News and Features
'Modernity' isn't the archfiend. But as often preached, it appears so to many.
Anthrax scare reveals racial denial: workers on Capitol Hill are evacuated and given protective drugs while exposed postal workers, most of them black, are forgotten.
On the eightieth anniversary of the riot in that city, we commemorate the report written for this magazine by a remarkable journalist.
Puerto Ricans of all stripes question the Navy's presence there.
There was a short note in the New York Times a few months ago reporting that Governor Jeb Bush wept while speaking to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education. He was crying, it turns out, for a press aide of his, a black woman who he said had been scorned by other blacks because she worked for him. "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice." The woman in question then mounted the podium and handed him "a tissue for his eyes." It was an affecting little story in its narrative elements, the strong but kindhearted white statesman who cries for the lost society of his black aide, while she, the brave moral soldier, risks all--race, face, culture, friends--for her beliefs.
I'd like to succumb to the feel-good sentimentality of it all, but when Republicans say they are going to reach out to the black community, as they have made such fuss about doing of late--well, frankly, I cringe. I remember George Bush the elder getting all choked up about Clarence Thomas's "ultimate sacrifice." I have awful recollections of the Republican Party courting Sammy Davis Jr. so that he could weep, or was it laugh, with Richard Nixon. Oh, the highs, the lows.
In any event, despite the Bush team's race to pose with black church ladies and black mayors and black children enrolled at failing inner-city schools, a recent Gallup poll shows African-American optimism about race relations is lower than it was thirty-five years ago. While seven out of ten whites say that blacks and whites are treated the same, a similar number of blacks say that blacks and whites are treated very differently. The poll also shows that since Bush's election, blacks have grown substantially more pessimistic about their political future, even as 70 percent felt positive about their personal lives. While some commentators found this contradictory, it was a statistic that struck home with me. I am a black person who feels personally content; I am grateful for what I have and work hard to protect my little status quo. But at the same time, I am just plain scared of what the future holds for dark-skinned people in the political arena.
Perhaps the Bush team will read of my dejection, perhaps they will read this much and weep. Then again, perhaps not: As David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has said, reaching out to African-Americans most likely wouldn't win many black votes but could help Bush expand his base. "I think the strategy has less to do with getting black support than with making Bush appear more moderate to swing voters, particularly white women in the suburbs, who have a sense that the GOP is an antiblack party."
It is interesting to compare how well the Gallup poll's documentation of divided racial perceptions corresponds to actual conditions. After all, a recent Harvard study shows that US schools grew more segregated during the 1990s for both blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the Washington Post shows that blacks experience more discrimination than any other ethnic group by far. (The "ethnicities" specified in the study were black, white, Asian and Latino. Native Americans weren't mentioned, and the complicating factor that Latinos are sometimes categorized as either black or white was not addressed. Nevertheless, if one accepts that these labels reveal more about our society as a pigmentocracy rather than about ethnicity in the strict sense, then such data are still extremely interesting.)
This deep division is not a matter of whether we see the glass half-full or half-empty--a cliché that minimizes the irrationality of what is going on as just a matter of conflicting opinions. In the face of nationwide statistics that establish that dark-skinned people of whatever ethnicity are stopped, searched and arrested more frequently and sentenced more harshly; in the face of statistics showing that blacks across the socioeconomic spectrum get much less comprehensive medical treatment for illnesses ranging from asthma to AIDS to cancer to heart attacks; in the face of figures revealing that banks, employers, restaurants and real estate agents still routinely engage in redlining and other discriminatory lending and business practices; given the realities of environmental racism; given the gutting of civil rights laws to the point where Congress is now debating handing money to religious groups that "believe" in discrimination; given marginalization in the voting process and given fears of a recession... well, it's no wonder blacks are a little less positive. The only wonder is how deeply race rather than citizenship affects the ability to hear this bad news.
On a recent radio program, I heard a woman describing a reunion of family and friends that had been planned for a resort in South Carolina during a time when the NAACP had called for a tourism boycott until the Confederate flag was removed from state property. She said that the extended family had "never" discussed race before, and so they consulted with one another about what to do and whether to go. They did go, but passed the hat and contributed the money to the NAACP. I didn't hear the woman reveal her race, but it's a safe bet that group was white. How else do you go through life "never" thinking about race?
I thought about race when I found myself at Boston's South Station last week, at midnight, vainly trying to get a cab to the airport. The fact that black cabbies pass blacks by as often as white cabbies is no more comforting than, say, having Clarence Thomas joy ride the freedom train right on past black precincts with the same blithe blindness as Antonin Scalia.
But, hey. If it's any comfort to Jeb Bush, my sense is that black people don't revile his black press aide any more than they revile old Jeb himself. And if there's weeping to be done about lost black regard, common decency demands that big brother George should lead the doing of it.
As for Jeb's press aide, the one with Kleenex to spare, I do believe she was last heard trilling, to the tune of "Oh, Susannah": "Oh, young Jeb Bush/Oh, don't you weep for me/For I'm going to make some big bucks/As a black con-ser-va-teeeev!"
The NAACP is back, and it plans on being heard.
The census makes clear about Latinos what many of us have known for a long time: The power of culture and character is now reinforced by demographics. From a small minority struggling to achieve legitimate power, Latinos have become a very important group politically, one that must now learn how to use power. At this point the role of Latinos in the public world changes. They begin to appear more often in the general media, although not yet in what anyone would consider equitable proportion, and the marketers pay even greater attention to Spanish-language media. Democrats want to know what Latinos can do for them and Republicans want to know what Latinos are willing to trade for their votes. The question of what Latinos want for themselves is seldom raised. Even in the left/liberal press, coverage of Latino issues has been sparse. And what has appeared has been limited mainly to reportage.
There should, of course, be more reporting about Latinos rather than less, but there must be other kinds of writing as well. The reason for this seems obvious: The use of power is more complex than the struggle to obtain power. The dialogue among Latinos--rather than merely about them--on issues that affect the Latino community and the rest of the world should now appear with some regularity in the national left/liberal press.
There are many questions best debated by Latinos: What are the intergenerational conflicts, and how do they affect politics? Should ethnic loyalties trump political values at the polls? What is gained and what is lost by assimilation? Should Latinos criticize Latino elected officials? Will such criticism strengthen the community or tear it apart, vitiating its hard-won power? How can people of differing national origin within the community link with each other, and how can Latinos link with blacks, Asians, Jews, Native Americans and other minority groups? How should left/liberal Latinos deal with the growing Latino middle class and its rightward turn? These and other issues should be debated openly by Latinos, in a way and in publications that will also inform the thinking of non-Latinos.
Unfortunately, Latino voices have been little more than a whisper in the left/liberal press, including The Nation. And the kind of essayistic pieces born of the desire to influence the use of power are virtually unknown. Yet, there are more than enough good Latino writers, with an interesting variety of opinions. What must happen, in my opinion, will require some effort from Latino writers and from the national left/liberal press. The writers must make their ideas known to the editors, and the editors must try to discern the importance of the work presented to them.
In the great tradition of the left/liberal press, the result will be rages and rancors, but there will also be some incremental advance toward freedom and social justice. Perhaps the disagreements over the language and timing of this piece will provide a useful beginning.
The urban rebellion in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood that followed the April 7 death of yet another black man, Timothy Thomas, at the hands of police shocked city residents. Mayor Charlie Luken lamented the "violence" as "unthinkable" and at a press conference pleaded for it to stop. At times like these it is vital to think clearly about how social problems, especially violence, are defined. In Cincinnati the media identify the core problem as "police-community" relations. But reducing the myriad and interrelated forms of violence in the inner city to a problem of police-community relations misses an opportunity to understand such issues in a deeper and more systemic sense. We need to understand how violence has been waged against people of color for a very long time.
Since the late 1940s a series of moves on the part of government and the private sector have reinforced an American form of apartheid. Ushering in the explosion of the suburbs for the white middle class, the Federal Housing Authority's liberalization of the mortgage market, its regulations favoring new construction of single-family detached houses and its appraisal process helped insure that neighborhoods continued to house the same social and racial classes. Under "urban renewal," many black neighborhoods were razed to make way for freeways, sports arenas and corporate redevelopment. Global restructuring of the economy then gutted the black working class's job base in the manufacturing sector.
Add to these the rise to power of neoconservatives, who divest the state of responsibility for meeting social needs, evidenced by rollbacks of affirmative action, the elimination of welfare and cutbacks in housing, combined with more punitive measures like increases in police forces and prison-building and a continued militarized economy.
The "hypersegregation" of blacks in the inner cities is now a structural reality. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton note in American Apartheid, "One-third of all African Americans in the United States live under conditions of intense racial segregation.... No other group in the contemporary United States comes close to this level of isolation within urban society."
Recent census data show that Cincinnati is the ninth most segregated city in the United States, with Over-the-Rhine, about 77 percent black, being its poorest neighborhood. This extreme social and spatial isolation exacerbates the effects of poverty, making it difficult to sustain neighborhood institutions and social organizations. These trends take a particular form in Cincinnati. Consider that in 1996, at the request of an alliance of corporate, business and city power, the Urban Land Institute came to Over-the-Rhine bearing gifts of a homeownership agenda for a community where approximately 75 percent of the population have incomes well below the reach of the rental market, let alone homeownership. Consider Cincinnati Pops director Erich Kunzel's "dream" to build the Greater Cincinnati Fine Arts and Education Center near Music Hall, which, after originally promising no displacement, called for the removal of the Drop Inn Center, the area's largest homeless shelter and lead institution in the Over-the-Rhine People's Movement.
And consider the motion passed by the City Planning Commission last July not to fund additional low-income housing units on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine, a motion that discriminates against a particular race and class and ignores the city's own Consolidated Plan, which identifies the need for 30,000 affordable housing units. Further, city records show that between January 1995 and the first quarter of 2000, 60 percent of the $8 million invested by the Department of Neighborhood Services in housing programs in Over-the-Rhine supported market-rate rather than affordable housing development.
Last, consider the mayor's about-face decision last summer not to support the $4.5 million tax-credit package of ReSTOC, a community-based, nonprofit housing cooperative, intended to finance construction of economically mixed housing in Over-the-Rhine, a project that qualified for state funding. The mayor then forced ReSTOC to sell one of the buildings in its package to a private owner to develop dotcom enterprises.
These examples of institutional violence have one thing in common: the way they market Over-the-Rhine as an idealized version of itself, effectively erasing it as a place for poor people of color. Revitalization efforts are selling an image that has no place for the poor who actually live there. "Development" means attracting people of higher incomes to live and play and work.
I am not suggesting that the neighborhood keep out newcomers, including people of higher means. The point is that the city fights to deny resources to community-based organizations while promoting renovation that caters to white, wealthier residents. And in this process, the buildings and urban ambience are sold like a stage set to folks who want to consume an urban night out. Over-the-Rhine is being Disneyfied, and this requires pushing people who don't fit the postcard image out of the way. No wonder Over-the-Rhine residents feel resentful.
Gentrification is often advocated as an antisegregation measure. This may be true in the short run, before poor residents are displaced. But community development today is rarely conceived outside the ideology of corporatism, with its lingo of public-private partnerships, enterprise and empowerment zones, tax incentives, and abatements and deregulatory legislation, all of which are ploys to advance privatization and subordinate social movements to the interests of business and the profit system. Community development has been reduced to a kind of plea bargaining with the powers that be, and thus what gets constructed as hope within the community is the desire to have a little more money funneled in its direction. That community institutions persist at all in these circumstances is an amazing testament to their perseverance in meeting desperate need.
Urban disruptions like the rebellion in Cincinnati are indictments of entrenched patterns of police-community relations and community development. Gentrification that produces displacement is an act of violence. Economic development that neglects to provide jobs for Over-the-Rhine residents is an act of violence. Building stadiums and supporting corporations at public expense while closing inner-city schools are acts of violence. We should not be surprised when communities erupt in righteous anger against the bonds of their oppression.
Thirty-eight years after the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, two of the four principals are dead, but the issues are still full of life. Thomas Blanton Jr. is one of two surviving Klan bombers, and after a jury convicted him in early May of murdering the four black girls that Sunday morning, former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley wrote a blistering Op-Ed for the New York Times accusing the FBI of concealing evidence and aiding the Klan for decades after the event. The FBI's denial made page one the next day: "There's no reason we would have done that," a bureau spokesperson declared. The Times also published a letter from the special agent in charge of the FBI's Birmingham office, calling Baxley's Op-Ed "a disservice to all the agents who tirelessly investigated the 1963 bombing."
Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home is a history of that bombing, of the FBI "investigation," of the people responsible for it--high and low--and of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. She grew up there--she was 10 years old at the time of the bombing--and later she worried, because her father, who had fallen from an elite family, had spent many evenings attending what her mother called "civil rights meetings." But Diane knew he had Klan literature around. Eventually she realized that her father could have been attending Klan meetings, and might even have been one of the bombers. Many years later she set out to find out the truth about him--and ended up writing this magnificent book.
Although the 16th Street Baptist Church served as a rallying point for demonstrators in the 1963 campaign, it was not a Movement church. McWhorter calls it "the snootiest black congregation in the city," and its founding minister worked with the local industrialists to persuade blacks not to join the union. At services they didn't sing gospel songs but rather "the sedate hymns of white Christianity." And 16th Street Baptist was the only church in the city that charged the Movement for using its facilities.
The bomb was a huge one--perhaps a dozen sticks of dynamite. When the blast was heard across town, Klansman Ross Keith, almost certainly one of the bombers, told a friend, "I guess it's somebody discriminating against them niggers again." The four girls who were killed were in the women's lounge, freshening up for their roles as ushers in the main service. Denise McNair was 11; the three others were 14: Carole Robertson, Addie May Collins and Cynthia Wesley--Wesley was wearing high heels for the first time, "shiny black ones bought the day before."
There is a survivor who was in the women's lounge with the other four: 12-year-old Sarah Collins, sister of Addie May. When they found Sarah in the rubble, her face was spurting blood. She was loaded into an ambulance--a "colored" one. On the way to the hospital she sang "Jesus Loves Me" and occasionally said, "What happened? I can't see." Today she is 50 and still blind in one eye.
Immediately after the four girls were identified, the authorities began "furious background checks on them, the search for some flaw deserving punishment." But their records were clean: None, that is, had participated in the recent civil rights demonstrations. Thus, even the city fathers and the local press had to agree they were "innocent."
The big question was never who the bombers were--they were identified by the FBI and the police almost immediately. The big question, McWhorter shows, is what permitted them to get away with it--"the state's malevolence or the FBI's negligence." Dozens of bombings had been carried out by the Klan in the preceding few years, virtually none of which were prosecuted. The FBI's informant in the local Klan, Gary Thomas Rowe, participated in some of them. McWhorter's index has ninety entries for "bombings," starting in the late 1940s. Most Klan bombings in the fifties targeted upwardly mobile blacks moving into middle-class white neighborhoods.
After the 16th Street church bombing, local authorities kept suggesting that blacks were the bombers. The police took the church custodian in for questioning. The FBI's pursuit of witnesses was unhurried, which gave the Klansmen more time to coordinate alibis. FBI informant Rowe told a Birmingham policeman that the man who put up the money to have the church bombed was Harry Belafonte.
The man convicted just weeks ago, Thomas Blanton Jr., was part of an extremist subgroup of the Klan. Initially he focused his violent hatred on Catholics, like the Klan of the 1920s. He had a neighbor, a widow, who was Catholic; she received regular "anonymous calls" from a voice she recognized as his--she had known him for eighteen years--telling her "Niggers and Catholics have to die." Once he threw red paint on her new white Ford and slashed her tires. Earlier in 1963 Blanton had been talking about organizing a church bombing, but he wanted to bomb a Catholic church, not a Negro one. "His associates pronounced him not intelligent enough to make a bomb but dumb enough to place it."
The other man recently charged with the bombing has been judged mentally incapable of standing trial. But in 1962-63, Bobby Frank Cherry was 32 years old, had "no upper front teeth, a 'Bobby' tattoo on his arm, seven kids, and a wife he beat and cheated on." He had been a police suspect in the 1958 attempted bombing of Birmingham's Temple Beth El, and McWhorter has evidence strongly suggesting that he also participated in bombing churches in January 1962, almost two years before the four girls were killed. If the FBI had investigated him after the 1962 explosions, that might have prevented the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings, but as McWhorter points out, "instead the FBI was investigating Martin Luther King," proposing to, as the bureau put it, "expose, disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize" the leader of the civil rights movement. (In the middle of the Birmingham battle, Bobby Kennedy agreed to let J. Edgar Hoover wiretap King.)
The killing of the four black girls finally spurred the Kennedy Administration to propose, Congress to pass and new President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing racial discrimination in public facilities--the first significant civil rights legislation in a century. The bombing followed the biggest and most successful mass civil rights demonstrations in US history--police met the thousands of marchers with fire hoses and dogs. Today the history of the civil rights movement seems like one of steady progress: first the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, which propelled King to national prominence and established nonviolent direct action as the new tactic, supplanting the legal gradualism of the NAACP; then, in 1960-61, the sit-in movement, in which small groups of courageous students across the South took the lead in a direct personal challenge to segregation; then the Freedom Rides, where a few brave people provoked racist violence that compelled the Kennedy Administration to enter the civil rights arena; and finally Birmingham, where mass protests filled the jails and finally won national legislation outlawing segregation in public accommodations.
What's been forgotten is the grim situation that faced King and the Movement at the outset of the Birmingham campaign in 1962. It had been seven long years since the Montgomery bus boycott--seven years with intermittent acts of immense heroism but without concrete victories. The Southern states were defiant, and the Kennedys, as Victor Navasky argued in Kennedy Justice, considered activists like Martin Luther King to be a problem that endangered their real initiatives, like a tax cut and fighting communism. By 1963 King and the Movement desperately needed a nationally significant victory, somewhere.
King himself had not, up to 1963, initiated any civil rights protest himself--starting with Montgomery in 1955, he was brought in as a spokesman after the action had already begun. Birmingham was no different. Here the real hero and moving force was Fred Shuttlesworth, in many ways the opposite of King--a man of the people, not of the elite; a man who courted danger and pushed the envelope, who stayed till the end, unlike King, who was criticized for leaving town early and leaving "a community stranded with false hope and huge legal fees." Much of the story of Birmingham is the story of Shuttlesworth's brilliant strategic initiatives and awesome physical courage--and King's more cautious efforts to negotiate a settlement by enlisting the White House, in exchange for calling off the demonstrations. It was Shuttlesworth who set out to launch mass demonstrations, fill the jails and compel the city leaders to desegregate downtown businesses and public facilities. McWhorter's book also shows just how close the Birmingham campaign came to failure. A month into the campaign, few people had signed up to go to jail--barely 300 in total, even though King himself had gone to jail. "There are more Negroes going to jail for getting drunk," one Movement leader commented.
What turned this around was an idea of James Bevel's--he had been a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader, who later became field secretary for King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His idea for Birmingham: Fill the jails with children. The adults were full of doubt and fear, but the kids were eager. Hundreds boycotted school on May 2, 1963, instead gathering at the 16th Street Baptist Church, then marching into the streets--more than a thousand of them. The children confronted the cops, singing in high voices "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" and "Which Side Are You On?" and then were ushered into buses to go to jail. For the first time, King and his lieutenants had achieved Gandhi's goal--fill the jails.
The next day thousands more showed up to march. That was the day of the fire hoses. The city's fire chief initially resisted officials' attempts to enlist the fire department in attacking demonstrators, on the grounds that the national union of firefighters officially opposed using fire equipment to "control" crowds. But when the orders came, they turned on high-pressure hoses powerful enough to knock a big man off his feet, blast the shirts off people's backs and flush individuals down the gutters.
The success of the civil rights movement on the national political landscape required not just heroic action by large numbers of ordinary black people; it also required that the viciousness of the opponents of civil rights be presented vividly and dramatically to ordinary American newspaper readers and TV watchers. In this, the Birmingham movement turned out to be supremely fortunate to have the grotesque Eugene "Bull" Connor as police commissioner. Photos of young demonstrators linking arms and standing up to the high-pressure hoses made page one around the world. Life magazine ran a two-page spread of the most dramatic photo of firemen blasting demonstrators, headlined "They Fight a Fire That Won't Go Out." The photos of police dogs attacking demonstrators had the same effect. The New York Times ran a photo of a dog biting a demonstrator on page one, three columns wide and above the fold, headlined "Dogs and Hoses Repulse Negroes at Birmingham."
Key reporters had already found the civil rights drama a compelling story. In 1960, the New York Times published a blazing Harrison Salisbury story on page one before the Birmingham campaign got going: "Every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, reinforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state's apparatus." State authorities responded by charging Salisbury with forty-two counts of criminal libel. The Times's response was to order its reporters to stay out of Alabama--not exactly a fighting stance--which meant that other news organizations would henceforth get the story while the Times relied on wire copy for the climactic battles. The Times didn't return until a year later, when Claude Sitton persuaded executives to let him cover the aftermath of the Freedom Rides.
While the Times proved gun-shy on Alabama, CBS-TV didn't; network president Frank Stanton sent reporter Howard K. Smith to Birmingham to make a documentary. (Even though Stanton was not exactly a civil rights advocate; he also "blacked out all Negro speakers at the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions.")Smith's crew set out to interview leading whites; the head of the elite Women's Committee told him on camera that "one of the contributing factors to our creativeness in the South is sort of a joyousness of the Negro." But she was worried because it had been four or five years since she had "heard Negroes just spontaneously break into song." Smith also turned out to be the only national reporter on the scene when the Freedom Riders arrived and were savagely beaten by a white mob while the police stood by.
Who Speaks for Birmingham? aired on CBS in 1961 and featured Smith's account of the mob attack on the Freedom Riders. Network executives complained that the program "presented Birmingham's Negroes in a better light than its whites," but executive producer Fred Friendly fought to keep the whole thing, and in the end gave up only Smith's closing line, a quote from Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." But when the same Howard K. Smith criticized Kennedy in his regular Sunday radio commentary, asking whether "we really deserve to win the cold war" in view of the racist violence in Birmingham, CBS News suspended him from his job as Washington bureau chief.
The media coverage was crucial, but one of the secrets of the demonstrations was that neither the police nor the media distinguished between marchers and spectators. Only a couple of hundred people joined the early official demonstrations, but a thousand or more turned out to watch and see what happened. The police attacked everybody, and the press reported thousands of demonstrators.
Carry Me Home includes the most detailed account ever of the Birmingham Movement's strategy and tactics, day by day and hour by hour, but what makes it unique is its account of the local opposition to civil rights, and particularly the links between the "Big Mules," who ran Birmingham's industrial economy, and the Klan bombers. The book's most important contribution is its decisive evidence that the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church "was the endgame in the city fathers' long and profitable tradition of maintaining their industrial supremacy through vigilantism."
Birmingham had never been what you would call a happy place--the New South's one center of heavy industry, it was a city where the ruling elite fought working-class militancy with the most blatant racism. Power in Birmingham centered on US Steel, which ran the town along fascist lines--one Communist organizer in the 1930s was sentenced to a shackled road crew for possessing "seditious" literature, which included The Nation magazine. The dirty work of the Big Mules was carried out by the Alabama Klan, which was reorganized in the 1930s as an antiunion shock force.
Charles DeBardeleben headed the Big Mules--he ran the biggest coal company in the state, and his father had pretty much founded Birmingham as a coal and iron center. By the mid-1930s DeBardeleben was also a secret corporate benefactor of the Constitutional Educational League, part of a global network of pro-Nazi propagandists. The league's 1938 banquet featured George Van Horn Moseley, who "advocated sterilizing all Jewish immigrants to the US." McWhorter names the names of the other key Big Mules and shows their connections to the bombers of the 1950s and 1960s.
History also loomed large for the Jewish businessmen who owned the downtown department stores that were the target of the demonstrators' demands for integration and jobs. Birmingham's Jews had been traumatized a generation earlier during the Scottsboro trial, when the nine "Boys" were defended during their rape trial by a Jewish attorney from New York named Samuel Liebowitz. The state's closing statement challenged the jury to "show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York." The jury obliged.
That was 1933. Thirty years later, Birmingham's Jews were still feeling defensive. One liked to tell his gentile friends, "It wasn't the Birmingham Jews who killed Jesus. It was the Miami Jews." Now they declared that they were as opposed to "outside agitators" as Bull Connor--indeed, one Birmingham Jewish organization issued a public statement demanding not only that Martin Luther King stay away but that the Anti-Defamation League stay out of Birmingham.
Birmingham is also famous as the place where Martin Luther King composed his best-known written work, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." It wasn't King's idea. Harvey Shapiro, an editor at The New York Times Magazine, suggested that King write a "letter from prison" for the magazine. The missive that King wrote turned out to be a classic, "the most eloquent treatment of the nexus between law and injustice since Thoreau's essay 'Civil Disobedience.'" But when King submitted his piece, the Times editors rejected it. It wasn't printed for another two months, and then in The Atlantic Monthly.
The Martin Luther King who appears in McWhorter's account is not very heroic. His claim that "unearned suffering is redemptive," made at the March on Washington earlier that year, seemed irresponsible to more and more blacks, ranging from SNCC militants to ordinary Birmingham blacks. In King's first statement after the bombing, he asked, "Who murdered those four girls?" and answered, "The apathy and complacency of many Negroes who will sit down on their stools and do nothing and not engage in creative protest to get rid of this evil." Carole Robertson's mother had not participated in the demonstrations; she was so outraged at King blaming her for her daughter's murder that she refused to join the three other families in a mass funeral for the girls.
At the other end of the spectrum in black Birmingham were the men who saw the events as providing "a chance to kill us a cracker." The Movement's insistence that marchers take a pledge of nonviolence was based on leaders' knowledge of the deep rage that black men in particular bore for whites. "At mass meetings, King began passing around a box for people to deposit razors, knives, ice picks, and pistols, and salted his inspirational calls to dignity with reminders that being black did not in itself constitute a virtue." People needed courage and hope before they could take the pledge of nonviolence.
McWhorter's panoramic cast includes blacks on the wrong side of the Movement. "Rat Killer" ran the 17th Street Shine Parlor, a popular after-hours spot where visiting stars like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and the Temptations hung out, and where Movement preachers got their shoes shined. But Rat Killer was "Bull Connor's right-hand man" in the black community--he traded information for informal permission to sell bootleg liquor and do some pimping.
McWhorter weaves her personal story throughout the book, and these sections provide uniquely rich and revealing evidence of the blindness of middle-class whites in this era. The book opens at Birmingham's elite white country club on a Sunday, when McWhorter was having brunch as usual with her family. It turns out to have been the morning the church was bombed. McWhorter was a year younger than the youngest of the four girls killed. Although the bombing marked a turning point in the nation's history, her family took little note of it. She doesn't remember it at all, and her mother's diary entry for that day says only that Diane's rehearsal for the community theater production of The Music Man was canceled--not in mourning over the deaths but because whites feared that black people would riot.
The police dogs that horrified the world were well-known to McWhorter. Before the historic day they attacked the demonstrators, the police brought one of the dogs to an assembly at her school to demonstrate its crime-fighting abilities. McWhorter was so excited by the event that she changed her career goal to police-dog handler (she had planned to become an Olympic equestrian).
At the end of the book, McWhorter finally confronts her father on tape. He says he's told friends his daughter is writing a book about "the nigger movement," but says he wasn't in the Klan and was never involved in murdering anyone. She concludes he was a camp follower but not much of an activist.
The rest of the key figures in the story are mostly dead now: Bull Connor died in 1973; Robert Chambliss, until Blanton the only man convicted in the bombing (in a 1977 trial brought by then-Alabama Attorney General Baxley), died in 1985 while serving his prison term. (Baxley ran for governor in 1978 and lost.) The FBI's Klan informant, Gary Thomas Rowe, admitted that he and three Klan members shot and killed Viola Liuzzo on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march; the killers were acquitted of murder (but not of violating her civil rights), and Rowe went into the witness protection program after the trial and died in 1998. The other Klan bombers died too, until the only ones left seemed to be Bobby Frank Cherry and Tommy Blanton.
Chambliss's 1977 trial exploded back to life early this May with Baxley's New York Times Op-Ed. He wrote that he had "requested, demanded and begged the FBI for evidence" from 1971 through 1977; that his office was "repeatedly stonewalled"; that the bureau practiced "deception," the result of which was that Blanton went "free for 24 years" while the FBI had "smoking gun evidence hidden in its files." He concluded by describing "the disgust" he felt over the FBI's conduct. No state attorney general has ever spoken so forcefully in criticizing the bureau.
Now Blanton has been convicted, but virtually all the other Southern white men who killed blacks during the heyday of the civil rights movement have gone unpunished. In the end the Klan bombers may not be the biggest villains in this story. It's the city and state officials, including the police and the FBI, who tolerated and sometimes encouraged racist violence, and the Kennedy brothers, who didn't want to do anything about it until they were forced to. Diane McWhorter started writing about "growing up on the wrong side of the civil rights revolution"; she ended up with the most important book on the movement since Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters. It should become a classic.
His mayoral campaign platform is the most progressive in modern city history.
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