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Mon March 14, 2005
Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: A Memoir
Let Us Now Praise Famous Women: a Memoir provides a front-row seat to 1960s rural Alabama--the thoughts, feelings and daily life of a white family living in the midst of the civil rights struggle. Sikora portrays his wife's family vividly, intimately and honestly.
By Don Noble
Frank Sikora was a happy 22-year-old Buckeye, living in Columbus, Ohio, working for a printing company, and attending business college, with no thought of Alabama in his head, when he met Millie Helms Burke, a widow.
Millie and Frank married in October of 1958 and would have continued to make their home in Ohio, but Millie was homesick for her native Alabama. They moved to rural Wellington in Calhoun County, where Frank, who as a visiting in-law was only a Yankee, became a Damn Yankee.
There were no jobs, so the Sikoras at first had to live with Millie?s parents.
Sikora takes his title from Agee and Evans, of course, and it is ironic. In Agee?s story, there are no actual famous men and very little praise.
In Sikora?s, there are no famous women, only his mother-in-law and sister-in-law, and he doesn?t praise them much either. But there are real similarities between the two books, evoked by the title.
The Helmses of Wellington, Alabama, are doing no better, really, economically in the 1950s and 60s than the residents of Sprott, Alabama were doing in the 1930s, in the depths of the Depression.
The Helmses, previously sharecroppers, were living on Social Security in the first house they had ever owned, and had been in it for only one year. The house had no running water. There was a well and an outhouse.
The family ate biscuits and bacon for breakfast, biscuits or sausage and coffee for lunch, and for dinner cornbread, beans, and, sometimes, in season, greens. Frank, whose parents had owned a grocery store in Ohio, was appalled, but he was also living on the Helmses? charity.
His father-in-law suggests the beans are better with cornbread crumbled up in them; his brother-in-law suggests he also cut up some onions in them. Both are correct.
Over time, of course, Sikora will get a job as a newsman, first with the Gadsden Times, then with the Birmingham News, from which he has retired after a distinguished career. He also became the author of seven books, the most famous of which are probably Selma, Lord, Selma and his biography of Judge Frank W. Johnson.
But his is a narrow-focus memoir, not his whole life but his life in Alabama in the early 60s.
This was during the time of the Anniston bus burning, the Wallace campaigns, the Birmingham church bombing, and the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, so this memoir is about where race and family connect.
The Helmses? attitude about race is ordinary and sad. Frank asks Dan Helms the name of the black family that lives down the road, their only neighbors within sight. He doesn?t know. Mrs. Helms knows, but that?s about it.
Both Helmses agree that the Bible says ?there ain?t to be no mixin and such.? ?But I got nothing against colored folks. They got their ways, and we got ours. That?s the way I see it.?
The Helmses also agree that Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney would not have been killed if they had just ?stayed at home.?
These people are not Ku Kluxers. They would never overtly go out of their way to be cruel or violent, but they were surely the most difficult part of the Civil Rights Movement, large, inert, passive boulders in the road to freedom.
Sikora, the Damn Yankee, comes to understand and love his in-laws. They are people of dignity, even if a life of hardship has made his mother-in-law into ?the meanest person I ever knew,? as one family member says at her funeral.
This is a short glimpse of a group of people, rural, provincial, uneducated, and unsophisticated, who were entirely of their time and place?no less, and, unfortunately, no more.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.