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State of Turmoil

At the center of the Civil Rights movement

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Frye Gaillard is a Charlotte treasure. Since he arrived from Alabama 32 years ago, his thoughtful, passionate writing has helped us see ourselves and our South more clearly and completely.

My first taste of Frye's work came with Watermelon Wine: The Spirit of Country Music (1978), and Race, Rock & Religion (1982), two collections of pieces begun during his stint as wunderkind reporter for the Charlotte Observer. His explorations of such diverse Southerners as country songwriter Arthur Smith, evangelist Jim Bakker and civil rights Judge J. Waties Waring made me realize that this region -- which I'd left during high school and college -- was a place of exciting culture and contrasts. Here, clearly, is someone who loves his native South in all its many manifestations.

Frye Gaillard's most impressive achievement, to my mind, is The Dream Long Deferred (1988), about the landmark Supreme Court case Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. He sought out the quiet heroes who made Charlotte nationally known for its handling of court-ordered school busing. With a journalist's instinct for the human story, Frye showed us these men and women not merely as "history" but as role models for ourselves as we continue to grapple with the tough issues of race and education.

Now he's turned his attention back to his native state. Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement That Changed America relates the saga of one the most contested locales in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

"I came of age during the civil rights era in Alabama, and the issue became the primary political and moral reference point for many people of my generation," Gaillard says. "In a sense I've been writing this book most of my life."

Gaillard's talent for weaving together personal stories makes this an engaging read. You'll meet many of the now-familiar giants of the era, and get a strong sense of both their uncertainties and their resolve as they felt their way. Rosa Parks, quietly trained in non-violence at Highlander School, sits down in that "white" Montgomery bus seat. Young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a leader, a calm listener among more volatile activists such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Sharecropper's son John Lewis energizes the 1961 Freedom Ride, segregationist governor George Wallace makes his "stand in the schoolhouse door," and Sheriff Jim Clark's troopers wield nightsticks and tear gas against Selma voting rights marchers -- provoking President Lyndon Johnson to win passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

And you'll meet scores of fascinating people who seldom appear in high school history books. Black mailman John LeFlore and white politician Joseph Langan, for example, who worked together to win partial bus desegregation in Mobile back in 1953, an achievement that gave hope to Rosa Parks and Rev. King as they launched the Montgomery protests. Or Rev. Jonathan Daniels, an idealistic white priest who was gunned down because he lived and worked among the black poor.

My favorite part of the book follows Diane Nash, a fiery 20-something who had made national headlines when she served jail time during a 1961 sit-in in Rock Hill, SC. Her Carolina activities are highlighted in a permanent exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South and in filmmaker Steve Crump's recent documentary Lessons from the Lunchcounter on public television. But I hadn't realized that Nash and her husband went on to mastermind the voting-rights drive in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. It was Nash's organizing that sparked the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, setting the stage for that history-making confrontation with Sheriff Clark's troopers.

Today, even as Alabama -- and America -- still grapple with the unfinished business of the Civil Rights era, we should "celebrate the triumphs" and recall "the heroism at the heart of the story," Gaillard writes. "A state once known as the Cradle of the Confederacy can now make its case as the cradle of freedom."

Tom Hanchett is historian at the Levine Museum of the New South.

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