Haunted, healing after '60s Birmingham

October 24, 1993|By Bruce Clayton

Title: "Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son"

Author: Paul Hemphill

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 351 pages, $23 The images still sting the mind: a German shepherd biting into the stomach of a slender young boy, his arms dangling at his side; fire hoses blasting women and children, knocking them over, shredding their dresses; the charred remains of a church where four little girls, all dressed in white, died from a blast of dynamite.

Nazi Germany? The work of Stalin's goons? Scenes from a movie too violent to watch?

No. Birmingham, Ala., 1963. Martin Luther King Jr. had brought the civil rights crusade to Birmingham. Eugene "Bull" Connor, the city's commissioner of public safety and a proclaimed white supremacist spoiling for a fight, ordered that the dogs and hoses be turned on the marchers, many of them children. Newspaper photographers and television cameramen documented a city plunging into tragedy.

The images still haunt Paul Hemphill, who grew to manhood in Birmingham in those battle-scarred days -- before escaping to Atlanta (and sometimes up North) to become a writer. He went back home for an extended stay in 1992 to look up old buddies, to see his sister and his son, to walk around the old neighborhoods, to talk, to relive old memories, however painful, to try to make sense of it all, and to take the measure of a city trying to escape the past.

Mr. Hemphill's "Leaving Birmingham" is a poignant book, mostly memoir, partly a city's troubled history, partly stylish New Journalism that allows a talented writer to stand at the heart of the story -- and yet not grate on the ear or blind the eye to the larger drama. The writing is crisp. The pieces fit together in a mosaic in which personalities and places, sights and sounds, memory and history become one.

His boyhood years were easy, almost idyllic: a bungalow in a safe neighborhood, an aproned mother, trumpet lessons, church and endless hours of shagging fly balls in a vacant lot. Like many white boys of the 1940s and 1950s -- and here I speak with whatever authority experience brings -- Mr. Hemphill grew up with baseball on the mind, oblivious to everything beyond the sandlot. His father was a man a boy could worship: an independent trucker, a real "king of the road," a type Mr. Hemphill has portrayed in earlier books, such as "The Good Old Boys" (1974).

But man and boy began to clash when Bull Connor's police force started bashing the heads of Freedom Riders in 1961 and turning dogs on children two years later. The once romantic king of the road, Mr. Hemphill writes in sorrow, became a ranting racist, free with his opinions, all-too-willing to tell everybody, including his once-doting son, that black people, Catholics and Jews deserved whatever lumps they got. Father and son never really made up, not even at the end; the gulf between them was too great. All this Mr. Hemphill records in sorrow.

Now he sees clearly what earlier he had only surmised. In moving out into the well-manicured suburbs and returning to Birmingham only to work, the members of the white power elite may have prided themselves on having "little in common with Bull Connor, this unseemly little martinet down at city hall, but in their silence they had deferred the power to him and thereby allowed a monster to flourish." Such in general was the unpopular view another Southerner, W. J. Cash, advanced more than 50 years ago in "The Mind of the South" -- a book of Mr. Hemphill's boyhood.

Nowhere, though, does he pat himself on the back or exaggerate the swiftness of his emancipation. When the Freedom Riders were dragged from their buses and beaten, first by the Ku Klux Klan and then by police, Mr. Hemphill was writing up a local sports event. "The war had begun," he writes, "and I didn't even know it."

Two years later, he was serving a stint with the Air Force in France, helping defend the free world against communism. The news of Birmingham's brutality shocked the world; friends sneered at his home town as "Bombingham." A Frenchwoman, who reminded him that Alabama sounded like Hitler's Germany, brought him up short by saying: "Perhaps you should have stayed home to fight this Bull Connor rather than come here to fight the Russians."

Mr. Hemphill returned to write a daily column for the Atlanta Journal and be a voice of sanity. All the while, as "Leaving Birmingham" records with an intense honesty that sometimes is painful to read, he married, fathered children, taught some, drank too much, wrote constantly (including a couple of well-received novels), got divorced, remarried, dried out, tried to patch things up with his kids and father. He had one notable success, which he recorded in his 1986 book, "Me and the Boy: Journey of a Discovery."

Making up with Birmingham last year was harder. Old friends were wary -- some had read him, others knew he had bad-mouthed Birmingham, maybe even his own father. Few people except his former preacher, who'd been run off years ago by the congregation for being too liberal, wanted to talk about Birmingham's "problems." A number of his old acquaintances sounded like his father.

Mr. Hemphill wants to believe that the city has a brighter future. But he's far from sanguine. Birmingham is predominantly black now; "white flight" has seen to that. But a black mayor, a black middle class and a remnant of liberal whites are determined to build a better Birmingham. If they do, leaving Birmingham can become a choice, not a necessity.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and the author of "W. J. Cash: A Life."

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