The Last Days: A Son's Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of the New South, by Charles Marsh. Basic Books, 294 pages, $25.00.
Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama/The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, by Diane McWhorter. Simon and Schuster, 701 pages, $35.00.
The white resistance to the civil rights movement has not received the kind of attention from historians that the movement itself has--understandably, since there is nothing heroic about the resistance. I myself once thought about writing a biography of Mississippi Senator James Eastland, the political linchpin of the resistance, and went so far as to call the University of Mississippi Law School, where his papers were kept. I was told they were stowed in boxes in a basement--uncataloged and inaccessible. A library staffer explained to me, in hushed tones, that Senator Eastland was--well--not quite politically correct.
I appreciate, therefore, Diane McWhorter's and Charles Marsh's very different accounts of whites' response to the civil rights movement in the southern communities where they grew up. It takes some courage to plunge into a subject most of us would rather forget, especially when family honor is at stake. Yet the impulse to discover the uglier truths of the life we lived in childhood has its own attractions: at least, to free oneself of guilt by association; at best, to understand more fully the past that has made us what we are.
Marsh holds out the promise of revelation from the opening moment of The Last Days, when his minister father tells him in the spring of 1967 that the family is moving from Alabama to Laurel, Mississippi. We know something is coming from this early sentence: "With his hand brushing lightly against my shoulders, he told me the Lord was calling us to Mississippi, to blessings more abundant than we could ever imagine."
Instead, arriving in Laurel, the epicenter of Klan activity, they found their house equipped with surveillance devices and a town gripped with fear. Yet for a while, the Marsh family lived in what seemed otherwise a kind of Pleasantville, before the introduction of color. Learning that her son thought that the man rubs his penis against the woman's breast to make a baby, his mother tried to straighten him out: Not the breast, she said, but "down here." She made "a hesitant attempt to pat herself in a more precise location. åHere in her ... womanhood. The father swells with love... . in her womanhood.'" Framed as a story about race, The Last Days is also a story about growing up in a Baptist family still trapped in the fifties (a familiar scene, since I grew up in the 1950s as a Baptist minister's daughter).
The narrative derives its considerable power from the father's confrontation with his own cowardice. Suspicious of the civil rights movement and the northern ministers who supported it, the Reverend Robert Marsh had believed in equality and justice but not in racial mixing--until a searing event shook his understanding of the world in which he lived. The day after he presented a Jaycee Man of the Year award to a local businessman, the award winner and 10 fellow Klansmen were arrested for killing a black man, Vernon Dahmer. Dahmer's transgression: He had offered to help other blacks pay their poll tax.
Shamed, Bob Marsh determined to leave Laurel and take another job, perhaps in a seminary. Freed by the thought of escape, his teaching offers in hand, he visited a local black minister and told him, "That means I am free. Free at last, I guess you could say. I'm free to do what's right, because I no longer have anything to lose."
The Reverend Marcus Cooley's reply: "A man isn't free when he takes a stand because he has nothing to lose. Surely you understand this. Surely you understand that until you were willing to lose everything, you will never know what it means to be free." Vernon Dahmer had been his friend, the Reverend Mr. Cooley went on. "He left behind a wife and eight children. Their lives will never be the same. You gave one of his killers the Man of the Year award a few weeks ago, and now you expect me to think you care about justice."
"I didn't know ... ," Marsh said. "I am absolutely ashamed... ."
"And what have you done with that shame? Have you told your people to support the law of the land? Have you told them that racism is a sin against God? Have you told them black people should have the same rights as whites? What have you done with that shame?"
Bob Marsh cut the visit short and left. That spring, he descended into despair. Once, through an open bedroom door, Charles Marsh glimpsed his mother sitting by his father's side while his father waved "his hands in the air, saying in a sad voice, åNobody understands, nobody. I just need someone to protect me. I just need a little help.'" In the end, he did not leave the Laurel church to teach--he loved preaching too much. Nor did he rise to heroism. There would eventually come a time when he would welcome a black member to his church and perform the wedding of an interracial couple. But not yet.
Understanding that heroism would cost him his position, he measured it out in small doses. "He said what he needed to say to keep his pulpit" at a time when others, who said more, lost theirs. But when the Laurel schools were finally desegregated in 1970, Bob Marsh joined with other leaders in a public rally to help ease the transition. And when his son chose to attend the public integrated school (instead of the private school set up for segregationists), the father said: "I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you, mother and I are really proud." And they all laughed and cried and Mrs. Marsh's mascara ran, and it was "really more like a mask coming off," Charles Marsh writes, "after so many years of wear, and it just cracked me up to see it... ."
Young Charles Marsh saw his integrated school as a gift and came to believe that in attending it the students there had taken part in the movement: "We could have resisted in any number of large and small ways, the ways teenagers do. We didn't have to take the baton, but we took it." They never sat in at a lunch counter, "but we showered together in locker rooms, tackled each other on playing fields, and slept on each other's shoulders during night rides home on the team bus." Marsh, who is now a professor of religion at the University of Virginia, would dedicate his 1997 book God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, to his classmates.
The movement scarcely touched Diane McWhorter's family life in the way it transformed Marsh's. McWhorter was 10 years old in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, the year black children marched and went to jail, and a bomb blast took the lives of four young girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Born into Birmingham's white upper class, McWhorter has spent a good part of her adult life, in research for this book, tracking that violence to the doorstep of her own class. Racist vigilantes turned the same tactics against the movement that steel and coal companies had once turned against labor. The lines of white resistance ran from the taverns where Klansmen met right up to the country club. She demonstrates, in great and sometimes colorful detail, the personal and political ties that bound up the Alabama white resistance into a single, repellant whole.
She is at her best burrowing into the sleazy world of the Klansmen and other bigots who surfaced at opportune moments to toss a bomb or lead an assault or fire a bullet. She ferrets out the links between the bomb throwers and the law--the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Eugene "Bull" Connor, the villain she poses against her hero, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the local movement.
Conceived as a detailed, panoramic history starting out in the 1930s, Carry Me Home grew so large that McWhorter's editor required her to cut it down to one-third of its original size. Perhaps as a result of condensation, so many characters and incidents pack the pages that I, frankly, found Carry Me Home tough going. A free-lance writer for USA Today and other publications, McWhorter writes like a newspaper feature writer, telling one good story after another. But she moves so quickly from one scene and set of characters to another, with seldom a pause for reflection, that the pace wearies and the broad outlines blur. Although she has gathered an impressive mountain of information, she perhaps accepts too readily the validity of FBI accounts (notoriously flawed) and interviews conducted 20 or more years after the fact. There is also an unattractive subtext of scorn toward Martin Luther King, Jr. (she favors Shuttlesworth) and, too, toward the NAACP. She quotes the word "nigger" more often than necessary to bring home the ugliness of daily white talk.
Her own relationship to the story does not add up to much. She tries unsuccessfully to discover her father's role in the white resistance. She pauses in the narrative to bring in her family or herself ("I had gotten my pale green Easter dress at Loveman's"). But in the end, her personal memories chiefly underline the truth of W.H. Auden's lines in "Musée des Beaux Arts":
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance; how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure... .
Yet McWhorter's book, like Marsh's, shows that we can revisit the past and see more than we saw the first time around. Having made that return journey, we inevitably see the present in a different light; yet this is a topic that neither McWhorter nor Marsh take up. I could not help but wonder how they regard the world they live in now and their white place in it.