How can utter evil be comprehended?

March 11, 2001|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

"Carry Me Home," by Diane McWhorter. Simon and Schuster. 701 pages. $35.

Within the next month or so, two spent old Ku Klux Klansmen will go on trial for the most monstrous act of violence committed during the civil rights revolution, the 1963 bombing that killed four children in a Birmingham, Ala., church. Most likely, the trial will receive only cursory news coverage and defensive Birmingham residents already are dismissing the whole affair as something "unfortunate" that happened in the distant past, of little relevance to a dynamic industrial city in the New South. But beneath the dreary testimony about how bombs are made, the implicit question lurks: What kind of society could have produced and tolerated such depraved individuals?

Probably the best answer serious readers will ever get to that haunting question lies in this work by Diane McWhorter, a journalist who grew up in Birmingham. Her book is part history and part painful memoir of a young woman whose own father, the black-sheep scion of an upper-crust family, lurked around the Klavern halls of the Ku Klux Klan. An especially touching section of the book comes toward the end when Ms. McWhorter goes "home" to Birmingham to engage her aging dissolute father in a dialogue that ends up in moral confusion.

To understand Birmingham one must know its squalid history, which is masterfully re-created by McWhorter. Birmingham is not, in the conventional sense, a Southern city. It didn't even exist until after the Civil War, when rapacious northern industrialists saw the exploitive potential of the rich lodes of coal and iron ore coupled with a limitless supply of cheap labor in the desperate farmers who struggled in the hills and hollows of the region.

From the outset the absentee-owners of the mines and mills came to the pragmatic if cynical conclusion that if their workers were attending Klan meetings, they wouldn't be attending union meetings. And the powerful lawyers who represented the corporations recognized that they could admirably serve their clients' interests by striking secret deals with local demagogues who could entertain -- and control -- the rabble.

This all worked well enough until, in the thrall of the Great Depression, the system produced a man with the quaint name of Theophilus Eugene Connor -- the one who came to be called simply "Bull." What the steel bosses didn't count on was that Bull would not be content as the puppet; he became the puppeteer.

And what emerged was a city which was, in every sense, a microcosm of the fascist regimes that were rising in Europe at the same time, replete with conditioned hatred and a secret police that enforced a rule of terror. Nowhere was Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" more evident than in the beer halls of Birmingham, where Ku Klux Klansmen plotted. The marvel of it is that Bull Connor's Birmingham outlasted Hitler's Reich by nearly 20 years.

This is an excellent book but unfortunately flawed by a number of errors. To cite one egregious example, McWhorter identifies Griffin Bell as "Georgia's attorney general-elect" and implies that he was a bitter-end segregationist in the late 1950s. Bell, who served with distinction for 15 years as a federal judge and later as attorney general of the United States -- was never elected to any state office and in fact his quiet counsel helped to spare Georgia the sort of violence that was rampant in Alabama and Mississippi during that troubled time.

But despite these flaws, the book is indispensable to the understanding of America's most racist and violent city of the 20th century, and highly readable at that.

Ray Jenkins has been a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger. In 1954 he was one of two reporters who covered the Phenix City, Ala., upheaval, coverage that won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, the New York Times in Alabama, the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, and The Evening Sun, for which he was editorial page editor. His book "Blind Vengeance" was published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

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