A new book has been published detailing the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. But this book details many of the movement's battles from the side of the segregationist. WBHM's Ben Philpott has this interview with the book's author.
Mountain Brook native Diane McWhorter's new book Carry Me Home--Birmingham Alabama, The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution is an historical telling of the events leading up to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. But McWhorter says to understand what lead to that defining moment you have to go back to 1938.
"I really wanted to bring the segregationist to life. Most accounts of the Civil Rights Movement focus on Martin Luther King and SCLC his organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Kennedy administration. But I really wanted to bring the segregationist to life. And I realized that in order to do that you really had to go back to when Bull Connor, the villained police commissioner of Birmingham was created. And that was in the 1930's."
Q: You mentioned Bull Conner. One of the most interesting parts of the pre-history, for me, was what Bull Conner was doing before he became Police Chief.
"Oh yeah, he was sort of a pop cultural hero. He was a baseball announcer and popular baseball announcer who really exploited his popular "Cracker" affect. He was kind of embarrassed by being a country boy but on the other hand he milked it, he didn't apologize for it. And because of that and because he was so popular among the people, the industrialist in town, who were called Big Mules, recognized that he could be their sort of mascot. And appeal to the people that the country club types couldn't really get to."
Q: Were there arguments between the Civil Rights leaders about what path should be taken to fight for equality in Birmingham?
"Well yeah definitely, and my portrayal of Martian Luther King is probably going to be a little controversial because what I decided to do was look at King the way he was before Birmingham. Birmingham was the place were King emerged as the leader that we celebrate now every year. Before that he had been really passive and unfocused. And our very own Fred Shuttlesworth, the radical Baptist minister who lead the civil rights movement here had been consistently pushing King into more militant forms of protest. So Shuttlesworth really goaded King to come into Birmingham. He said Birmingham was the Johannesburg of America. If segregation is going to fall anywhere it will fall here. So it was almost inevitable that the Civil Rights movement come to Birmingham. And it was because of Fred Shuttlesworth not because of Martin Luther King."
Q: How do you think the country views the city now?
"I think Birmingham is always going to be the place where the country looks to work out its racial dilemma. I think it's just going to be Birmingham's role. And I think that the city really ought to embrace that because it actually has lead to a lot of good."
Q: But there are a lot of people that have said all that happened in the past and it should stay in the past. So why write about it now?
"The constant response I had when I was writing this book was first of all, 'well why would anybody want to read a book about Birmingham.' And it's like the people here don't understand that this was the most important place in the most important struggle in American history. It ended apartheid in America. Birmingham ended apartheid in America. So of course people want to read about this."
Diane McWhorter's book Carry Me Home is in bookstores now.
~Ben Philpott, 2001