In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal

Mar 4, 2013

“In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal”

Author: H. Brandt Ayers

Publisher: NewSouth Books

Pages: 336

Price: $29.95 (Cloth)

H. Brandt Ayers, Brandy to his friends, has been publisher of the family-owned “Anniston Star” since returning home from Washington D.C. and taking over from his father, Col. Harry Ayers, in 1963. Now 78 years old, Ayers has published his memoirs.

“In Love with Defeat” runs along two parallel tracks.

First, it is an autobiography, a richly anecdotal look at Alabama’s last half century.

Ayers tells of growing up in segregated Anniston, attending local schools and then the Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut, class of 1949.

He attended Wooster partly because others such as Andover or Lawrenceville would have “put [him] back a year or two.” Ayers learned early there were differences between North and South that could only be learned by experiencing the North.

After Wooster, Ayers took a B.A. in history at UA, interrupted by two years in the Navy, since he had also been majoring in fraternity life.

Ayers met and in 1961 married Josephine Ehringhaus, granddaughter of a North Carolina governor. During an exciting and educational journalistic apprenticeship in Raleigh, Ayers saw North Carolina up close and Alabama at an objective distance, and the differences between the two Southern states is a major structuring device for his book.

As Ayers watched, Carolina moved forward, integrated rather calmly, elected New South governors like Terry Sanford and broke ground for the Research Triangle.

In the seventies, other Southern states elected Reubin Askew, Dale Bumpers, Jimmy Carter and John West as governors.

Alabama resisted the tide of history in Birmingham and Selma, and indeed in Anniston, chose George Wallace as governor even when a progressive such as Albert Brewer was available, and drove capable moderates like Carl Elliott, Albert Rains and Kenneth Roberts from office.

In what must have been painful sections to write, Ayers tells of his own father’s dilemma: a decent and fair-minded man, he opposed the Dixiecrats and espoused voting rights for blacks but could not escape a lifelong belief in segregation.

The other controlling arc of Ayers’ book is what he calls the death of one civilization, the Old South, and then the birth, brief life, and, sadly, death of its successor, the New South.

Ayers argues we are now living in a New, New South, or a Post-New South.

For a while it appeared the Confederacy, now extolled as The Sun Belt, would join the rest of the country.

The nation elected Jimmy Carter as president; racial conditions improved dramatically; prosperity was spreading and cities like Atlanta, too busy to hate, were booming.

Alabama itself was on the move. Ayers says: “The 1970’s for me were the happiest decade. I fell in love with my native land all over again.”

This was a historical moment his generation could be proud of.

“Our claim to greatness rests here: We tried, hard, to make all men equal, and we created a new black middle class. We have seen the walls of legal racism fall and we have seen the end of a civilization that supported it.…We helped bring down the curtain on an entire civilization which existed as a denial of the Declaration of Independence.”

But, Ayers says, most of this was later lost. White flight to places like Shelby County has impoverished and segregated the cities; the establishment of “academies” has resegregated the public schools; we are back to a one-party political system, and the red South is now, as a unit, again starkly separate politically from most of the rest of the blue country.

We have, in a sense, become a New Old South.

There is more here than lamentation, however. Ayers writes warmly of the citizens who bravely struggled to keep violence in Anniston to a minimum, and gives special credit to the members of the Anniston Improvement Association especially the Rev. Nimrod Quintus Reynolds and the Rev. Phil Noble who has published his own account of those years in “Beyond the Burning Bus”( 2003).

Ayers writes of his own participation in regional and national endeavors, especially the founding of the progressive L. Q. C. Lamar Society, and his pride in his wife Josephine’s organizing of the original Shakespeare Festival, since spirited off to Montgomery.

Ayers’ prose style in “In Love with Defeat” is mostly serviceable and workmanlike, but he gets into trouble once in a while when attempting to construct complicated metaphors.

Here, for example, is a description of the KKK: “ …the 1920’s Klan to me was a working-class gargoyle pushed up by the geologic heaves of an amoral decade.” Try to make a mental picture of that!

There is a little name-dropping but this is understandable. After all, Ayers has in fact given advice to Carters and Clintons and has slept in the Lincoln bedroom, and, as a major independent publisher, he has known and rubbed elbows with many powerful folk of the last half century.

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.”