A fluent and fluid memoir of growing up way down south, from Boston Globe reporter Wilkie.
As a poor white youth in 1940s and ’50s Mississippi, as a college student at Ole Miss, and later still as a newspaperman with the Clarksdale Press Register, Wilkie was witness to an era of extraordinary change in the American South. When he was a kid, bigotry was the way of life—African-Americans were “mud people,” Jews were “Babylonian Talmudists”—and Southerners held jealously to their culture, accent, music, and food. Widely stereotyped as a baroque lot living “as spiritual citizens of a nation that existed for only four years in another century” (and whose cult figures were a parade of eccentrics from Elvis to Bear Bryant), the federal government was about to give them a rude awakening via laws of desegregation. Wilkie lived through the thick of it—the rise of the Citizens Councils and the Klan, the coming of James Meredith, the sit-ins at Greensboro, the Freedom Riders—and he charts here how the sense of fairness inculcated in him by his mother evolved into an understanding of the injustice of segregation. Like many teenagers, he wanted to be a rebel, and it began to dawn on him that the true rebels were sitting at Woolworth lunch counters waiting vainly to be served. By the time Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, Wilkie had witnessed enough and he fled north. He offers a beautifully nuanced reading of the Carter presidency, trumped up for its Southern roots, its decency, and its honor. When the Globe returned Wilkie to the South to cover the place like a foreign country for readers in that chilly northern town, he immediately sensed that major changes (in both mindset and demographics) had taken place since he left—changes that have been unfortunately obscured by the recent brouhaha over the Mississippi state flag.
Wilkie is a savvy reporter, combining grace with tack-sharpness in this memorable portrait of a slice of the South over the past half-century.