CARRY ME HOME

Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

By Diane McWhorter

Simon & Schuster. 701 pp. $35

Diane McWhorter, a native of Birmingham with familial ties to that city's ruling class, has spent more than a decade and a half researching the events that took place there -- many of them dreadful -- during the long struggle to assure the rights and opportunities of black Americans. The result is now, at last, at hand. Carry Me Home is immense in size -- yet McWhorter confesses that "my original manuscript was three times the present length of the book"! -- but rather smaller in historical and literary weight. It is a good and useful book, and it sheds light upon a few dark corners of those hard years, but it falls short of its author's ambitions.

As inspiration and mentor McWhorter cites the late J. Anthony Lukas, who was indeed "patron saint to a generation of nonfiction writers," and who, it probably should be mentioned, was an old friend of mine. It is obvious that Common Ground, his great study of the fight over busing in Boston in the 1970s, served as her model and exemplar. Like Lukas, she is writing about race, about the life of an American city, about the large moral and political and social issues with which the nation was forced to contend as it finally addressed the legacy of slavery and Civil War. Like Lukas, she immersed herself in her researches, tracking every clue and hint as far as she could follow it, investigating not merely all the obvious people and subjects but also others that help define the city and its residents: the steel industry, the football culture, communist activists and labor organizers, country clubs.

Lukas understood that one way to make a big, complicated story accessible and comprehensible is to give it an intimate human dimension that also provides a strong narrative thread; he did this by focusing on three families, little known outside their own small circles but all deeply touched and changed by the story his book tells. McWhorter, given a story in which many of the principals are well known, wisely declined to parrot Lukas by choosing a set of families. Instead she chose to write occasional passages about her own family, in particular herself -- she was a young girl during the famous events of the early 1960s -- and her father, an eccentric son of the city's elite whose rebellion against it was lifelong and at times bizarre.

Alas, it just doesn't work. Though it certainly is easy to understand why McWhorter is haunted by what happened in her hometown and determined to face it head on, little of what she tells about herself validates the claim she makes: "My family was simply a metaphor for the city around it . . . passive yet volatile, complacent and unrequited, promising and defeated." Instead her autobiographical recollections mostly seem gratuitous and clumsy, pasted into a story to which they add little.

It is, for the most part, a familiar story. Its elements are Birmingham, a steel-making city that "had carried into the modern industrial era the central dilemma of America's agrarian past: the systematic subjugation of its black citizens"; a white male elite, known locally as "Big Mules," whose sole apparent motives were profit and control; a large, utterly oppressed black population that by the 1950s had begun to protest, however feebly at first, its straitened existence; the Freedom Riders, "one of history's rare alchemical phenomena, altering the structural makeup of everything they touched"; a large population of blue-collar whites, many of them virulently racist, in which a smaller cadre of Klansmen and dynamiters was nurtured; and a police force, both city cops and state troopers, that eventually came to represent, to the nation and the world, brutality incarnate.

The cast of characters is familiar as well: Eugene "Bull" Connor, the commissioner of public safety who was, as McWhorter amply demonstrates, "patron saint" for the local Klan and errand boy for the country-club power structure; Fred Shuttlesworth, the minister at Bethel Baptist who provided the black community's first effective leadership; Martin Luther King Jr., whose relationship with Shuttlesworth was uneasy but who was able to focus "the attention of the white world" on Birmingham; J. Edgar Hoover, who benignly stood by while the Alabama office of his Federal Bureau of Investigation entered into "a collaboration . . . with racist terrorists in Birmingham"; George Wallace, the implacably evil opportunist who rode racism to the governorship and then unleashed upon Birmingham a state police force that "acted out the brutality that segregationists could no longer get away with"; Robert Chambliss, the Klansman who, "in earning his nickname Dynamite Bob . . . gave Birmingham one of its own: Bombingham"; and four girls -- Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins -- who died in the wreckage of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, murdered by Chambliss and his fellow bombers.

McWhorter traces this much-trod ground carefully, though in more detail than most readers will appreciate inasmuch as it does not always enrich the tale or our understanding of it; this is the occupational hazard of the obsessive researcher, as certain aspects of Lukas's posthumous book, Big Trouble, suggest. But her penchant for detail serves her, and us, exceptionally well in one important respect: Carry Me Home is a case study in how the privileged and powerful can operate behind the scenes to control and, when it is in their interests, undermine and corrupt the social fabric.

One must always, when such allegations are made, be wary of conspiracy theories, but in this instance the conspiracies -- or collaborations, or whatever one cares to call them -- were entirely real. The Big Mules, who had an obvious interest in cheap labor whatever its color, ran Birmingham as their private fiefdom and cash cow. As McWhorter writes of Birmingham in the 1930s, when this "U.S. Steel company town" had to contend with labor unrest, "the Big Mules [wielded] a nonviolent club: the racism they had fomented whenever the have-nots threatened to organize across racial lines." Then and later, they kept a fastidious distance from the tough, dirty city in their comfortable houses near the Mountain Brook Club, while their hired help -- most notably and notoriously Bull Connor -- carried out the nasty business of covering for the Klan while it terrorized blacks and intimidated poor whites.

The FBI was no better. The bureau has changed greatly in the four decades since Bombingham, and even then it had agents who tried to do their duties faithfully, but in Birmingham during the 1950s and '60s, as in much of the Deep South, it was in bed with the racists and subversives it was supposed to be investigating. This has been common knowledge for years, but McWhorter greatly enhances our understanding of the bureau's role through her depiction of its relationship with Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., "a lost mercenary soul" and active Klansman who liked to claim that he worked for the FBI and eventually, in 1960, was elevated by the FBI "from potential informant to full informant." The consequences were dire:

"Perhaps at this stage the bureau was not admitting even to itself what it would later be embarrassed to explain: that it was a necessary evil for Rowe to penetrate the hard core of the klavern. The Klan's 'missionary work' was executed by exclusive 'action squads' -- Klansmen of proven courage and loyalty. In order to be truly useful, the FBI would realize in retrospect, Rowe had to infiltrate the action squad and, to protect his cover, participate in violence."

This Rowe did with gusto; he was as much willing participant as undercover informant, perhaps even more. The FBI was either obtuse or deliberately closed its eyes; in 1963, for example, "it did not strike the FBI as suspicious that for the second time that year Rowe had reported a bombing practically from the scene." McWhorter says that "the violence of the Ku Klux Klan had been abetted by the bureaucratic negligence of the U.S. government," but the possibility that it was more than mere negligence simply cannot be completely ruled out.

Notwithstanding these and other gloomy reports, in the end McWhorter sees her story as one of "redemption in the American citadel of segregation." She is right to do so, but her book is all too painful evidence of the dreadful price that had to be paid in order to achieve it. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.