From a journalist and member of one of Birmingham’s leading families, a vivid, admirably nuanced, and wide-ranging history of the city that became ground zero in the Civil Rights struggle as black children marched, the white establishment wrestled with the need to change, and the Ku Klux Klan engaged in murderous bombings.
Founded only in 1871, Birmingham rapidly became a dynamic industrial center, but this city of “perpetual promise” saw its share of hard times. These in turn led to strong unions, a resentful white underclass, alienated blacks, and a white elite imbued with a company-town ethos. By the late 1950s, as the demand for American steel declined, growing unemployment led to a rebirth of the Klan. Already suspicious of outsiders—in the 1930s communists were active in the unions and the emerging civil-rights organizations—the white city fathers (with Bull Connor in charge) were determined to resist the demands for integration. Like George Wallace, they believed that segregation was forever. McWhorter describes all the significant events and the relevant players: men like Fred Shuttleworth, the Baptist minister who initiated peaceful black mass action in the city only to be supplanted by Martin Luther King (who wrote his seminal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” while imprisoned there in 1963); George Wallace, who disavowed his liberal beliefs for the sake of political power; the Kennedys, trying desperately to contain the conflagrations; as well as bit players like Sam Smyer, a racist city leader who understood that photos of police dogs attacking children harmed the city and began to work for change; and Elizabeth Hood Cobb, who gave the police information about her uncle’s involvement in the bombing of the church in which four black girls were killed. The author ends her account with new information about the bombings.
A dense, detailed, and insightful history.