Cradle of Freedom

Aug 30, 2004

Why was Alabama so important? Because Birmingham was understood to be the most segregated city in America and the meanest--the toughest nut to crack.

This is Don Noble's 100th book review for Alabama Public Radio.

Cradle of Freedom

The Civil Rights Movement was a national movement, true. And major episodes of that movement took place in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and Greensboro, North Carolina, and Albany, Georgia. This is also true. But it is Frye Gaillard's contention that the center, the heart of the Movement, was Alabama, and so this volume, which brings together both a prodigious amount of reading and new, fresh interviews with the surviving participants, has as its focus the state of Alabama, the cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, Anniston, Gadsden, and Selma, Lord, Selma.

This is Gaillard's twentieth book, and he has been following race relations in the South since he was a boy in Mobile. Gaillard is as knowledgeable and educated in this subject as it is possible to be. He combines a smooth, very readable style with a depth and breadth of research hard to find anywhere else, including those writers who have focussed, say, on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Civil Rights Movement as it unfolded in Birmingham.

Why was Alabama so important? Because Birmingham was understood to be the most segregated city in America and the meanest--the toughest nut to crack. Also because Birmingham and Bull Connor, it was thought, could be counted upon to react with grotesque violence and inflame the conscience of the country. And, as we all know, that's what happened. Dogs and hoses used on children, and children bombed at church. That story is well known.

King and his people also thought, however, that while Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi was "unencumbered by the faintest trace of intellect" and therefore could not possibly be reasoned with, both John Patterson and George Wallace were intelligent men who might be reasoned with. This was dreamy, as would be revealed. Of Governor Patterson, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham said at the time of the Freedom Rides, "The most guilty man in this state . . . is Gov. John Patterson," and the attorney Charles Morgan said of Wallace at the time of the church bombing, "In their way, the individuals who bombed the Sixteenth Street church were standing in the schoolhouse door."

The stories of Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Anniston in particular have already been well told. Gaillard does not slight them, but it is clear he is happier when writing about some of the other venues. He does an especially fine job with the Montgomery bus boycott. There is still more to learn there. And he tells the story of the protests in Gadsden, and the violence in Marion, where the Movement faced the battle-hardened troopers of Al Lingo, Wallace's state director of public safety, "whose only apparent qualification for the job was his hatred of black people." He is also good in narrating the events at the bridge on the march in Selma.

If Birmingham was the most racist city in America, Lowndes and Dallas County were the most racist counties. Back in 1935, the sheriff of Lowndes County came out to investigate an agricultural workers strike. One of the leaders, Willie Witcher, explained, peacefully, that the workers wanted a dollar for every hundred pounds of cotton picked. The sheriff shot him dead, on the spot. No wonder then, that while Birmingham was the locale for the triumph of nonviolence, Lowndes and Dallas were the birthplace of the Black Panthers, led by Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Stokely Carmichael. Nonviolence wouldn't work in the Black Belt, and even King knew it.

This book should be required reading in every high school in the state, and may in fact become just that. Reading this history, unhappily, will refresh your memory about the villains of that time, but there were real heroes, too, black and white--Floyd Mann and the Durrs, John Lewis and George LeMaistre and Fred Shuttlesworth--walking the land in those days.