Bringing down the `Big Mules'

SUN JOURNAL

Birmingham: An Alabama writer posits the role of the city's white elite in allowing Klan activities in the 1960s.

May 11, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

"Magisterial," "riveting," "groundbreaking" - critics have lavished Diane McWhorter's "Carry Me Home" with praise for her chronicle of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing case, which returned to the spotlight this month when an aging Klansman was convicted of murdering the four black girls killed in the blast.

But closer to home - at home, in fact - the reviews are less laudatory:

"I took it with not just a grain of sand but a whole barrel of it."

"I'd say the book contained a significant amount of fiction."

That those reviewers are, respectively, McWhorter's father and uncle speaks to the dual nature of the book, which tells the story of the writer's family against the larger narrative of the civil rights movement in Birmingham. It is a brave and compelling project, to write both an intimate memoir and a sweeping history, and now McWhorter is paying a bit in family peace for it.

Her relatives' dissenting voices - even as they quickly add how proud they are of her - stem from McWhorter's central thesis: that Birmingham's white elite, at safe remove in their country club, implicitly allowed the Ku Klux Klan to do the dirty work of resisting the growing civil rights movement in their town. She links the city's "Big Mules," as the captains of industry and business leaders were known, to Bull Connor, the public safety commissioner, and through him to the Klan.

And here's the rub, from the familial perspective: The McWhorters themselves are fairly large mules in town.

Diane McWhorter's grandfather was a charter member of the Mountain Brook Country Club that was, and remains, the gathering spot for the city's establishment. And her family is close to that of the biggest mule of all, Jim Simpson, a lawyer who figures prominently in the book as the power behind Connor and his police dogs and fire hose battle against civil rights activists, and later behind the segregationist governor, George Wallace.

"She almost has [Simpson] lighting the fuse at the church," Hobart McWhorter, the author's uncle, says. "That really crosses the line. I thought that was really irresponsible. It's a little cavalier to lay the blame at the foot of Mr. Simpson when, of course, two other men have now been convicted."

His niece stands by what she's written in "Carry Me Home," an exhaustively researched accounting of the forces that led up to the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a prominent gathering place for those marching and demonstrating for an end to segregation.

"Everything is documented," says Diane McWhorter, who includes more than 60 pages of notes that identify the sources of her information. "What upsets me [about the criticism] is that it allows people to dismiss the truth that they don't want to bear. `Oh, did you see, even her uncle says it's not true.'"

McWhorter says she understands her uncle's sense of loyalty to the Simpson family, and to the establishment set of which he is a ranking member - Hobart McWhorter is a lawyer with a white-shoe firm in Birmingham and a former president of the Mountain Brook Country Club.

But Simpson is indeed responsible for the racial politics that racked Birmingham during those years, she says. Connor, she shows in her book, had close ties in the Klan and would give them 15 unfettered minutes to attack civil rights activists before sending his police in. Among his closest Klan allies was Robert Chambliss, the Klansman who in 1977 was charged and convicted of bombing the 16th Street church, she writes.

McWhorter, who now lives in New York, was 10 years old when the church was bombed. Although close in age to the girls killed in the blast - one was 11, the others 14 - McWhorter might as well have lived on another planet. She lived "over the mountain," as local parlance has it, meaning on the other side of Red Mountain, which separated her placid enclave of Mountain Brook from the city of Birmingham and its seething tensions.

She doesn't recall hearing about the bombing at the time it happened, and had to check her mother's date book to learn its only direct impact on her: a canceled rehearsal for a production of "The Music Man," in which she was a chorus member.

While aware of the turmoil of the changing times, she retained her childish ignorance of what actually was going on, just over the mountain, for years.

It was only after leaving Birmingham to attend Wellesley College and becoming a writer, first in Boston and then New York, that she gained the distance to realize the pivotal role that her hometown played in the history of civil rights in America. And, of her own family's connection to the larger story.

The running mystery in the book is McWhorter's father, Martin, who slips away nights to attend what he calls "civil rights meetings" but what his daughter comes to fear is Klan activity. She writes of finding KKK literature in his machine shop - Martin McWhorter makes high-pressure air compressors - and his growing use of the n-word, which was verboten in polite society.

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