THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Diane McWhorter
Title: “Bombingham … Revisited”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And to set the scene for my subject today, and for my guest, too, I’d like to read David Shipler’s insightful introductory paragraph to his Sunday, March 18th, 2001 New York Times Book Review of Simon and Schuster’s “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.”
“There are few White people in America more passionately perceptive about our vexing national problem of race than Liberal minded Whites from the South,” he writes. “Especially those who lived through the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement. Lacking the detachment that allowed most Northerners to make judgments without making commitments, Souther Whites who value justice were forced to confront themselves, their families, their place of privilege. This happened either in real time, or later, in a kind of retrospective anguish that has produced fine scholarship, fiction and journalism, and even enlightened politics.”
Well, for my guest today it happened later. For Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home” was only ten years old in 1963, when in what became known as “Bombingham, Alabama” four Black girls her own age died horribly in a bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Still more victims of a war that had not ended at Appomattox. And that would, perhaps, find its climax in the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s.
Diane McWhorter writes that she grew up on the wrong side of that revolution and her massive study of Birmingham at the time tells how and why, both in personal and historical terms. So that I’m tempted to begin today by asking my guest whether she’s now proven to her own satisfaction that you can go home again. Tell me. Can you?
McWHORTER: Well, I just did. For the, the culmination of this incredible 19 year experience of mine, writing this book. Um, to my utter shock, the last two living suspects in this church bombing had … were arrested a year ago, and one of them went on trial, um, this spring and I was down there for that. And it was just amazing to see my book spring to life in the courtroom. It was … you know, it was just an experience I’m so glad I lived to have. I never expected it. And it was just amazing.
HEFFNER: You say, “the culmination”, meaning the end?
McWHORTER: I hope it’s not the end. I, it should never be the end. I think it’s another opportunity for the community and the world to try to understand why this happened in Birmingham, and why it wasn’t an accident that it happened there. And unfortunately, because of the nature of court, of trials, it didn’t really come out in the courtroom, you know how, how this horrible cataclysm came to pass. But it, but it came out in my book, which was published almost simultaneously. So it was just, you know, just an amazing convergence of events.
HEFFNER: Well, I obviously have to ask, how then and why Birmingham?
McWHORTER: Birmingham was different because it had industry and it was Southern. And it was because of those two things that you had these two incredible traditions on a collision course. And one of the traditions was, uh, this tradition of organized protest that had really started with the Labor Movement, because there was a … a large mistreated class of workers in Birmingham. And not only had the labor movement come to organize Birmingham, but some of the Communist Party in the 30s. So, starting then, in earnest you had this, this incredible tradition, which then, in turn incites this highly organized backlash, which first started out as anti-union, anti-Roosevelt, anti-New Deal. And then that kind of morphs into a purely anti-Black movement and anti-integration movement; anti-Civil Rights Movement. And so, you have these two traditions marching toward 1963, which is the climax in my book. And the one appears, materializes on the streets of Birmingham, in the form of these fabulous non-violent demonstrations that Dr. King, Dr. Martin Luther King staged there in 1963, greeted by the fire hoses and police dogs of the City of Birmingham. So that’s the, the culmination of that tradition. And then the culmination of the, the racist/terrorist tradition occurs in this church bombing four months later.
HEFFNER: Now you say, um, you mention Dr. King … I have the feeling and I think in one of the commentaries on the book, this was expressed, too. He doesn’t “rate”, or rank all that high in your estimation.
McWHORTER: Well, that’s really not true. I think, I think he was a great leader. But what I did, possibly a bit perversely, was I decided that I would look at King exactly as he was, coming into this. And he really didn’t achieve his greatness as a leader until Birmingham, and he … even in Birmingham he achieved it somewhat under protest and accidentally. So, what I decided to do, was I took the hero of my book, who was Fred Shuttlesworth, who was King’s colleague in the Southern Christian Leadership Movement and one of the co-founders. And he was sort of the, the cutting edge of, of the, of the SCLC. He was the one who pioneered direct action, he was very militant, very confrontational … was not dealing with … interested in dealing with White people, which was one of King’s great gifts. Which was to be able to convey the plight of his race to White people. Shuttlesworth wasn’t interested in that. He was interested in organizing the masses. And he was the only minister in the SCLC who sustained this mass movement. And he goaded King into coming into Birmingham. And King … this was a dreaded destination for King because it was the Johannesburg of America, it was “Bombingham”, it was the most segregated city in the South. But finally he recognized that as his, as his aides kept saying, “as goes Birmingham, umm, … as Birmingham goes, so goes the country”. So he finally gets there and so … so I gave Shuttlesworth the heroics perspective …
HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.
McWHORTER: … that King usually gets. And, and just sort of looked at King, just exactly as he was before he, before he reached Birmingham. And, and that was quite passive and unfocused and he was quite a reluctant leader. And, um, … which really kind of argues, though, that he was a man of destiny because, as with many great men, this, this role was sort of thrust upon him.
HEFFNER: And the letter that he wrote to the ministers from the Birmingham jail.
McWHORTER: MmmHmm, his masterpiece …
HEFFNER: That was, indeed, wasn’t it? Even, uh, more than the speech in Washington that summer.
McWHORTER: Oh, yeah. And that speech, interestingly had been given in Birmingham during the demonstrations because it was very common for ministers to keep kind of recycling their material, and he had given a speech in a church at a mass meeting in Birmingham …I think it was in April of 63, and one of the, the people I interviewed for the book, said that Ralph Abernathy, who was King’s sort of right hand man and sidekick, and was known as “Mr. Rough to King’s “Mr. Smooth”. And was an excellent speaker, and excellent as to whipping people up and, and my source said that the speech that Abernathy gave right after King gave his dry run of the “I have a dream” speech, was much better. And it took, you know, fifteen minutes to quiet the crowd down.
HEFFNER: Is the war over there?
McWHORTER: In Birmingham?
McWHORTER: It’‘ll never be over. It’ll never be over in this county. This is, this is the American dilemma. And it’s the American story. And it’s also the sort of historic role of this country to try to, to perfect equal rights for everyone. And I don’t think it’s … the business will never be finished. But we’re getting there.
HEFFNER: Now wait a minute, if the business will never be finished, we’re not getting there. Which is that you really mean? Having gone back, having looked at your own family, the role that your father played, or didn’t play …
HEFFNER: … I mean, if he didn’t play the fact that you thought he had was, in itself, a manifestation of some sense that you really had to be part of the KKK …
HEFFNER: … and what it was doing …
McWHORTER: MmmHmm. Well, that’s a good … I think that the fact that my father encouraged me to write his story as well … not just to fill in for a second … my father was this vigilante spirit in this country club community. And one of the reasons I felt like I had to write this book was to find out what he had been doing during the Civil Rights movement? You know, “Daddy what, what were you doing during the war?” And, um, he really encouraged me in this. And part of the reason is that he today doesn’t really recognize the person he was back then. But he also doesn’t reject it. And to me that … you know, the city of Birmingham itself tries to discount what happened there. They, they can’t quite accept, they feel this incredible shame about Birmingham’s reputation. But they don’t necessarily feel shame about what happened there, because they choose to see it as this aberration. And what I learned from delving into my father’s story was that he wasn’t an aberration. He wasn’t an aberration in his community. And the Klan wasn’t an aberration, either. And those church bombers weren’t aberrations, they were the inevitable outcome of this long collaboration between the city fathers and the vigilantes. So, um, so I think the fact that the story can be told in a way, and that my father is saying that he’s proud of me, and it hasn’t caused any bad blood between us is a real sign of progress.
HEFFNER: All right for your father. What about others?
McWHORTER: Sure …
HEFFNER: … in “Bombingham” …
McWHORTER: What are they saying about me?
HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.
McWHORTER: Well, my uncle’s not too happy. But he still has to live at the country club, and he, one of his best friends, who’s also a friend of mine, is the namesake son of the villain in the book. Who was this corporation lawyer who was the handler of Bull Connor, who we all know is this kind of redneck, Czar of Birmingham. And it turned out… he had been installed in Birmingham by the interests … by the industrial interests and the corporate interests to, to … as sort of the “sop” to the, to the people. And to keep them distracted with White supremacy. So … anyway … so they’re, they’re not too happy about having this man exposed down there. But, um, you know, they’re, they’re dealing.
HEFFNER: Did White supremacy in the period when you were growing up … when you were a little girl, the time of the bombings …
HEFFNER: Was that the same, um, routine that was played in the pre-Civil War period when, uh, the pro-slavery argument was designed to make poor Whites feel they were always one step above the Black slaves. I mean, did it play the same role?
McWHORTER: Exactly. Exactly. And it started … what happened was there was this … the rich Whites always tried to enlist the poor Whites in this brotherhood of White supremacy and make them think that they were all good because they were White. To try to discourage any kind of class alliances between poor Blacks and poor Whites. And finally the poor Whites and the poor Blacks had gotten together, and in, in this moment in history, this incredible moment in history called “populism” in the early 1890s, and it threw such a scare into the big planters, the big landowners and the fledgling industrialists of the South that they decided that they were going to have to quash this once and for all. So that’s, that’s how disfranchisement came about. They disfranchised Blacks, but they also disfranchised poor Whites along with them so that they couldn’t form this class rebellion any more. And… so yeah … they did this with the labor unions, too. They would, you know, make the White workers feel like … pay them a little bit more … make them feel like they were doing a lot better than the Black workers, so that they wouldn’t “rock the boat”. And form a strong union.
HEFFNER: Now you do emphasize in your book, and it is an amazing book. I guess because of my own background as a professional historian, I’m particularly interested in it, but no one could pick up this book and ever want to put it down until he or she had finished it.
McWHORTER: Wow. Thank you.
HEFFNER: Do you thank, … well, thank you. For having done that. Do you think they were right, the powers that were, that they were accurate in their estimation of what the race card could do for them?
McWHORTER: Oh, yeah, I mean it, it definitely worked. One thing about … that’s so great about Alabama is that it … the state produced these equally, sort of dynamic democrats (with a small “d”). I mean they … these, these people, some of them were buffoons, like Big Jim Folsom, but they would come out of … could seemingly come out of nowhere and promote integration, or, or, you know, the flaming Liberals in this state where you would think, um, you know, Black and Whites were fighting all the time. And … so it’s, you know, it’s really a … it’s just sort of an amazing, uh, back and forth and struggle, that’s … with all these colorful figures … it’s …
HEFFNER: Hugo Black …
HEFFNER: How do you figure him?
McWHORTER: Well, here, okay this is an interesting thing about how hard it was to figure, to figure this story out, because I kept thinking … Hugo Black … good; Klan … bad. Klan elected Hugo Black to the Senate in 1926. So finally this other historian said to me … “you have to realize that the Klan, the Klan was the Liberals, except for on the subject of race”. (This was in the 1920s). And, um, and then finally I realized that what it was, that the Klan was the insurgent populist wing of the Democratic Party. I mean the Populists had been put out of business, but they kept kind of rising up in other guises. And finally, the Whites seized the race card themselves in the form of the Klan, but they were actually the, the Liberals. And so that explained it to me, but it took me so long … and then, and then the corporate lawyer I mentioned earlier who was Bull Connor’s handler was anti-Klan. And so I kept thinking … “he’s bad, but he’s against the Klan. Hugo’s good, but for the Klan”. And finally, you know, this one comment that this historian made to me just made it all clear to me.
HEFFNER: You know, I don’t know … I think of Hugo Black as the great liberal, or the great free speech advocate on the Supreme Court. How do you evaluate his, um, role in the court … the high court?
McWHORTER: Well, he was the great civil libertarian. I think that he was also an absolutist. Which is another feature of Birmingham. I mean Fred Shuttlesworth was an absolutist. You, you get these people who come out of this, this harsh crucible and they, they know that if you compromise … I mean, as you know, Hugo Black was a total absolutist on First Amendment issues …
McWHORTER: … and he just realized that if you, if you compromise, it’s such a steep slippery slope to, um, … loss of democratic values, or, or privileges, that you just can’t compromise on anything. And so Hugo and Shuttlesworth had this in common, that they just … they had this absolute sense of, of what was right. And they were going to stick to it.
HEFFNER: Compared to other parts of the South, how would you comment on Birmingham today in terms of race relations?
McWHORTER: I think it, it has this, … there’s this real reconciliation industry in Birmingham. I mean, compared to …
HEFFNER: Reconciliation … industry?
McWHORTER: Yeah. I mean … there’s …
HEFFNER: That’s nice.
McWHORTER: … there’s a … you know, there are lots of agencies to, um, to promote racial discussion. To get the issues on the table. Certainly, I mean I thought about this when, in New York, Mayor Giuliani refused to, to meet with Black leaders, including the Borough President here, Virginia Fields, who was arrested in Birmingham …she was a teenager in Birmingham during the demonstrations, who was arrested along with Dr. King, and Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth on the Good Friday march, which led him to write this brilliant letter from the Birmingham jails. So, that would never happen in Birmingham. And these, these things are in place, there’s constant communication between White leaders and Black leaders.
HEFFNER: And yet, you say, just a little while ago, you’ve said, “it would never end. The battle would never end … “
HEFFNER: … the quest for fairness. And I guess by that we mean equality.
HEFFNER: Will never come to an end. The Civil War will go on an on.
McWHORTER: I think probably the reason for that is that power does what it must to preserve itself. And part of the reason segregation came to an end in Birmingham when it did in 1963 was that the powers were ready for it to end. Because it had become bad for business. What had initially been the cornerstone of their profits, had become bad for business because it was scaring away development, it was scaring away industry in Birmingham.
HEFFNER: You say, “industry” … did it have mostly to do, however, one gets the impression from reading your book that it had to do with merchants concerns in central Birmingham.
McWHORTER: Well, that … they were … the merchants were just the target of, of the movement. What happened was the movement had, had this failing campaign in Albany, Georgia the year before they came to Birmingham. And what they … they had targeted all of, all of segregation, and they were, they were trying to get concessions out of the City Commission. Well, politicians aren’t going to commit political suicide by granting … by getting rid of segregation. So, coming into Birmingham, the movement realized, “No, we have to target the business people because they will do what’s necessary to preserve their profits”. And the weakest girder in the power structure of Birmingham were the merchants. And part of the reason for that was that they were largely Jewish. And they were not, um, they were sort of on the outside and yet they were also part of the, of the downtown economy and everything. So that’s who they targeted. And, interestingly, the merchants said, “We can make a move without the (basically the WASP power structure) allowing us to do this”. And they sort of craftily put the, you know moved the onus onto the power structure that had discriminated against them, certainly socially if not economically, as well. And, and that’s what happened in Birmingham. The businessmen had this big meeting and decided, “Okay, I guess we better negotiate with Dr. King”.
HEFFNER: Who owns Birmingham today?
McWHORTER: Well, the big industry now is, is the medical center … the University of Alabama Medical Center, which is this world class medical center. It was that, interestingly enough, was the window of sort of enlightened opinion. Starting in the late 1950s most of the Liberals who’d come from outside had, um, come to work, to be scientists or researchers at the medical center. And they were the, the outside agitators, the sort of Liberal Yankees who were … the White people who were active at that time. And now they’ve taken over. The steel industry is, is dying.
HEFFNER: Is it tough … what a funny question to ask … is it tough to be a Liberal, as you are, and a Southerner and live in the North now?
McWHORTER: No. And what I like about Southern Liberals is that they have the same temperament as the Conservatives. They are tough. They, and they don’t walk away from a fight. I think Northern Liberals tend to be a little too, um, … they want … they’re too concerned with being fair. And that’s why Bill Clinton was so effective, is that he knew that he had to win. And if Bill Clinton had been in Al Gore’s situation in Florida, he would have won, because he, he knows, would know that you may have to get your hands dirty in order to get something done. So that … so Liberals in the South, they’re fun.
HEFFNER: They know how to get their hands dirty.
McWHORTER: They do.
HEFFNER: And are willing to do it.
McWHORTER: They’re willing to do what’s necessary … just like the Conservatives are.
HEFFNER: Southernism, then, is something still to be studied. I doubt that we Northerners will ever understand you Southerners. Let me ask you one thing, though … our time is running short. I was so fascinated by the frequent reference to Communist influence …
HEFFNER: … in this period. Would you, would you elaborate a little bit on that …about that.
McWHORTER: Well, this is very much a post-Cold War book. This book could not have been writing during the Cold War. Because it … a lot of people, one of the most shocking things to, to my friends in Birmingham, who are Liberal, is that Birmingham actually was the headquarters … Southern headquarter of the Communist Party in this country in the 30s and the 40s. And the main cause of the Southern Communist Party was what they called “Negro liberation” which was civil rights. Now ironically, the extremist radical agenda of the Communist Party is now what we consider mainstream. It’s just the Constitution. So, um, so people have been surprised to read in my book, um, that … I mean that they assumed that the red baiting was just made up, fantasy, in order to, in order for segregationists to, to sort of disguise their racism as this, as anti-communism. When in …
HEFFNER: But you say, “No.”
McWHORTER: … when in fact, they really were Communists. And, and there was no … one thing … Bull Connor was a big anti-Communist in the forties and he ran the party out of Birmingham. And in a way it was a great gift, because if they had stayed, and sort of segued into the sort of church based movement that then grew up as a result of the Montgomery bus boycott with Dr. King leading it. Then, then the movement really would have been red-baited. Even more than it was.
HEFFNER: And it wasn’t that much. I mean that’s the thing that fascinates me about your book. You, you referred to the, to the Communist influence, and yet I don’t get the feeling that there was a tremendous amount of red-baiting.
McWHORTER: Oh, there was.
HEFFNER: There was?
McWHORTER: Oh yeah. The segregationists … Senator Eastland, I mean they had committees … Congressional committees …
HEFFNER: I mean in terms of Birmingham itself.McWHORTER: Ahaaa.
HEFFNER: In terms of what was going on. I, I just didn’t get that.
McWHORTER: Well, there were, uh, … you mean the, the movement in the sixties.
McWHORTER: No, by then, that … although … no. Jack O’Dell who was the member of the Communist Party who was King’s aide, he had been a member of the party, and, uh, he … so he was the chief target of J. Edgar Hoover and the sort of legitimate person they would cite as having Leftist and any Communist connections, who was influencing the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King.
HEFFNER: Okay. A finally question, perhaps. J. Edgar Hoover … you mentioned the magic name. Tell us briefly about him in this whole matter of the Birmingham bombings.
McWHORTER: Well, I think this, I think it does have real relevance today because there’s been a lot of controversy growing out of the recent church bombing trial. About the FBI withholding evidence from the State of Alabama in the 1970s when they re-opened this investigation. And my theory is that … not that Hoover was protecting the church-bombers, Hoover had shelved the case in 1965 saying that they couldn’t get a conviction in Birmingham at that time. And he was probably right. I think that the, the culture of secrecy and concealment of the FBI grew out of its need to protect, um, its informant culture. The FBI had an informant inside the, the Klu Klux Klan, whom they had to have suspected of being involved in this church bombing. Now, whether he was or not, and I didn’t find evidence that he was. Their fears, because they had covered up crimes he had committed in the line of duty for the previous two years, had to have affected this. And, my theory is that the reason Hoover and the FBI did not want to turn this stuff over was because of what people would then find out about their behavior, and their cover up of the, of the crimes that this informant had committed.
HEFFNER: 30 seconds left. Did the Kennedy Administration ever have any sense of this inter-play between informers and the FBI?
McWHORTER: No, in fact, some of their great civil rights lawyers like John Door were, were forced into a position of defending this man, this this Klan informant. Not knowing anything about the crimes he had committed. They thought he, that he was a hero until these revelations happened in the seventies.,
HEFFNER: Diane McWhorter, everyone has got to read “Carry Me Home”, it’s really a brilliant, brilliant book. And thank you for writing it.
McWHORTER: Thank you so much.
HEFFNER: And thank you for coming here on The Open Mind. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.