Thu February 17, 2011
Fighting the Devil in Dixie: How Civil Rights Activists Took on the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama
As all who know him will attest, Wayne Greenhaw is one of Alabama's best storytellers. In "Fighting the Devil in Dixie," Greenhaw shines the spotlight more on the determined lawyers who went after the flagrantly illegal, unconstitutional city and state ordinances and the Klan itself.
By Don Noble
Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio
As all who know him will attest, Wayne Greenhaw is one of Alabama's best storytellers. He brings these skills as raconteur to his books on recent Alabama history, delivering history in narrative form and with considerable first-person observation, as witness to the events and from uncountable personal interviews with the principles.
After graduation from UA, in 1962, Greenhaw, a Tuscaloosa native, went to work in Montgomery for the "Alabama Journal," Montgomery's afternoon paper. His beat was politics which at the time also meant the civil rights movement and the various responses to it by Alabama's governors, attorneys general and state police.
Over the years Greenhaw has written extensively about the Movement from various angles, focusing on Judge Frank Johnson or George Wallace or, in a recent book, "The Thunder of Angels," the Montgomery bus boycott.
In "Fighting the Devil in Dixie," Greenhaw takes a different approach. The focus here is not on the heroic demonstrators and marchers and also not on the segregationists such as Gov. John Patterson or George Wallace or Al Lingo, Wallace's so-called State Director of Public Safety.
Here, Greenhaw shines the spotlight more on the determined lawyers who went after the flagrantly illegal, unconstitutional city and state ordinances and the Klan itself. In effecting change, these men were perhaps as important as the marchers.
We have the stories of the victims: Willie Edwards, who was beaten and forced into the Alabama River outside Montgomery; Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot and killed in Marion, Alabama; and Michael Donald, lynched in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama. These casualties, along with the marchers and organizers?Dr. King, Rev. Shuttlesworth, Rev. Abernathy, John Lewis?are all given their due.
Then Greenhaw tells the stories of the black attorneys, Orzell Billingsly, Fred Grey, J. L. Chestnut, Solomon Seay, and the white attorneys, George Dean, Charles Morgan, Morris Dees, Douglas Jones, and Bill Baxley.
These men fought for change in court rather than in the streets. They defended the falsely accused and those who had received grotesquely unfair trials or grotesquely harsh sentences.
These lawyers had to be courageous, surely. As a result of their actions, they received death threats and were reviled by many who had been friends and neighbors.
Perhaps even more important they had to be resolute. With all-white juries, cases would be lost and appeals had to be filed. Many cases went to the U.S. Supreme Court and the process consumed years.
The integration of the Montgomery buses had to be followed by integration of the parks and then the YMCA and the swimming pools. There was endless, exhausting resistance.
While black attorneys knew personally the injustice of segregation, white attorneys had to come to understand the need for change, for justice under the law.
Sometimes the process was gradual, other times it was a Saul on the road to Damascus moment.
Bill Baxley as a youngster was horrified by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings and vowed he would one day bring the bombers to justice.
Charles Morgan was a tireless legal researcher and determined to use the law for justice. Morris Dees was a brilliant businessman, with a successful mail order business. After the church bombing he stood in front of his Montgomery Pike Road Baptist Church and asked the congregation to join him and his wife in a moment of silent prayer.
When they finished praying and opened their eyes, "no one else remained in the sanctuary." He and his wife "were standing alone, looking out at the empty seats."
Dees sold his business and founded the Southern Poverty Law Center. After the lynching in Mobile, Dees had a brilliant idea. He sued on behalf of the victim's mother in civil court and bankrupted the United Klans of America.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark" and the editor of "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."