Category: Reading Birmingham

New Book Offers Glimpse Into the Life of Harper Lee

“Afternoons with Harper Lee” (NewSouth Books, 2022) by Wayne Flynt

Among the millions of documents preserved in the Birmingham Public Library Archives, there is a brief, handwritten letter from Harper Lee to a fellow writer. In the letter, Lee explains that she cannot read a book that has been sent to her and lists a variety of ailments that have made reading difficult. “As Gilda Radner would say.” Lee writes, “It’s always something.”

This is one of the items that archives staff regularly bring out to show visitors, although it is wasted on 21st century college and high school students, who rarely have a clue who Gilda Radner was or that she was one of the comic geniuses of the last century.

But what makes this letter intriguing is that it tells us something about the life and tastes of a widely beloved but intensely private author. Like many people, Harper Lee watched Saturday Night Live and quoted lines from the show.

Small nuggets like this are at the heart of Wayne Flynt’s new book, “Afternoons with Harper Lee.” Flynt, a professor of history at Auburn University, and his wife Dartie, befriended Lee after a stroke forced her to leave New York and return to her hometown in Monroeville. Read more.

New Book Explores Stories of Early African American Activists in Birmingham

Segregation in the New South: Birmingham, Alabama, 1871-1901 (Louisiana State University Press, 2023) by Carl V. Harris

Birmingham is known around the world as a place where African Americans fought and sometimes died to secure their rights as citizens and dismantle Jim Crow segregation. But Jim Crow did not spring up fully formed, nor was it a system that had always existed. It was the product of a long and tortuous push and pull between blacks seeking justice and whites seeking control.

At its birth in 1871, Birmingham was a Reconstruction-era city, and Birmingham came of age in a time when white Southerners and African American Southerners, many only a few years removed from enslavement, were struggling to find their places in a new post-war racial order. This is the story, and the stories of early African American activists who are largely unknown today, that Carl V. Harris tells in his new book Segregation in the New South: Birmingham, Alabama, 1871-1901.

Harris, who taught history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, died before completing this book. His colleague, W. Elliott Brownlee, edited and finished the manuscript. Harris’ earlier book, Political Power in Birmingham, 1871-1921 (University of Tennessee Press, 1977), was the first scholarly book on Birmingham’s history and it is still indispensable for anyone wanting to understand the political dynamics of Birmingham’s early decades. Read more.

Author Documents Police Killings of African Americans During Jim Crow

In the spring of 1941, outside a movie theater in Fairfield, John Jackson waited with his girlfriend to see a show. A white police officer ordered Jackson and the other people in line, all African Americans, to clear the sidewalk. But Jackson, laughing and joking with his girlfriend, did not hear the order.

When challenged by one officer, Jackson asked, “Can’t I laugh?” The police officers forced Jackson into the back of their squad car, beat him severely and shot him four times. He died before reaching the police station.

Three years later, in Donalsonville, Georgia, an “elderly Negro woman” did or said something (or perhaps, nothing at all) that displeased the white clerk in a general store. The 20-year-old clerk followed the woman outside and beat her to death with an ax handle.

Neither the Fairfield cop nor the store clerk, or countless other white killers like them, went to jail for their crimes.

White-on-black violence was both a result and a pillar of Jim Crow. For African American men and women, even “the most commonplace encounters” with whites could turn lethal. And it is this aspect of the Jim Crow system, in which whites could do violence to black people with impunity, all the while being empowered and protected by the legal system, that is the focus of Margaret A. Burnham’s new book “By Hands Now Known.” Read more.

Professor Explores Relationship Between White Police and Black Citizens Through the Years in New Book

In recent years, American cities have exploded in protests against police violence. Whether the protests were over the murder of George Floyd in 2020s Minneapolis or Bonita Carter in 1970s Birmingham, these Black communities’ reactions were about more than the killings of individuals. These communities were responding to a century of police violence and murder directed at African American citizens.

In his new book, “Race, Crime, and Policing in the Jim Crow South,” Brandon T. Jett, a professor of history at Florida SouthWestern State College, explores this long history of the fraught and dangerous relationship between white police and Black citizens.

“Jim Crow law enforcement officers and institutions,” Jett writes, “by rule and practice, were not created to improve the lives of African Americans.” The white community wanted police to prevent and solve crime, but whites associated crime disproportionately with African Americans and saw police as the frontline enforcers of Jim Crow.

Looking at three major Southern cities — Birmingham, New Orleans and Memphis — Jett finds that while African Americans had good reason to be wary of white police officers, they also needed the help and cooperation of the police to reduce or punish crimes in the Black community. Read more.

Columnist John Archibald Tries to Understand His Preacher-Father Through the Lens of the Civil Rights Movement

“Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution,” by John Archibald (Knopf)

A rhetorical, almost visual thread runs though John Archibald’s family memoir. The thread is silence. Silence in a noisy and violent time. Safe silence. Complicit silence. This silence haunts the author, a Pultizer Prize winning columnist for The Birmingham News and

Archibald follows in the frustrated tradition of white Southern writers — W. J. Cash, Clarence Cason, Jonathan Daniels — and writers who are children of Birmingham — Diane McWhorter, Paul Hemphill, Howell Raines — who try to understand and explain the South and what happens there.

“Shaking the Gates of Hell” is Archibald’s attempt at a conversation about historical silence with his deceased father, with his younger self, with his home state and region. The author’s father, Robert L. Archibald, Jr., was a Methodist minister who served at churches in Birmingham and north Alabama. Read more.

Family, Faith and Race Collide in Columnist John Archibald’s New Book (WBHM)

Reading Birmingham: Author Connor Towne O’Neill Explores Race Through the Legacy of Nathan Bedford Forrest

“Down Along With That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning With Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy,” by Connor Towne O’Neill (Algonquin Books)

Earlier this year when the city of Birmingham removed the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument from Linn Park, the action was part of a broad nationwide discussion on the place of Confederate symbols in our culture and who decides how and where those symbols are displayed.

Connor Towne O’Neill, who teaches in the English Department at Auburn University and produces the National Public Radio podcast White Lie, has achieved every nonfiction author’s dream. He began researching a book five years ago that is now being published and could not be more relevant to this moment.

Race in America is too big a topic to take in a single bite. O’Neill chose to examine a more narrow but telling slice. “Down Along With That Devil’s Bones” is a travelogue of race and racial tensions that explores the topic through the life and legacy of one of the Confederacy’s most popular figures, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Read more.

Reading Birmingham: Peggy Kennedy Struggles With the Legacy of Her Father, George Wallace, in “The Broken Road”

George Wallace is one of the great enigmas of American history, an enigma that keeps pulling us back and begging us to render judgment. Wallace was the most successful racist demagogue of his time, but because of his late life mea culpa on all the terrible things he had done, we each get to decide whether Wallace deserves redemption. That is both maddening and satisfying. And it is a large part of what makes him so compelling.

This is not a biography of George Wallace. Those have been done and done well. “The Broken Road” is the story of a family struggling with an impossible legacy. Peggy Kennedy explores the impact of her father’s life and career on our nation and on the children and grandchildren he largely ignored. (On the day of Peggy’s birth, her father showed up late, kissed his new daughter on the forehead and left to go out politicking.)

White southerners who reject the racist teachings of their elders often feel a life-long need to understand and to explain. That need propels “The Broken Road.” Read more.

Reading Birmingham: Miss Fancy Tells Sweet Story of Jim Crow’s Harsh Reality

“Meet Miss Fancy” by Irene Latham; illustrated by John Holyfield (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019).

Miss Fancy the elephant is a Birmingham legend. In her children’s book “Meet Miss Fancy,” Birmingham author Irene Latham uses that legend and the truth behind it to tell a story of race, exclusion and hope. Read more.