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June 19, 2021
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'Carry me home: Birmingham, Alabama. The climactic battle of the civil rights revolution' by Diane McWhorter
Movement toward understanding
Sunday, April 29, 2001
By Bruce Clayton
Diane McWhorter’s book is a stunningly provocative and vividly written history of the background and bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963.
Much of the world was outraged. Many liberals feared that the dynamiting of the black church would fatally wound the struggle for civil rights, “the Movement,” which had already brought out the best and worst in a city and Alabama.
McWhorter, the daughter of a prominent white family, grew up privileged in an exclusive suburb. She was about the same age as the four 10-year-old black girls who were killed in the blast as they readied themselves for their upcoming confirmation.
The bombing made little impact on McWhorter’s white gloves and debutante world that two months later cheered at hearing the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
But McWhorter, now a well-established New York columnist, dimly sensed something was wrong. Her father, Martin, was a renegade, a college flunkout, thumbing his nose at respectability. He drank heavily with the city’s riffraff, openly made bombs and cheered the notorious chief of police, Bull Conner, whose officers worked hand in glove with the Ku Klux Klan. At 10, McWhorter suspected that her beloved “Papa” made the bombs that killed those young black girls. Worse, was he one of the bombers?
Later, she escaped “Bombingham” and established herself as a respected journalist. In the 1990s, she began working on a history of the Movement in Birmingham. The book is a pilgrimage of sorts. She simply had to find out about her father, her family -- mainly the males, and to a lesser extent her liberal mother and paternal grandmother.
Both women paradoxically married racists and turned a blind eye to their husbands’ nightly outings, when Conner shouted, “Damn the law. ... Down here we make our own law.”
Birmingham’s story is complex, reaching from the top of the main industry in town -- U.S. Steel, locally managed but doing the bidding of bigwigs in Pittsburgh -- to Conner, a former clownish baseball announcer, to rednecks who openly expressed their desire to kill blacks.
Birmingham’s “Big Mules,” as the city’s industrialists called themselves, followed U.S. Steel’s policy of dividing and conquering workers, McWhorter says. Unionism was linked to the civil rights movement and communism, and the cops and thugs were turned loose on labor activities as well.
J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI knew what was going on in Birmingham, McWhorter says, when U.S. Steel established a “League to Maintain White Supremacy” or when Conner, working with the FBI, tried to work out an assassination of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Birmingham’s civil rights activist.
McWhorter praises the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but her hero is the fearless firebrand, Shuttlesworth.
Did the Movement fail in Bombingham? No, she writes, maintaining that the ugly summer of 1963 showed the world the amazing bravery of the black community and unrepressed brutality of the whites. Violence helped convince the Big Mules that the situation was about to get out of hand. Conner, the bombers, even racial segregation itself had to go. Today, the 16th Street Baptist Church is a shrine to the civil rights movement.
McWhorter has dug deeply into available sources from FBI documents to private correspondence to interviews with the main actors. Should she be “concerned,” she asked a city cop, about interviewing some of the suspects? (Only one, “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, was in jail.) The officer said he didn’t know about being concerned, but she should certainly be “scared.”
She bravely interrogated her now-aged father who was reduced to living in a mobile home, swilling beer and spewing racist and ethnic slurs. No, he told her, he had not made the bombs. Nor had he bombed the church. But he said he knew who did and so did the FBI.
His chief culprit was a longtime FBI informant in the Klan; McWhorter agrees with her father that the FBI, following Hoover’s vehement hatred of King and the Movement, deliberately bungled the investigation so that the guilty walked free.
Last week in Birmingham, Richard Blanton, the second person to be tried for setting the bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, went on trial. In 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted of murder in the incident.
Like any good daughter, McWhorter wanted to believe her father -- and does. But her prodigious book has so many insights into the twisted minds of people like her father that one comes away wondering whether men like Martin McWhorter would ever tell anybody the truth. His daughter, however, exposes the pathology of a place and an era and plunges her readers into its heart of darkness.
Bruce Clayton is a history professor at Allegheny College.
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