Nell Irvin Painter


Review by Nell Irvin Painter. Reproduced with permission from Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Fall 2001.

Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

I read Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home after an extended stay in Germany. I had long ago joined the legions drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and the American South, some of whom McWhorter quotes. As early as 1938, when Bull Connor was harassing delegates to the founding meeting of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, then congressman Lister Hill recognized the pattern of industrialists’ putting thugs like Hitler and Connor in positions of official power. [66] Making a CBS documentary on Birmingham in 1961, the famed news reporter Edward R. Morrow noted that conditions in the city reminded him of his earlier assignment in Nazi Germany. [185] Howard K. Smith, also of CBS, thought reporting the violence directed at the Freedom Riders his toughest assignment since covering the opening of Nazi concentration camps. [207] After Connor’s use of dogs and fire hoses on the demonstrators in 1963, United States senator Wayne Morse compared Connor’s police to Nazi storm troopers. [396] Such comparisons are not surprising, given the proximity of the civil rights struggle to the Second World War.

Birmingham’s civil rights revolution and counter-revolution took place, after all, less than twenty years after the War ended. Indeed, some of the bombers’ funders had supported pro-Nazi organizations, and the Ku Klux Klan had had to disband in 1944 for supporting the German-American Bund. [53, 73] Hitler committed suicide, and Germany’s Nazis went down to defeat. Victorious Allies forced an occupied and divided Germany to enact structural changes that made it democratic (more or less so, depending on the occupying power). Something similar happened in Alabama, where Bull Connor and George Wallace ultimately lost power and died. In the fullness of time, a version of Black Power did finally come to Birmingham. While parallels between Birmingham and Nazi Germany abound, remarkable differences separate post-war Germany from Alabama.

My German sojourn awakened me to the historiographical differences between Germany and the United States South. Defeat and occupation forced Germans to acknowledge their crimes. Their occupiers schooled Germans on their culpability and watched over the writing of German history. As losers, Germans lost control of the interpretation of historical meaning. But no powerful occupying force has subjected the writing of American history to wholesale review. A book for a general audience like Carry Me Home, which highlights the role of respectable Birmingham in fostering racial violence, has been two generations in coming.

German has a word for it: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, meaning the process of coming to terms with the past. In Germany, Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the work of every single day. Having lost the Second World War, Germans have had to compensate Jewish survivors for the Holocaust and, just now, wartime slave laborers of all ethnicities for forced, unpaid toil in the factories of the Third Reich. At the present time Germans are debating the legacy in contemporary politics of the former German Democratic Republic–especially the policies of its secret police. After fifty years of investigating Hitler, they are looking more closely at the industrialists, businessmen, and other elites who nurtured his rise and kept him in power. The role of the omnipresent East German secret police and the extent to which that role should be revealed are currently under public discussion. Virtually all Germans acknowledge the ugliness of their past and the culpability of perfectly nice, respectable people. They have rightly sprinkled their country with memorials to the victims and warnings to all never to forget Nazi atrocities.

The United States, the South in particular, has an ugly past of its own. But until recently, most non-black Americans were content to blame the bad things that happened on a few repulsive racists: Klansmen and their running mates. Finally this pattern of blame is beginning to change, and Vergangenheitsbewältigung is occurring in the United States. Carry Me Home looks back at Birmingham, where the evils were long-standing, deep running, and systemic. The responsibility for Birmingham’s racially motivated bloodshed lies with country clubbers as well as Klansmen, in elite as well as redneck strata. Southern segregation was structural, not just personal. As an heir of the insightful, mid-century southern writer, Lillian Smith, McWhorter notes that segregation belonged to the province of Marx as well as that of Freud.[57] Civil society and local, state, and federal governments were all implicated in preserving white supremacy, and all share the guilt.

Despite investigations like McWhorter’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung occurs only haltingly in the United States. For the United States won the Cold War as well as the Second World War. While the legal structures of segregation have come down, the ideology of white supremacy survives, limiting the purchase of its most trenchant critics, black people, in the realm of ideas. The victors most available to bring American memory to terms with past crimes are dissenters like Diane McWhorter. As a result, our Vergangenheitsbewältigung remains in its early stages, and phenomena needing investigation, notably racist police brutality, still take place outside historical consciousness.

McWhorter takes on her own hometown. Birmingham used to represent a special place, even in Alabama, the next-deepest part of the Deep South. (Mississippi still wins the prize for deepest.) In the 1950s and 1960s, when South African apartheid flourished, Birmingham was known as the Johannesburg of America, the most segregated city in the U. S. The head of the police during the Freedom Rides and civil rights demonstrations was the infamous Bull Connor, a George Wallace backer who gloried in beating up black folks, even children. Birmingham may have seemed to be an extreme case, but it shared much in common with other American cities in which the Ku Klux Klan supplied the police force.

Site of some fifty racially motivated bombings, 1947-1963, Birmingham earned its sobriquet of “Bombingham.” Klansmen in Anniston and Birmingham beat up Freedom Riders unimpeded in 1961, and in Birmingham in 1963, Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Church on a Sunday morning. Although the latter attack killed four young girls in Sunday school, no investigation followed at the time. Despite the unimaginable savagery of the slaughter and suspicions all around regarding the perpetrators, the first conviction in the case came only a decade and a half later, in 1977. Nothing happened for another quarter century. Of the three remaining prime suspects, one died in 1994 without being charged. Another was convicted of murder in May 2001. As I write in July 2001, the mental competency of the last is still in question. The Federal Bureau of Investigation did secure one bombing-related conviction in 1963: of a black witness, for supposedly lying about what he claimed to have seen at a different bombing.

Although the John F. Kennedy administration enjoys a reputation for friendliness toward the civil rights movement, J. Edgar Hoover, the influential head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, harbored no such tender feelings. To the contrary, the FBI paid informants who incited violence and protected them when they killed. Rather than actively pursue Birmingham’s church bombers, the FBI instituted the anti-Martin Luther King, Jr., COINTELPRO program in order to “expose, disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the civil rights movement [550]. Law enforcement on the local and federal levels permitted, sometimes encouraged, the bombing and killing. McWhorter says the FBI not only collaborated with the bombers, it became the Klan’s benefactor. The pages of Carry Me Home bristle with McWhorter’s evidence of FBI-Klan-police cooperation. By and large the FBI has gotten away with its sins. There have been occasional damage suits, but the agency’s role as protector of bombers still needs investigation and legal redress. This is part–but not all--of Diane McWhorter’s story.

McWhorter begins and ends her 700-page book in the bloody ruins of the Sixteenth Street Church. She looks back to the southern racial politics of the New Deal era and rounds out her post-1963 epilogue with the arrest of last two bombing suspects in May 2000. But even after two generations, Carry Me Home cannot sustain its clear-eyed focus on white supremacy’s power structure.

In one sense, McWhorter’s shift of vision from white power to black challenge is a good thing. Narrating the revolution from both sides, she devotes hundreds of pages to the black people’s organizing and demonstrating in the face of frightening intimidation. She lays out the protean power of civil rights people up against frightening oppression in intricate detail, even capturing the tensions between Martin Luther King, Jr.’s smooth Atlantans and the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth’s rougher black Birminghamians. If J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI is her arch-villain, the scrappy, radical Shuttlesworth is her hero.

McWhorter gives her long story a happy ending: civil rights ultimately revolutionize Birmingham, and the bombing comes to an end. Two of the bloodied Freedom Riders sue the FBI and win; Birmingham establishes a Civil Rights Museum; and the last two Sixteenth Street Church bombers face trial. Justice arrives tardily, but arrive it does at last. As so often in southern history, black sacrifice redeems white atrocity by seeming to transcend it in the end.

In a second sense, however, the story’s ending cushions the impact of its beginning. McWhorter’s opening pages enumerate the ties between Birmingham’s respectable, unsavory, and political realms. She reveals the structural foundation of racist bloodshed in Birmingham: a tradition of using the Ku Klux Klan to beat up and intimidate organized labor and other troublesome workers, many of whom were black; cross-class cooperation between lower-class racists who carried out physical violence and the upper-class patrons who paid and protected them; the cozy relationship between the police and the Klan; and, finally, the connivance of governments local, state, and federal. Over the course of the mid-twentieth century, the Klan functioned as a private militia, serving industrialists fighting unions and Communists (real and imagined). Then it served industrialists trying to preserve segregation’s segmented workforce. Segregation may have been a gut-level issue, McWhorter says, but it paid its owners well.

Interlocking, white supremacist power exercised at three levels preserved the racist status quo in which Bull Connor could sic police dogs on children and Klansmen could bomb churches without fear of legal retribution. Having grown up privileged in the Mountain Brook country club in the 1950s and 1960s, McWhorter knew personally the elites who gave Connor his political career. She describes the wealthy, powerful “Big Mules” taking care of Connor, Connor taking care of the Klansmen, and the Klansmen wreaking havoc on black people. Showing how bombers enjoyed the protection of Birmingham’s better classes, McWhorter does the work of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Unfortunately, she falls into the trap of legions of American writers, who find the story of black struggle ever so much more inspiring than that of white supremacist power. As her pages pile up, the twice-told tale of the valiant black struggle for human rights displaces the largely unknown story of white supremacy.

McWhorter paints enough of a portrait of white supremacist power to prove it was the work of more than just the well-known superstars of racism. But more is required before Americans will have come to terms with their history. A thorough analysis of the on-going white counter-revolution needs more investigation of the FBI and state and local governments. We need more arraignments, more indictments, more convictions, and more payment of damages. These are taking place: two examples are the recent arraignment [scheduled for 23 July 2001] of former policeman, now Mayor Charlie Robertson of York, Pennsylvania, for the murder of Lillie Belle Allen in 1969, and the payment by the City of New York and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of $8.75 million (the largest settlement New York City has ever paid in a police brutality case) to Abner Louima. American Vergangenheitsbewältigung needs more than happy endings, for we have a long way to go before reaching the end.

Nell Irvin Painter, currently Edwards Professor of American History at Princeton University, spent the spring of 2001 in Berlin. In the spring of 2002 she will publish Southern History Across the Color Line.

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