Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

What Is Remembered | Look Away

I saw Joan Baez don a grey Confederate soldier’s cap, probably picked up at some local tourist stand, to sing Robbie Robertson and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” at a pop-up concert in Mobile. It was April 1976 and the event was one of the two Mobile performances of Bob Dylan’s legendary “Rolling Thunder Revue.”

I skipped a final exam to be there.

The song is poor fictional Virginia farmer Virgil Caine’s lament about his plight at the end of the Civil War. The song, written by a Canadian musician, was not perceived as “racist” at the time. But I doubt that Baez could comfortably perform the song in a cheap Confederate soldier’s cap in 2020; I would have a difficult time applauding it now – with all of the baggage it has come to contain. Even so, it is an undeniably great song and Baez gave an indisputably great performance.

At a time when we are trying to become an anti-racist society, we are challenged to become more conscious of race than at any time in my existence. I learned early on that it is rude to label people based on their race and ethnicity or gender or religion or sexual orientation. Now it is demanded.

White Southerners have often been accused of “living in the past.” I’m afraid we’ve reached a time when the entire nation is living in the past and we’re too paralyzed to move forward.

I taught at an HBCU (Historically Black College / University) for the last eighteen years of my career before retiring in May. On occasion, a student would find out I was from Birmingham (mostly – my family moved around a lot) and ask me what part of town. I would answer that we lived in “Green Acres” during my elementary school years and those familiar with the city would jaw-drop and say, “Journey, you’re from the hood!”

Green Acres was not called “the hood” in the ‘60s when I lived there, but times and places change. If I wanted to really blow my students’ minds, I would mention that my dad graduated from Ensley High School.

During those years, Green Acres was an all-white school. It was almost a decade after Brown v. Board and Birmingham city schools were still in the process of integrating. The city had operated its schools on the principle of neighborhood accessibility and, while there were communities of color close to Green Acres, the nearest were in the county – not the city – school system. More diverse parts of the city – especially closer to the city center – were more quickly integrated, but the regrettable “white flight” to the suburbs was gaining steam.

In the interesting time in which we are living, I find myself looking back on my early years in the still much-segregated South. I may have been in the city that Martin Luther King, Jr. declared the “most segregated city in America” in 1963, but, even then, I found the claim somewhat dubious; it was what one might expect from an Atlantan.

I was never oblivious to the struggles going on in my city and around the country. George Wallace was our governor and Bull Connor was wielding his power in Birmingham and forging sores the city has not yet been fully able to erase.

I was in elementary school when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by Klansmen. That was the same year that Wallace was grandstanding in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to symbolically block the entrance to Black students. It was the time of the Selma marches; the third effort made it beyond the Edmund Pettus Bridge and captured the imagination of the world when it reached the Alabama Capitol steps.

I was not “raised” by a Black woman, as some of my friends claim they were, but Black people were ubiquitous wherever I went in the city. Neighborhoods were still considered segregated, but if you walked through the opening in the shrubbery in my Grandparents’ Harbison Fairfield Highlands back yard, you were in a Black community. My grandfather and I would take his dogs for walks through that neighborhood where he seemed to be on a mutual first-name basis with all of the people we met.

My Grandparents’ Journey house was in the shadow of U.S. Steel’s Ensley Works. Their neighborhood was considered segregated, but directly across the street from them were blocks of houses entirely occupied by Black people. The idea of segregation on that street was more of a ludicrous technicality than a reality. Also, my Grandfather Journey was less “neighborly” than Granddaddy Harbison.

Kiddieland was a small amusement park in one corner of the old state fairgrounds in Five Points West. I remember one Saturday at Kiddieland, I got to the coveted first row of the modest  roller coaster. Mother and Dad were sitting the ride out so I had the seat to myself until the ride operator put an African American kid about my age in the seat next to me. I looked over and smiled and said “hey” before the ride took off. My seatmate remained silent until we were about to climb the first rise; then he looked over at me and said, “You soda cracker!” Ruined my ride.

On many days, when I was still pre-school age, Mother and Grandmother Harbison took me shopping. On one of those days, at Goldstein & Cohen, a department store in downtown Ensley, Mother was trying on dresses while I was waiting and hanging out in the women’s department. I got thirsty and took a drink from a water fountain. A sales clerk quickly moved in and scolded me; I had apparently drunk from the “wrong” fountain. My mother, hearing the kerfuffle, rushed out, still buttoning her dress, grabbed my arm, informed the sales clerk that she would decide when her child needed discipline, and took me out.

In those years, my father’s office was in downtown Birmingham, at 20 S. 20th Street. He worked for a national company that manufactured and sold printing equipment. As I quickly learned, everybody – on whichever extreme of the political spectrum – needed printing presses to get their messages out. Dad’s territory included churches and schools, department stores and groceries, political and activist organizations, newspapers, and government offices.

I remember one time driving in the car with Mother to Dad’s office. On a downtown street, we were met with a Civil Rights protest coming toward us from the next block. Mother muttered “March,deftly maneuvered the car down the next block, and we arrived at 20 S. 20th Street without delay.

In the summer months, when school was out, Mother and I would occasionally accompany Dad around central Alabama as he made his calls. I especially remember one trip when Mother was not along – either because she was pregnant with my brother or because she was home with the baby.

Dad’s calls took us to his usual clients – small town printers, newspapers, and churches, schools, colleges, etc. In Sumter County, he called on a print shop housed on a farm. It was a Black-run operation and Dad probably told me its name, but all I remember now is that he referred to it as some sort of “separatist organization.”

Years later, I learned that the earliest incarnations of the Black Panther Party were in Alabama in 1965 with Stokely Carmichael’s leadership of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. I still try to connect the possible dots between that and my Dad’s clients in Sumter County.

The main reason that summer day with my dad stands out is for his final sales call of the day. After leaving Sumter County in late afternoon, we went through Tuscaloosa on the way back to Birmingham. There, in early evening, Dad made one last business call on a business called Imperial Press in a tight two-story building on the main street of downtown Tuscaloosa.

As we pulled into the parking place, Dad said, “It’s called Imperial Press; it’s a front for the Klan.”

Not only was it a front, but we entered the place to be greeted by Bobby Shelton, the “Grand Wizard” (what a silly organization; what pathetic, silly titles and costumes).

I couldn’t wait to get away, but I sat patiently in Shelton’s office while my dad conducted his business, just as he had done at every organization we visited during the course of that day. I looked at framed signed photographs inscribed to their “friend Bobby” by prominent politicians of the time.

Dad was a salesman and all of these diverse characters were his clients. As we drove back to Birmingham, I expressed my pre-teen repugnance and embarrassment at meeting the Klan. Dad asked me how I felt about the Sumter County “separatists” (I still wish I could remember the name of the group) and I told him they seemed “nicer.” “Did they seem ‘nicer’,” he asked rhetorically, “because they were a different race and you didn’t feel embarrassed by them?”

My dad was no Atticus Finch, but he was a good man who often gave me perspectives that I have clung to for life.

In 1973, I was a freshman at Alabama when I watched Gov. Wallace crown Terry Points as the first African American Homecoming Queen at the University. Soon after, Sylvester Jones, my classmate at Birmingham’s Shades Valley High, was elected the first African American Vice President of Alabama’s SGA. In my senior year, Cleophus Thomas, a friend from the University’s Program Council, was elected UA’s first African American SGA President. (I had run against Cleo, a sorority girl, and an umbrella-pilfering frat boy on the platform of abolishing SGA, a principle I still believe in.)

In 1988, shortly after midnight on a June night, the 25th anniversary of Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, my friend Clay and I climbed to the balcony of Foster Auditorium to commemorate the anniversary. It’s odd that none of these events seemed to have happened in as quick succession as they did. It all felt like distant history from June 1963.

Decades later, in a classroom at the HBCU, a student asks me once again where I’m “from.”

“Birmingham,” I answer for the umpteenth time.

Her eyes squint and her mouth wrinkles into a sneer. “You’re not really from Birmingham.”

I start to respond, but realize that she has decided the only way to legitimately be from Birmingham is to be Black and from Birmingham.

A student who knows me leans to her and says, “His dad graduated from Ensley. He’s really from Birmingham.”

I decide to let the whole exchange hang there. But it still bothers me: I’m not sure I truly belong anywhere.

Diane McWhorter, a writer from the privileged Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Carry Me Home, in 2001. Her journalistic research and documentation about the Birmingham campaign of the Civil Rights movement are impressive. McWhorter makes the mistake, however, of putting herself and her lily-white upbringing into the narrative by weaving in a shaggy dog story about her father’s conjectural involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (almost certainly a fictional conjecture).

McWhorter leveraged her book into a career of sorts, commenting on race relations in the South whenever someone wants her point of view. She presents herself in Carry Me Home as an ingenuous Mountain Brook girl, somehow oblivious to what’s going on just a few miles over the mountain from her house.

McWhorter is only a few years older than me.

When I read her book, I kept thinking, if you were growing up there and then, How could you not know?


IMG_1866  Sargent Shriver is one of my liberal heroes among 20th Century American politicians. A member of the Kennedy clan by marriage (to Eunice Kennedy), Shriver created and was the first director of the Peace Corps, provided the impetus for the War on Poverty, founded Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA, and Legal Services for the Poor, and, following Eunice’s lead, co-founded Special Olympics.

Shriver was from Maryland and had deep Maryland roots. When Scott Stossel’s excellent Shriver biography Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver was published in 2004, this passage, early in the book, leapt out and intrigued me:

William Shriver [Shriver’s great-grandfather], although he was opposed to slavery, was a great champion of states’ rights and ardently supported the Southern cause. Six of his nine sons would serve in the Confederate army. Just across the road lived William’s brother Andrew, who, despite being a slave owner, was a staunch Unionist; his son was serving in the Twenty-sixth Emergency Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers.

In our contemporary era, Civil War studies do not seem to acknowledge such complexity. In our time, we tend to find the most simplistic explanations, get them trending on the internet and in the classroom, and let them be until a new trend emerges.

I have not spent a lot of time on my family genealogy but I do know that I, like Shriver, have ancestors who fought on both sides during the Civil War. Shriver’s were from Maryland; mine were from Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. To the best of my knowledge, none of my ancestors owned slaves. At that time, and based on the history of the parts of the South where they settled, they may have never even seen a slave.

In Tennessee native Richard Tillinghast’s great poem “Sewanee in Ruins” (1981), he writes:

For the flaw in their neo-classical structure –
the evil of owning human beings –
they paid, all of them and all of us,
punished by a vengeance only New England could devise –
though only three Tennesseans out of a hundred in 1860
had owned a slave.

Today, however, we don’t seem to be able to acknowledge such complexity and contradiction. We lack context. We lack nuance. We want easy answers. And unless we can look back at history with context, nuance, and perspective, we will never be truly educated and will never understand where we come from

Because we lack context, there are those who want to vilify Abraham Lincoln as a racist based on statements he made in his time and in his place that might have been progressive then but would be shocking if uttered today. W.E.B. Du Bois was aware of these contradictions. And because W.E.B. Du Bois was a brilliant and perceptive man he wrote, about Lincoln, “I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed.”

As a university professor I have been astonished that college educators are being mandated to emphasize “critical thinking” in our QEPs (Quality Enhancement Plans) as if “critical thinking” is a new concept. I was taught that higher education and critical thinking are synonymous and as a teacher I have always emphasized critical thinking; it’s my job. The problem is that well-meaning Ph.D. and Ed.D.-types – many of whom haven’t been in front of a classroom in decades, if ever – have created an educational environment that doesn’t encourage students to think at all. It will take us a couple of generations to recover from the damage done by “No Child Left Behind.”

It’s hard to think critically when all of the information you are given is oversimplified and sanitized and you are constantly being told what to think. It’s hard to think critically when you are not allowed to have perspective. “Politically correct” thinking is, I think, anathema to “critical thinking.” “Information” does not equal “Knowledge.”

James Baldwin, who was educated in a more progressive education system than we have now, wrote, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” That is the paradox that we must strive to renew as we re-learn how to convert information into knowledge.

Here’s perspective: Hugo Black of Alabama, one of the great liberal justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose hand is on some of the most sweeping civil rights legislation and social reform in American history, joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s as a young Birmingham attorney and politician. His membership is neither justified nor forgivable but it’s complicated. Black, in retrospect, said that back then “I would have joined any group if it helped me get votes.” When FDR’s appointment of Black to the Supreme Court was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, that body was aware of his past membership in the Klan. The Senate – which was a more rational institution then than it is now – looked past Black’s past to what he had become and confirmed a man who is still considered one of the most liberal and progressive members in U.S. Supreme Court history.



Michiko Kakutani, literary critic for the New York Times, who has always had a tin ear for nuance (bless her heart), declares Atticus Finch to be a racist in her review of Harper Lee’s newly published Go Set a Watchman. I’m not sure, based on the evidence, that is what this novel is saying. One of the great talents shared by most Southerners in my experience is a talent for nuance. Many non-Southerners find that talent to be dissembling and irritating; I find a talent for nuance to be vanishing but still a great advantage in most human relations.

The copy of Harper Lee’s new/old novel Go Set a Watchman that I pre-ordered in February was at my front door when I arrived home from a friend’s funeral this past Tuesday, the day of its release.

I finished it this weekend.

It’s an interesting read and I was entertained. It is especially intriguing as the draft for what would become To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m not sure if I think it should have been published and I’m pretty convinced that Harper Lee’s sister, Alice – who handled Harper Lee’s legal and professional affairs, would have never allowed its publication if she had lived (she died last year at 103).

Unfortunately, driven by curiosity, I read the advance press and reviews so the book itself didn’t have many surprises. The big headline and web buzz has been that Atticus Finch has now been revealed as a racist by well-meaning reviewers like Kakutani.

I have to disagree. Atticus Finch has now been revealed as a product of his times. The book, even though it has only now been published, was written sixty years ago and in it Atticus expresses views that were not uncommon to thoughtful and concerned persons – Northern and Southern – of the 1950s. They might be repugnant to us now but it is essential to look at them critically and with perspective and context.

Some detractors of To Kill a Mockingbird – Flannery O’Connor famously and Truman Capote allegedly – dismissed it as a “children’s book.” That doesn’t seem to me to be a flaw although it is true that most readers of Mockingbird come to it at a fairly young age. But I think a root of that criticism may be the feeling that Atticus Finch is just too good to be true.

Now we know that Atticus – like Lincoln, like Jefferson, like all of us – is a flesh and blood human being and a product of his times as we all are (“let he who is without sin” etc. …). Real people have real flaws. In the 1950s and 1960s there were well-meaning people who urged caution and restraint in the Civil Rights Movement and who had doubts and fears about the right way to proceed. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was originally addressed to well-meaning but reluctant Birmingham clergymen who were expressing concern that the Movement should be showing more patience and restraint. Go Set a Watchman presents Atticus Finch as another of these people urging caution and restraint and, let’s be honest, harboring a fear of the unknown.

What has been overlooked by reviewers, I think, is that Jean Louise, the grown up Scout from Mockingbird, has more than her share, by contemporary standards, of jarring and politically incorrect statements. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman may be flawed and incomplete but it is unflinchingly honest.

In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus attends a Citizen’s Council meeting and curtly introduces a rabidly racist speaker to spew his venom; “because he wanted to” is Atticus’s explanation to Jean Louise. It is also revealed that Atticus attended one Klan meeting decades earlier but did not join and did not go back. It is suggested by Atticus’s law clerk that Atticus’s attendance at incendiary meetings is a way to find out who stands where on the issues of the day. Based on Atticus’s statements to Scout, however, it is suggested that Atticus might have common ground with some of their more reactionary rhetoric. Troubling statements are made.

There is nuance here.

Harper Lee, even as she was writing in the mid-1950s, was aware of the various nuances involved in what was going on in her hometown and in the country. She explored them as she wrote Go Set a Watchman and she eased them toward perfection as she rewrote the earlier novel and created To Kill a Mockingbird. In Mockingbird Lee found a way to make the issues enduring and universal. If she had stopped with Watchman, she would have had, I think, a minor novel exploiting the headline issues of the day and passing quickly from memory. In Watchman Lee presents an Atticus who is struggling with his beliefs and with his traditions and who, we can only hope, will come out on the right side of history. In To Kill a Mockingbird – even though it is set two decades earlier – she brings Atticus’s promise to fruition.

If I ever have a son (and I can almost guarantee that is never going to happen) I would still be proud to name him “Atticus.”