"The Newspaper Boy: Coming of Age in Birmingham, Alabama, During the Civil Rights Era"
Author: Chervis Isom
Publisher: The Working Writer Discovery Group
Price: $27.95 (Hardcover)
“The Newspaper Boy” joins that growing shelf of memoir by men now fully grown, in Isom’s case, in his middle seventies, who were not heroes or even participants in the civil rights movement, but unsympathetic, resistant to it, even racist at the time. In the case of Tim Parrish’s confessional “Fear and What Follows,” Parrish actually engaged in violent racist behavior in his hometown of Baton Rouge.
Chervis Isom’s memoir is more an exploration of why he felt as he did, how the shaping forces of family and culture in Jim Crow Birmingham in the 50’s and 60’s filled the mind of a sensitive, polite, kind-hearted boy, eager to be accepted, with a mixture of anger and fear. He realizes he might have gone over to violence and by good fortune did not.
In one of the earliest chapters, set in 1943,in the Norwood section, Isom relates how at the age of four he and some little buddies “ throw rocks at the colored children, who throw rocks back.” Nobody knows why.
Isom’s father, a decent, hard-working man from Winston County, drove a bus for Greyhound. As the civil rights movement intensified, he was expected to maintain segregation on the bus. The stress level rose.
At age 13, in 1952, Chervis, eager to make spending money, took a paper route. There were lots of adventures –a motorcycle wreck, seductive lady customers, freezing weather, but these were incidental.
Although not an eager student, he read the paper, and was as knowledgeable as most about the war in Korea and the McCarthy hearings. He was a General MacArthur fan regarding fighting the Chinese in Korea and learned to worry about the domestic communist threat as well.
Thus, when his dad took young Chervis to hear talks by Asa Carter, Chervis, in awe, “mesmerized,” was vulnerable to the demagogue’s rantings. Carter led the White Citizens Council in Birmingham and later wrote George Wallace’s most memorable lines in his inauguration and at the schoolhouse door. A fascinating creature of whom much more could be said, Carter, extoller of Anglo-Saxon purity, later claimed to be a Cherokee and wrote a bogus memoir, “The Education of Little Tree.”
Carter had a strong impact on Isom’s teenage brain. He was taught to fear the communist threat, school integration, rock and roll, the “fluoridation conspiracy,” and the imminent “mongrelization” of the white race.
Oddly enough, his paper route saved him. He came to know the Millers, Yankee liberal “expats” so to speak, who befriended Chervis and counseled him, patiently, on many “collection” Saturdays, to rethink these positions and try to judge people by their character. “Colored people,” says Mrs. Miller, have the same “hopes and dreams . . . as ours. They want a fair chance at life.”
Isom credits the Millers and the liberal attorney Abe Berkowitz for, in a sense, saving his life. Isom would go on to Birmingham-Southern, then Cumberland Law. For years he has meant to tell this story.
He’s not a polished writer. Isom, unselfconsciously, can describe his uncle as “lean as a rail” with “starched khakis creased as sharp as the blade of a knife.” Paradoxically, the effect is to reinforce what is already evident: the absolute honesty of this tale.
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.”