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History Review    


The Ballad of Little River:
A Tale of Race and Unrest in the Rural South
by Paul Hemphill
University of Alabama Press, 2001
ISBN: 0-8173-1110-6
Little River, Alabama (located in northern Baldwin county about an hour's drive north from Mobile) garnered national attention in 1997 as the site of the United States government's first conviction under the newly legislated hate-crimes law. The intent of the law had been to stop the seemingly race related burning of churches in the deep south.

Paul Hemphill, who was born in Birmingham and lives in Atlanta, has spent much of his career writing about the south. The son of a truck driver, Hemphill has written what one critic referred to as "a Bubba trilogy" -- books about country music, stock-car racing, and truck driving. Looking for a story "distinctively Southern, blue-collar, thoroughly isolated from the
mainstream of American life, and there had to be an issue to merit my going there - a story," Hemphill heard about the destruction of a black church in Little River and the five young people on trial accused of setting the fire.

The Ballad of Little River is an aching reminder of how poverty, lack of education, and low-paying dead-end jobs in closed communities, can limit the American dream. The author interviewed residents of the town taking care to give a balanced report on what he saw and how they felt about "interlopers." He talked with the white families who have intermarried and fought with each other for generations. He listened to members of the black community who worked hard to insure their children would get an education and have chances they did not. He spent time with the local law officials and lawyers absorbing the gossip, boredom, and unresolved conflicts resulting in grudges borne year after year. Paul Hemphill's portraits of ordinary people offer glimpses of the south not observable from the interstate on the way down to Florida.

The Ballad of Little River is a painful book, yet, the area begs for a revisit. One wonders what happened to the five young people after their convictions and prison sentences, whether or not the church was ever rebuilt, and how the town and the lives of its' inhabitants look at the incident now. Paul Hemphill's study of rural Alabama haunts the reader.
Pam Kingsbury
Southern Scribe Reviews

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