Wayne Greenhaw is one of the finest journalists Alabama has ever produced. And that’s saying something given that this state has produced a number of outstanding ones. In Fighting the Devil in Dixie, Greenhaw’s twenty-second book, the author succeeds in providing a riveting, insider’s account of how a group of brave activists—white and black—faced down their fears to work successfully for civil rights, against Klan abuses, and redeem a state considered lost by many.
Greenhaw brings his wealth of experience as a journalist who actually covered the critical events of the classic civil rights era in real time. For close to two decades Greenhaw worked as a reporter for the (Montgomery) Alabama Journal and the Montgomery Advertiser, and as a stringer for the New York Times. He covered politics and race in Alabama first-hand, and this book profits handsomely from his personal interviews with nearly all the major actors of the era: governors, Klansmen, civil rights activists, attorneys, and many others. Greenhaw’s book takes us behind the scenes—to dusty roads, nocturnal meetings, and back rooms where smiling sheriffs politely suggest that he stop asking questions about police brutality toward African Americans—and much more. Greenhaw’s first-hand knowledge, exquisite reporter’s instincts, and personal experience give this book a special authenticity lacking in some other accounts of the era.
Of particular interest is Greenhaw’s close-up account of some of the most courageous actors and activists who helped break the back of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama and push the state up the road closer to the goal of racial justice and equality for all people. Bill Baxley, the best governor Alabama never had, is rightfully given his due as a particularly courageous and visionary individual. The state’s youngest attorney [End Page 252] general, the intrepid Baxley doggedly pursued Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss until he successfully convicted the Klan bomber responsible (along with several others) for the notorious September 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth-Street Baptist Church that killed the African-American children who would become known simply as the “four little girls.” Actually, Chambliss had been active in Alabama as a Klan terrorist since the 1940s, and his 1977 conviction at Baxley’s hands was a sensational victory for justice in the South. Baxley’s narrow and heartbreaking loss of the 1986 Alabama gubernatorial race, after a nasty spat with Charlie Graddick, is a blow from which the state has not yet fully recovered.
Other fascinating figures are covered by Greenhaw as well. Notable among these is Morris “Bubba” Dees, the Alabama-born co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, who broke the back and the bank account of the Klan with his successful prosecution of the 1981 lynchers of a young Mobile black man, Michael Donald. The story of Charles “Chuck” Morgan, the southern director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is equally intriguing as are those of seminary student and “Freedom Rider” Bernard LaFayette, and Greenhaw’s many compatriots, people like Norman Lumpkin, one of the state’s first black television reporters.
If Greenhaw will be criticized for anything in this book, it will likely be his interpretation of George Wallace as a sincere and penitent man who genuinely sought the forgiveness of the Alabama blacks he had helped to repress for so long. Many others have instead, understandably, looked at Wallace’s confessions of guilt and professions of remorse for his racial sins as the nicely timed acts of a master politician running for Alabama governor in 1982—and his desire for black votes. Yet if Greenhaw believes in anything, it is the redemptive power that is available to people and even states if they want it badly enough. It is fairly clear that Wallace, confined to a wheel-chair by a would-be assassins’ bullet and years of pain, was genuinely concerned about the state of his...