BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA Ilif CIIMAtIte BATTLE of the CIVIL ingiffS REVt,.1,90.11 ., BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution By Diane McWhorter Simon&Schuster 701 pages, $35.00 The May trials of Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr., in Birmingham, Alabama, refocused national press attention on one of the key turn ing 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 girlsDenise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertsonas 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. u nlike 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 leadersthe “Big Mules,” in local parlancewere enthusiastic segregationists. For them, apartheid was about economic exploitation as much as racial superiority. Their labor force was miserablein 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 antiCatholic 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” 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, DIANE McWHORTER Segregation and Steel BY BENJAMIN HEBER JOHNSON 12/7/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17
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