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History Review   

CARRY ME HOME: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution
By Diane McWhorter
Simon & Schuster, 2001
ISBN: 068-4807-475

 

“Like the spiritual from which the title is taken, this book is about death, redemption, and race. It builds to the national turning point known in history as the Year of Birmingham, 1963, when two things happened there, in the country’s most segregated city, that brought about the end of apartheid in America.”

Thus begins this mammoth book of epic proportions. Written by one of the most tenacious reporters I have ever known, Diane McWhorter, a native of Birmingham whose ancestors fought and suffered through the Civil War, Carry Me Home radiates the history of a city, a land, and a people, not simply telling about historical events that brought about a change but farming the details from the very soil of the rich Mountain Brook earth and from the seeds of hate planted in the mind of Robert Edward “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the convicted bomber of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and others involved in that horrendous happening.

In this work of grand proportions, Ms. McWhorter paints portraits of the good, the bad and the ugly, without skipping the in-between. She draws all the gray shadowing of minor figures while highlighting all the tones of major players, like Governor George Wallace, Police Commissioner Eugene F. “Bull” Connor, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Reverend Mr. Fred Shuttlesworth. She peoples her world with Asa “Ace” Carter, a right-wing radio commentator and Ku Klux Klan spokesman; Chuck Morgan, a Birmingham attorney who spoke out against the violence; Bob Zellner, a young student at Huntingdon College in Montgomery who became infected with a rapt conscience when he saw Freedom Riders being beaten at the downtown bus station; A.G. Gaston, the black Birmingham millionaire who wanted to keep trouble at arm’s length; Charles Moore, a photographer who had become “sickened by what he had photographed at Kelly Ingram Park, which included a sensational series of two dogs ripping Henry Lee Shambry’s clothes.” And the list goes on and on.

Her scene of the Freedom Riders in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery on that fateful Saturday morning details the drama better than any other account I have ever read. She skips no detail as John Lewis is grabbed and beaten after being interviewed by a television reporter whose cameraman is beaten and his camera destroyed. “The Justice Department’s lone white friend in Alabama, Floyd Mann, drew his piston on a gang of men beating a Birmingham TV cameraman and pulled one of John Lewis’s Nashville classmates from the baseball bats and feet of another gang,” Ms. McWhorter writes. 

Carry Me Home is powerful stuff. With a sweeping vision, this book drips with juicy details. Better than Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters or David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, Ms. McWhorter reaches into the very heart and guts of a city and a region, using her personal viewpoint from remembrances of things past as well as her superior ability as a first-rate journalist to explore it all, without missing a blemish, without ignoring the ugly scars or the deep wounds. She goes far beyond the earlier journalists because she was there, looking on as a child. And within her recollections are family ties: a father who was involved in anti-Civil Rights activities and other kinfolks who were close to the Klan. Carry Me Home is very much a part of the history of the South, and it should not be dismissed. Ms. McWhorter’s microscope magnifies some of the horror of our not-too-distant past, it remembers some of the poignant personal moments, and it rises out of the fires of destruction like the Phoenix: “Birmingham was America’s city in a valley, but out of the depths rose a city upon a hill. Beauty from destruction. There is magic in that.”

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

Wayne Greenhaw, a writer who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, covered the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s for The Alabama Journal. He has written about the Freedom Riders, the Ku Klux Klan and other subjects for The New York Times.

© 2001 Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved