well. The populist interracial tradition was withering on the vine, or yielding only bitter fruit like Alabama governor George Wallace, a devout segregationist. This is the point at which McWhorter’s account slows and becomes even more detailed and compelling, as she takes her reader through the infamous church bombing and what would come to be the death of segregation.

Although these are the portions of the book most familiar to Americans–the glorious speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., the calm dignity of protestors in their Sunday best, the hostility of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the beer guts and tobacco plugs of segregationist thugs–they may also be the most surprising. The hero who looms largest in these pages is not King, but rather the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a little-known Birmingham minister who was the most forceful advocate of mass demonstrations and the goal of an unconditional end to segregation. Shuttlesworth, whose stepfather had mined ore until the dust destroyed his lungs, came to be known to friends and enemies alike as the “wild man from Birmingham” for his unflinching bravery and optimism. Repeated death threats, beatings, bombings, and lawsuits failed to dissuade him.

He had as little patience for weak-willed black leaders as he did for ill-willed white figures, once telling a stunned NAACP audience that “Negroes are tired and fed up with their own leaders who rise to prominence and then do the Uncle Tom.” When a panicked fellow minister called him late one night, saying that God had sent him a message to call off a mass meeting the next day, Shuttlesworth was beside himself. When “did the Lord start sending my messages through you?” he demanded. “Tell the Lord that if He wants me to call it off, He better come down here in person, and He better have identifying marks on His hands and spear marks on His side. Then I’ll call off the meeting.”

Perhaps the greatest surprise of the hundreds of pages that McWhorter spends on the showdown in Alabama is how tenuous the movement’s victory really was. Jim Crow was entering his seventh decade in the 1960s, and could well have lived, like Strom Thurmond, for decades more. The movement was at a crossroads in 1963. Despite massive local support and a carefully planned strategy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his allies had failed the year before in their campaign to desegregate Albany, Georgia. Segregation was still the law of the land, few blacks could vote in the South, and federal authorities were more interested in “peace” than in crossing the white Democratic barons of Dixie, who held considerable power in Congress. So the movement desperately needed a victory.

Yet the Birmingham demonstrations seemed to have stalled. Local leaders bickered among themselves and with King. Bull Connor gloated that King had “run out of niggers” to fill the jails. The turning point came when veteran civil rights organizer James Bevel appealed directly to black high school students to join the marches. King and other leaders balked at sending children to face the tender mercies of Bull Connor’s cops and firemen, but they were powerless to stop them. In what came to be known as the “children’s crusade,” the kids rallied at the Sixteenth Street Church, later the site of the bombing, and then took to the streets. They were joined by their parents and much of black Birmingham. Besieged by the demonstrations, Connor began the mass arrests and harassment of peaceful demonstrators that brought so much media attention to the city. “Ten or 15 years from now, we will look back on this and say ‘how stupid can you be?'” said one particularly prescient officer to another, as they loaded lines of children onto buses to be shipped to jail. Once the jails filled, Connor turned fire hoses on the crowds, showing the city’s true face to the world.

Among those watching Bull Connor so ably assist in the humiliation of the South were many of his former sponsors in Birmingham’s steel industry. As McWhorter closely documents, their attitudes slowly changed following the disastrous events of 1963. Though no public repudiation ever occurred, Birmingham’s business elite began to distance itself from its former henchmen. Boycotts and demonstrations deeply hurt retail merchants. Bull Connor’s antics were not exactly helpful in attracting outside capital and educated newcomers for the city’s rapidly growing medical research complex. Ultimately, executives decided that their city could not pay the price to maintain segregation. The decision of Birmingham’s elite was mirrored across the region: Segregation was bad for business.

Carry Me Home succeeds better as history than memoir. McWhorter’s father, it turns out, did not really know the bombers and had nothing to do with their killings. McWhorter’s own conversion from a reflexive if not committed segregationist evidently occurred after the narrative of the book, so we don’t see how the events she discusses changed her own views. And what she does experience is hardly remarkable. Should we really be surprised that a well-off white girl was more disturbed by the cancellation of a school play than by the actual murder of four black girls? In the end, McWhorter’s story simply trickles out.

But as history, the astounding level of detail and insightful reframing of the Birmingham movement make it a book well worth reading. By so vividly linking segregation’s rise and violent self-perpetuation to America’s modern industrial order, McWhorter sets up a rich opportunity to reexamine this celebrated chapter in the Southern civil rights movement. Ironically, this reframing also points up a failure. The struggle in Birmingham may have hastened the end of Jim Crow, but it left America’s economic system largely unchanged. The rulers of Birmingham could retreat to suburban enclaves, send their kids to private schools, and happily let Fred Shuttlesworth and any who cared to join him buy whatever hamburgers or movie tickets they could afford. The basic social order–blacks and poor whites on the bottom, rich whites on the top–remained unchanged. Consider Montgomery, Alabama, where Rosa Parks’ refusal to sit at the back of the bus launched the grassroots phase of the civil rights movement. The daily humiliation of thousands of black bus riders is now unthinkable–because the city’s once-great public transit system is down to a pathetic three bus routes. Getting to work if you don’t own a car is well-nigh impossible.

No wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr. turned more and more to economic matters after civil rights had been obtained. It was a garbage workers’ strike that brought him to Memphis in April of 1968, where he was assassinated. King and the four martyrs of Birmingham did not die for nothing, but the greatest aspirations of their movement have yet to be achieved.

Benjamin Heber Johnson is writing a book about race relations in 20th century Texas.

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Published at 12:00 am CST