Now with a new afterword, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic account of the civil rights era’s climactic battle in Birmingham as the movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., brought down the institutions of segregation.
"The Year of Birmingham," 1963, was a cataclysmic turning point in America’s long civil rights struggle. Child demonstrators faced down police dogs and fire hoses in huge nonviolent marches against segregation. Ku Klux Klansmen retaliated by bombing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young black girls. Diane McWhorter, daughter of a prominent Birmingham family, weaves together police and FBI records, archival documents, interviews with black activists and Klansmen, and personal memories into an extraordinary narrative of the personalities and events that brought about America’s second emancipation.
In a new afterword—reporting last encounters with hero Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and describing the current drastic anti-immigration laws in Alabama—the author demonstrates that Alabama remains a civil rights crucible.
- Pulitzer Prize
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Simon & Schuster
February 05, 2002
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Excerpt from Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter
Chapter Eight: Pivot
The Freedom Rides were proving to be one of history's rare alchemical phenomena, altering the structural makeup of everything they touched. They had engineered what was perhaps Birmingham's major civic turning point since Joe Gelders revealed to the La Follette committee that U.S. Steel had terrorists on its payroll. In the continuing evolution of vigilantism in Birmingham, the Freedom Riders' welcome to the city marked the end of Bull Connor's long life as the intermediary between the Big Mules and the Klan, alienating him with finality from his old sponsors. As Sid Smyer's study group proved, the business elite was finally distancing itself from the militantly segregationist ideology it had long shared with the Klan.
As Jim Farmer intended, the Freedom Rides had engaged the federal government in a symbiosis with the civil rights movement, but they had also made the government a shield for the Ku Klux Klan. The FBI's cover-up of Gary Thomas Rowe's actions would taint the Justice Department for decades, and that was only one of the bureau's insults to the civil rights movement. The most historic result of the Freedom Rides was perhaps the least well known: J. Edgar Hoover's enduring vendetta against Martin Luther King.
That Hoover's career path had wound its way to Birmingham had a certain logic: His profession as a hunter of subversives had been launched by U.S. Steel. To squelch the union movement among its workers in 1919, the Corporation had helped foment the Red Scare that led Congress to create an anti-radical general intelligence division of the Justice Department. Hoover was appointed its first chief, a green twenty-four-year-old who grafted his prejudices as a product of Jim Crow Washington on to his anti-red mission; Hoover's first black target had been America's pioneer "mass" leader, the Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey, whom he had bagged in 1923 on mail fraud charges.
Hoover's division was dissolved the following year, and he became director of the Bureau of Investigation, which acquired the prefix "Federal" during the New Deal. He never met a civil rights figure he didn't hold in suspicion -- Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, even Mary McLeod Bethune. Truman's Committee on Civil Rights he considered pink at best. And his agents had cooperated with Bull Connor in closing down the Southern Negro Youth Congress. In 1953, the bureau opened a Communist-infiltration investigation of CORE, the cause of Hoover's current dilemma.
The Justice Department had been getting big doses of the FBI's aggressive passivity all week. Frustration over the Birmingham bureau's dodges had prompted the attorney general to buzz Hoover, technically his subordinate, and ask him how many agents "we" had in Birmingham. "We have enough, we have enough," the director said, and let loose a flood of words that neither answered the question nor didn't answer it. On Sunday night during the siege at Ralph Abernathy's church, the complaints about the FBI from Justice's "riot squadders" -- as the lawyers on these ad hoc assignments were henceforth known -- had grown so persistent that Robert Kennedy called his brother, who called Hoover at midnight. Hoover regarded any criticism of an FBI employee as "an attack on me personally," and he responded by scrounging around for a scapegoat. By morning he had found someone to take the blame for his staff's shortcomings in Alabama: It was the man responsible for the Sunday-night mess, Martin Luther King.