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Book Forum: HISTORY   |    
Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:2339-2341. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2339
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Houston, Tex.

By Diane McWhorter. New York, Simon & Schuster, 700 pp., 2001, $35.00; 17.00 (paper).

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It should have been the best of times. The South, suppressed economically since Appomattox by Northern interests, in the 1950s was enjoying the sunshine of unprecedented prosperity. The G.I. Bill educated a workforce that attracted business and investment to the area as never before. Schools, churches, and government benefitted from the rising economic tide. All should have been well. Nevertheless, the cruelties of black subjugation fueled a growing civil rights movement that inflamed institutionalized white racism. Nearly all institutions that should have opposed racial intolerance—the Christian Church, government, law enforcement, education—failed. White racial prejudice, always pervasive, coalesced into a politics of hate unseen since Reconstruction. Violent white extremists were given virtually a free hand, and, particularly in Birmingham, their ferocity was appalling. Bombings and murder became almost routine, escalating to "a national turning point known…as the year of Birmingham, 1963," with demolition of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the killing of four young girls attending Sunday services there. The murders galvanized fence-sitting moderates and mobilized a national countermandate against Birmingham’s white establishment, most notoriously characterized by Police Chief Eugene "Bull" Connor. From there began a (very) slow renunciation of racism and decline of extremism.

Today, Alabama’s schools and Birmingham’s police force, city government, and (some) churches are integrated, and racism is politically incorrect. There has been penitence from nearly all the frontline perpetrators. The Klan and most other extremist groups have been harassed into marginality. The old power elite of Birmingham, behind-the-scenes enablers of all this, have yet to receive the richly deserved scorn of the nation, and barely a one has shed a remorseful tear. Now, a native daughter, prize-winning journalist Diane McWhorter, has selected Birmingham and its historical leadership for a scathing retrospective. Conflating her insider’s position as a legatee of a privileged Birmingham family with a furious dedication that sustained her investigation for 19 years, Ms. McWhorter details these watershed events in 600 pages of densely woven narrative. Her odyssey took her from city and other state landmarks in the civil rights wars, through dusty archives, and into the homes and businesses of combatants on both sides, from the controlling "big mules" to obscure country housewives, documenting their ancient and lasting hatreds, their failed policies, and their enduring certainty in the rightness of the old ways.

The title, from a Negro spiritual, reflects the struggle, misery, and incomplete redemption that pervade this story. Ms. McWhorter’s command of her material and an engaging, accessible style are nearly novelistic in their ability to grasp, hold, and fascinate. The narrative begins in early Birmingham, with the racist politics of the "big mules" leading the community on an unwavering course toward tragedy. Woven into extensive reportage from other sites in the civil rights battle, the city’s affairs become the center of an unfolding calamity. From big industry’s early exploitation of convict labor to the upper crust’s incitements to violent protest of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies on behalf of the poor, the city was nursed on racism’s spoiled milk.

Birmingham had carried into the modern industrial era the central dilemma of the South’s agrarian past: the systematic subjugation of its black citizens. Founded during Reconstruction, the city seemed destined to become the post-bellum host of the country’s classic confrontations between Left and Right, between black and white, and ultimately between justice and power.

Ms. McWhorter devotes the attention one would expect to such prominent figures of the furious era as Hugo Black, the former Klansman who redeemed himself as an enlightened Supreme Court Justice, Kennedy administration officials, civil rights leaders, Chief Conner, and George Wallace, but many of her most chilling characters never appeared on the Huntley-Brinkley Report or the front page of the New York Times. Behind the oaken doors of their paneled club rooms, Birmingham’s elite called them white trash—the unschooled, unlanded, red-necked natural constituency of the Ku Klux Klan, the cadre of poor whites who measured honor and manhood in their capacity for racial violence.

Surely the book’s most despicable thug is convicted church bomber Robert Chambliss, a local legend among connoisseurs of remorseless savagery. Chambliss found enthusiastic supporters among civic leaders, city and state politicians, and the Klan’s lengthy membership rolls. His murder of the four 14-year-old girls was but one highlight of a life thoroughly energized by hatred. He dynamited a black union member’s home in 1947, joined a mob attacking visiting U.S. Vice-President Henry Wallace, and became locally famous for "bombing houses with abandon." He became a favorite henchman of Birmingham’s moneyed interests, and he made the Klan "the last line of defense against upwardly mobile Negroes…by mid-1949 there were so many charred house carcasses that the area was informally renamed Dynamite Hill." The Alabama attorney general wrote his friend Senator Lister Hill that he had "no doubt" that all of this (including the fees of high-priced Klan defense lawyers) was being "handled" from the "tall buildings," the offices of Birmingham’s coal, iron, and steel barons.

No less contemptible was Governor Wallace, campaigning on the proposition that "what this country needs is a few first-class funerals, and some political funerals too," fund-raising for Klan causes, blaming the "nigras" themselves for the bombings, appearing in public with Chambliss and Klan leaders, and fomenting violence against Alabama’s black citizens. Wallace’s defiance of a federal court order to integrate Alabama’s public schools and university, as well as his manipulation of state resources to systematically confound the troops sent by President Kennedy to enforce the law, certified Wallace’s heroism in the eyes of white Alabama and built him a fervent constituency among closet racists throughout the nation. Ms. McWhorter details his ravings, his corruptions, his threats, and his pandering with horrific precision.

Ms. McWhorter authenticates her chronicle of the conspiracies, schemes, dreams, and deeds of the racist elite, government officials, and exploited poor white foot soldiers in this sordid battle, with tape recordings of conversations and interviews and archival media material. She sensibly essays little psychological profiling or developmental understanding of the individuals, relying on the overarching importance of the still-unfinished American civil rights struggle to drive her narrative. She notes with some regret that some family, friends, and unsolicited others have registered their displeasure with her exposé of Birmingham’s recent history, denied its accuracy, and encouraged its suppression. Sixty-nine pages of carefully collected reference notes document her research and the pervading professionalism of this prize-winning study.

Many, particularly those of us who grew up in the time and place of this book, will feel shamed by the story it tells, but we may profit from its lesson. In a contemporary world apparently driven mad by religious devotees, Ms. McWhorter remembers an era in our own nation when people who identified themselves as devoutly Christian were certain that their religion licensed any cruelty, any intolerance, any atrocity conducted in its name. Perhaps the problem lies less with religion than with the people who claim special intimacy with it. Ms. McWhorter has written a withering indictment of how a failed culture justified itself by embracing wickedness and iniquity. The truth of what she has to say is inescapable and unforgettable.




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