Interviews

Pulitzer Prize winning author Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Movement

Diane McWhorter, in the jury box of the Monroeville, Alabama courthouse,

the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird and the home town of author Harper Lee

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McWhorter is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of

Carry Me Home:

The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

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For Birmingham, Alabama native Diane McWhorter, growing up in the city Edward R. Murrow described as the “Johannesburg of America” was “pleasant, because we were the privileged people.”  While privilege has its rewards, even as a young girl McWhorter sensed the segregated society that supported this privilege was anything but normal.

The silent, shady actions of her father during the sixties — primarily his active role in opposing the civil rights movement — led McWhorter down a nineteen year path that began with the investigation of her own father’s activities, and ended with an extraordinary narrative of the personalities and events that brought about America’s second emancipation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The resulting work is Carry Me Home:  The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, for which McWhorter was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, a book Jon Wiener of The Nation calls “The most important book on the movement since Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters.”

Carry Me Home is an epic look at the history of the movement, and a reminder of how it shaped many who are old enough to remember the horrifying images of young children attacked by dogs and fire hosed down the street as if they were unwanted debris.  It galvanized the country and brought enormous changes to our society, affecting the art we viewed, and the music we listened to.  It made heroes of courageous leaders and ordinary citizens, and villains of those protecting a corrupt, unjust system.  It brought an entirely new depth to our individual relationships, and American society at large.

We are pleased to have Diane McWhorter share her thoughts on the movement with us in an interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.

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photo by Charles Moore

The sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”

 - Martin Luther King

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This Little Light of Mine, by the Freedom Singers

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JJM  Who was your childhood hero, Diane?

DM  This may seem rather unbelievable. It was J. Edgar Hoover. In junior high and high school, I wanted to be an FBI agent. I wanted to break into that “boys club” because they didn’t allow women agents at that point. Hoover was a big hero in the south. I remember we had a family ritual every Sunday night, where we would all sit down together and watch the TV show The FBI, with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

JJM  Your choice is especially amazing after having read so much about him in your book, it is hard to imagine why anyone would consider him a hero!

DM  I guess the scales fell from my eyes!

JJM  I spent the last couple of weeks with your work and wanted to congratulate you on this great life achievement, and for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Carry Me Home. I suppose all of us have an interest of sorts in leaving a footprint or two in the sand, and you have certainly done that here.

DM  Thank you.

JJM  Edward R. Murrow described Birmingham as the “Johannesburg of America,” and once said the atmosphere in Birmingham reminded him of Nazi Germany. You define Birmingham as the “citadel of segregation.” What was it like growing up as a young girl in Birmingham?

DM  For me, and for people in my neck of the woods, it was quite pleasant because we were the privileged people. I never thought of segregation as being normal, though. That is not to say that I ever stood up against it and declared to others that it was wrong, but it always seemed weird to me. I believe political consciousness begins at about age eleven, and that is how old I was when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. As a result, I never made the transition which adult southerners eventually must — to thinking that segregation is normal, and that it’s the way things should be. I know that we were always fascinated with the maid’s bathroom, and white kids used to always go and taste the “colored” water fountain, just as black kids wanted to taste the water from the white fountain. There was a sense within me that this was all quite strange, but I didn’t take any moral leap and say it was wrong. I wasn’t a crusader. I was just extremely typical for my time and place.

JJM What did your father do for a living?

DM  He rebuilt air compressors for recreational use, including one for NASA’s space camp in Huntsville. He worked in a machine shop that we called “the plant,” and we thought it was very important.

JJM  How did you first suspect that your father may have been part of some organized resistance movement?

DM  It was an early sensation of fear or dread of what he might be doing. He was out at night all the time, and my mother would explain that he was at one of his civil rights meetings. We knew that he was fighting against the civil rights movement, but we didn’t really understand what those meetings were about. I also became suspicious when I learned the name of the organization he might belong to — the Minutemen — which as it turns out was a front for the John Birch Society. Later on I thought he may have been a member of the Klan because we saw Klan literature in his office every now and then.

JJM   When you first starting writing the book, what were your worst fears concerning your father?

DM  The FBI had an informant inside the Klan, Gary Thomas Rowe, and as a result they had pretty good files on the Klan meetings. I really thought that my father’s name was going to turn up in these FBI files. During my research in the library, I came across the name of Loyal McWhorter on the Klan roster. I remember my hands going clammy, and I thought I was going to faint because my first thought that was that Loyal McWhorter was my father. I thought it would have been typical of him to use this romantic sounding name, Loyal, and because he would have wanted to shield his family from shame, he wouldn’t use his real name. So, I was just afraid I was going to find out that he was mixed up with the Klan, in particular the group responsible for beating up the Freedom Riders in 1961, and for bombing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. My very worst fear, which was something I couldn’t really quite face, was that he knew something about the church bombing. He led us to believe that he knew something about it, that he knew the people who had done it.

JJM  You write in the book that, “Segregation’s vulnerable underbelly, as had been clear as far back as the Montgomery bus boycott, was the economic establishment.” What did the racism in the city do for its economics?

DM At one time, racism was at the cornerstone of profits for the city’s heavy manufacturers because it kept the labor force divided and wages depressed. One of the fascinating things I discovered while doing the book is that the segregationist movement — the resistance — had its roots in the New Deal era, when the organizing of labor became protected by the federal government under these New Deal policies. In turn, the New Deal policies sparked an incredible backlash among the business leaders in the country, and not just in Birmingham. Business leaders subsidized all this propaganda to “race-bait,” “red-bait” and “Jew-bait” the labor movement. So, those anti-New Dealers became the segregationists of the fifties. It wasn’t just that it was the same tradition, it was the exact same people. For example, Bull Connor, who became the villain of the civil rights era, started out as this anti-New Deal mascot that the corporate folks had installed in City Hall to turn the grass roots against the New Deal.

So, while at first racism helped corporate profits, as the economy in the country changed after the war and moved from heavy manufacturing to service, racism became bad for business. In the late fifties the business leaders of Birmingham began realizing they couldn’t get plants to locate there or to get managers to move there because, for example, they were afraid the schools were going to be closed. When the steel base of the economy weakened, business really began suffering. Because of the weakening economy and economic self-interest, Birmingham’s business leaders were willing to make changes. Not to take anything away from the movement, but the Chamber of Commerce was ready for segregation to end when it did.

JJM So many people played an important role in this story. Can you talk a little about Fred Shuttlesworth?

DM  Shuttlesworth was the civil rights leader in Birmingham. He was a very militant, fairly autocratic Baptist minister who, along with Martin Luther King, was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was therefore present at the creation of the church-based civil rights movement. In fact, his Birmingham-based organization, called the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, was really the prototype for the SCLC. It was the first mass civil rights organizations based in the church. Shuttlesworth acted as a kind of foil to King. He was extremely confrontational. While King’s temperament was conciliatory, Shuttlesworth possessed a ramrod personality. While King had a lot of finesse, especially with dealing with white people and the black bourgeoisie, Shuttlesworth didn’t. He was more a proud man of the masses. What I came to realize is that both personalities were needed to make the non-violent movement work. They needed a provocateur like Shuttlesworth.

JJM  It seemed to me that he needed King’s participation in Birmingham as much for his celebrity as anything else.

DM Certainly King did possess celebrity. There was an assassination watch on him by the early sixties, which only served to elevate his status among the national media. While he was able to bring national attention to Birmingham, he had many other gifts too.  The black professional classes of Birmingham resisted Shuttlesworth because they had tried so hard to transcend their circumstances, and felt that the way to be liberated was to become more like white people — to gain their approval. This, of course, never worked. Shuttlesworth understood that and knew that there had to be an organized campaign against the system. The professionals and middle class blacks didn’t really sign on to the movement until it was clear that it was going to win, because they had too much to gamble on a losing cause. Until King came to town it was not inevitable the civil rights movement was going to win. It was fairly deep into the campaign of 1963 — the year of the fire hose and police dog demonstrations — that the entire community finally got behind the civil rights movement. Before that, they had been really divided over tactics.

JJM  What was the reason behind J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta against Martin Luther King?

DM  Hoover was a product of segregated Washington, so he was, I think, by upbringing and conviction pretty racist. So it was partly that. I am not so sure how sincere his belief was that King was controlled by communists. If he sincerely believed that, he probably misread the investigative work of his own agents, who had reported King was under very little communist party influence. There were very few former communist party members in the movement, which is quite remarkable considering that civil rights had been the main agenda of the communist party in the south during the thirties and forties.

The vendetta may have had more to do with how the events of the civil rights movement reflected on the FBI. One of the collateral effects of the freedom rides was that the FBI got criticized for its handling of that, and since Hoover was so personally identified with his agency, he took any criticism of the bureau as a personal slap. So, even though the FBI knew of the Klan’s intention to beat the freedom riders to a bloody pulp and did nothing to prevent it, Hoover was looking for a scapegoat and to deflect the criticism of the agency. He blamed King and it was at that point that he really started suggesting he was under communist influence.

JJM  Whether or not Hoover believed King was under communist influence, it seemed like a political tactic to weaken King.

DM  Yes, and also to hold the sword over the Kennedy administration. The administration had become increasingly identified with the civil rights movement and Kennedy put its credibility on the line by introducing what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the wake of the Birmingham demonstrations.

JJM  I was consistently amazed at the level of heroism that the blacks of Birmingham seemed to routinely display, the most heroic of which were the acts of children. Can you talk a little about how the young adults and children helped accelerate the momentum of the movement?

DM  Children had been identified as a key source for not only “troops,” but also as a spiritual ballast for the movement. They had not been totally brainwashed by the system, and they hadn’t necessarily learned to accommodate in order to get along. Also, the adults were legitimately afraid of physical reprisals, as well as the likelihood of losing their jobs for taking part in the demonstrations. The white business community employed most of the blacks in the city, so the black adults were under a lot of duress all the time to toe the line and not buck the system. Children weren’t going to have anything to risk like that. James Bevel, one of the movement’s strategists in Birmingham, said that the best way to get the parents involved was to have their children go to jail. Involving children was a brilliant way to bring the movement home to the community, and that’s what happened in Birmingham.

JJM  The images of the children being hosed and attacked by dogs had a lot to do with persuading the rest of the country to back the movement.

DM  Yes, the photos of the dogs and the fire hoses nationalized the movement, no doubt about it. The actions photographed were such a graphic, primitive expression of the system. Ironically, the dogs were only out for no more than half an hour, and they never came back again. The fire hoses were used for a period of time over a few days, so those pictures did come from over a longer period of time. But the dogs got the job done very quickly! It is sort of a joke in the movement that a few dog bites — and not even that many people were bit — accomplished what a century of suffering and mayhem had not. Nobody had cared until these pictures were published.

JJM  I was nine years old at the time, and I remember seeing those images on the national news on a black and white TV set, and being outraged by what I saw…

DM  The pictures not only recalled Nazi Germany and their police dogs, but also Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with the bloodhounds chasing Eliza. They really spoke deeply to the collective memory of the country. The famous fire hose shot, with firemen bending over and leaning forward into their hoses as they hosed kids into a telephone pole, is immediately epic. Like the World War II Iwo Jima picture, it was just so transcendent.

JJM  Why was the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church chosen as the bombing target of the KKK’s Cahaba River insurgents?

DM  It had come to be known as the headquarters of the movement, because it was big and centrally located. It was right across the street from Kelly Ingram Park, which is where those dogs and fire hose photos were taken. It was a staging ground for the marches. Interestingly though, the 16th Street Baptist was a very snooty church. It was one of the oldest black churches in town. The membership was extremely proud and prosperous. The church was rather withholding when it came to bettering the race, and none of the girls who were killed, ironically, had marched because their parents wouldn’t let them. There were a lot of ironies that this church was targeted, but the Klan had stopped making distinctions. At first they were bombing just Shuttlesworth’s church, but into the sixties they were bombing indiscriminately.

JJM  Did the bomb go off on schedule?

DM  There are two schools of thought. One was that the bomb was set to go off in the wee hours of the morning when the church was unoccupied, and the other is that they wanted it to be occupied. These were not very sophisticated bombs. Most of them up to that point had not had timing devices. They were building the sort of bombs that were just thrown out of cars at a house or at a church. So, the bombers weren’t good at building delayed bombs at that point. It could have been that it didn’t go off when it was supposed to. What I concluded is that the Klan higher-ups who approved the bombing thought it was going to go off earlier than it did, when the church was unoccupied. There was a meeting afterward, where the Klan mucky-mucks called the bombers together, and what I concluded from what was discussed at the meeting is that they were surprised by the time of its detonation.

JJM Did this pretty much signal the end of Bull Connor in Birmingham?

DM  Bull Connor had actually been voted out of office when the demonstrations began but he refused to leave City Hall and was mounting a legal challenge to the election. He and his fellow commissioners claimed that they should serve out the terms that they were elected to, which were for a couple more years, so it was being appealed to the State Supreme Court at this time. He was still in office and there were two city governments at that point.

JJM  Yes, two people signing checks…

DM  People who still had a sense of humor at that point said that Birmingham had two mayors, a King, and a parade every day! One of the liberal lawyers in the book said, speaking of the mayor and Bull Connor (the two mayors), “Together, they hardly added up to one.”

JJM Did you face your own fears during the process of your work? For example, I know you put yourself out there to interview Klan members…

DM  Yes, I was really scared. I worried about reprisals against my family. The fact there are no statutes of limitation on murder was always in the back of my mind. So, yes, I was afraid. Looking back on it now, I don’t think I had reason to be afraid, but I didn’t know that going in. I was very careful. I looked the Klansmen up in the city directory to see if they had a job and were still married to the same person, because if so I thought they weren’t total social misfits. In a couple of cases I talked to widows and ex-wives and ex-girlfriends to get a sense of what these guys were like. I was going to talk to this Klan member, Bill Holt, and before doing so I talked to another Klan wife and asked her if she thought Holt would hurt me. She responded by saying, “Oh no, honey. He’s a fine Christian gentleman!” She couldn’t believe that I would think that!

JJM  Yes, all these guys were “fine Christian gentleman.”  That’s why you came up with a 3,000 page manuscript detailing their actions…

DM  ”Christian gentleman,” I realized quickly, was often a euphemism for “bigot.” You would always hear that term when somebody, especially in polite society, would say something like, “Oh, that man who wrote the segregation law is a fine Christian gentleman.” So, it was amazing to me how often that phrase was used when defending against charges of being racist.

JJM  After devoting nineteen years of your life to this topic, in your opinion, who was the hero of the civil rights movement?

DM  I think Martin Luther King certainly deserved to be the leader. What I hoped to restore in the book was to remind ourselves that this was a very complicated process. At the time, they didn’t know whether it was going to work or not. King is now remembered as some sort of saint, leading his people through the parting waters of the Red Sea, but it was much more complicated than that. King was a complicated figure, and an extremely reluctant leader, as many people of destiny are. You really had the sense that this mantle was thrust on him. Fred Shuttlesworth is certainly the hero of my book. He was the perfect product of Birmingham. He expressed everything about that city so beautifully. I would say that for me he was the hero of the movement.

JJM You wrote that, as a young girl, when people would approach you concerning the “prejudice” question, you would tell them, “I’m a white supremacist, but I’m not prejudice against them.” Having grown up in such a racist environment, how did you escape being a racist yourself?

DM  I don’t know for sure. People seem to be interested in this because I am asked this question frequently. Probably the truest answer is that I that I left Birmingham when I was seventeen and went north to college during the height of the counter-culture. I became really a part of that and thus shed the values of Birmingham very abruptly. I can’t imagine being a racist at Wellesley College, you know what I mean? It just would not have made sense.

JJM  You escaped the environment, therefore the racism.

DM  Yes, there is still a somewhat benighted racial consciousness in Alabama, but I don’t find the people of my generation racist as a group. I will say that I would have not turned out the way I did if I didn’t have a father like my father. What had been a source of pain for me as a child turned out to be a gift that motivated me to write this book, and to discover not just my own history but the history of this incredible place, Birmingham, and the two races. I am just so in awe of being given that opportunity, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time, depending on your perspective.

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Carry Me Home:

The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

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Columbia University President George Rupp presents Diane McWhorter with the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in General Non-Fiction.

 

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Diane McWhorter products at Amazon.com

 

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This interview took place on July 25, 2002

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Tim Madigan, author of The Burning, an in-depth account of the Tulsa race riots of 1921.

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