- Purchase/rental options available:
Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 655-662
[Access article in PDF]
Tales of White Birmingham:
The Letter and the Bomb
Peter J. Ling
S. Jonathan Bass. Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. xiv + 232 pp. Appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. $39.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).
Diane McWhorter. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. 587 pp. Figures, maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00 (cloth); $17.00 (paper).
Recently in these pages, Kevin Boyle urged fellow historians to look beyond the media-spotlighted events of the 1960s to develop a richer account of the decade's struggles. 1 Historians of the civil rights movement would applaud his call to some extent. We do need to know more about the less widely known southern battlegrounds: Americus, Georgia or Danville, Virginia, for instance. We need studies of other Deep South states—not just Mississippi and Louisiana, but Georgia and South Carolina as well—and a far more comprehensive history of the contest in Alabama, which currently remains the most extensively covered state via studies of the major campaigns of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of the career of George Corley Wallace. 2 We need to look much more closely at African American struggles outside of the South, especially the links between the northern militancy of the 1940s, symbolized by A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington movement and the major race riots in Harlem and Detroit, and later local struggles against discrimination in housing, employment, and policing. Despite a huge increase in scholarship, a cogent, sophisticated account of the 1960s racial explosions in metropolitan communities from Newark to Oakland is still lacking.
The books under review, however, suggest how much more there is still to be learned about precisely those campaigns that the press corps did highlight at the time. Their photographs of young black protesters under attack from police dogs and water cannon in Birmingham in May 1963 have become icons for the movement as a whole. In the standard, press-derived narrative, the dramatic moral spectacle of this white brutality sets the stage for Dr. King's [End Page 655] spell-binding oratory at the August 1963 March on Washington, emotionally aligning most of the audience now, much as it did then, behind the movement as he called upon America to live up to its creed.
The concluding peroration of King's "I Have A Dream" speech has become the most frequently re-played news-clip of the movement years, and his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" must surely rank among its most frequently studied texts. Surprisingly, therefore, S. Jonathan Bass is the first scholar to scrutinize the drafting of the "Letter" closely and to give due consideration to the white Birmingham clerics, to whom King nominally wrote. We may need to know more about less celebrated places, but equally we need to understand more fully the range of participants on the familiar battlegrounds. Some general historical accounts tend to move swiftly from the hopes raised by King's summer speech to the shock and grief of the Kennedy assassination in November 1963, and thereby elide consideration of the tragic coda to the Birmingham campaign: the white supremacist terrorist attacks that rocked the Alabama steel-town in September. Even before September 11, 2001, the resurgence of domestic terrorism and race-hate crimes within the United States has served to remind anyone who remembers the 1960s, that before Oklahoma City there was "Bombingham," and in particular, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist church on Sunday, September 15, 1963. Partly to exorcize the evils of that event and to come to terms with her father's oblique involvement in it, Diane McWhorter has written a panoramic account of the traumatic events that rocked her girlhood hometown. In the process, she offers a portrait of Birmingham that covers both sides of the racial divide, but is at its most original...