|JONAH RASKIN REVIEW OF
OUR SOUTHERN HOME
HAUNTED BY RACISM by Jonah Raskin, December 10, 2011
Two “isms” – racism and liberalism – make their way through Our Southern Home, a new carefully researched book that’s part history and part memoir, and that offers a convincing argument that the political, social, and cultural events that happened in Alabama in the 20th century profoundly shaped the course of the civil rights movement in the United States and also in fact altered the shape of 20th-century American history. Alabama isn’t often thought of as the frontline of change, but author Waights Taylor portrays it in that light. For much of the book, it’s racism that’s ascendant and liberalism that’s in retreat, though even when racism seemed to define all of Alabama life, especially during the trial of “the Scottsboro Boys,” as they were known, there were Alabamans who refused to abide by the hideous pathologies of racism.
The author’s father, also known as Waights Taylor, was, as a young man in the 1930s, a white Alabama liberal who sought justice for the nine young black African American men who were arrested in 1931 and charged with raping two white women. The infamous case of “the Scottsboro Boys” was tried and retried again and again; it went to the U.S. Supreme Court more than once and became a global cause célèbre that revealed the downright meanness at the heart of American life.
The Scottsboro case, in all its details, occupies most of Waights Taylor’s book, though there are also chapters about the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott that made Rosa Parks a civil rights role model and that launched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as an advocate of the non-violent protests that broke the back of legal southern segregation. There are also chapters about “Bombingham,” as Birmingham, Alabama was called, after a bomb manufactured by white racists exploded in a black church and killed four young black girls in 1963 – and that’s still a haunting reminder of terrorism born on American soil.
Waights Taylor worked at Boeing in Seattle for much of his life, though he is now retired and lives in northern California – a long way from Alabama. Born in the South in 1937, he is still a southerner in many ways and he knows the strange ways of the South, especially his home state, though he occasionally strays across the state line and wanders into Mississippi to write, for example, about the lynching of Emmett Till, a black teenager who allegedly whistled at a white woman in 1955 and was brutally beaten to death.
Taylor understands apartheid Alabama style, and scrupulously describes the pathological lengths to which the “white power structure,” as it came to be called, aimed to keep whites and blacks separate and unequal, even as black women known as “mammies” raised white children, as white men raped black women, or forced them to have sex, and as black men provided the labor that made it possible for whites to own estates and live in big houses surrounded by plantations. The connections were inextricable. Moreover, as Taylor knows from personal experience, even in the heart of Alabama’s apartheid society, young black boys played side by side with young white boys.
Moreover, black maids – the black “help” as they’re known in the 2011 movie of the same name – were an essential part of middle and upper middle class white families. They were in the Taylor family, and for years the young Waights Taylor was hurt by the patronizing, hurtful ways that his grandmother treated and talked to Mattie Ruth, an African American servant. Years later, he called her on the phone hoping that she would help him understand her complex relationship with his grandmother, and especially when she was old and bedridden. “You have to understand,” Mattie Ruth told him. “Your grandmother loved me, and I loved your grandmother.” Intimacy and even love existed within a caste system.
Taylor writes clearly and tells powerful stories, though they are often disheartening and even depressing. From the moment they were arrested in 1931 until the days that they died, the nine Scottsboro defendants never had an opportunity to live a life without fear, though almost all of them were eventually released from prison. Some went on stage hoping to make a living as the famous “Scottsboro Boys.” Others fled from Alabama and from the police hoping to leave the past behind and to begin new lives. One of them, Haywood Paterson, wrote a harrowing tale with the author, Earl Conrad, about his nightmarish prison experience.
The case, their criminal record, and the shadow of Alabama racism would not leave them alone and they could not shake their own sense of themselves as martyrs and victims. It’s almost heartbreaking to read the accounts of their lives behind bars and in prisons and in the big prison house of society, as it seemed to be. The stories of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates – the two poor young white women who testified that “the boys” raped them, and who later changed their testimony again and again – are no more uplifting or inspiring and can sometimes add up to a picture of Alabama as a kind of hell inhabited by torturers and tortured, perjurers and the perjured, jailers and jailed.
Again and again, Taylor describes how state authorities, including Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor - Birmingham, Alabama’s top cop in the 1960s, and a working class bigot – along with Alabama Governor George Wallace, tried to prevent African Americans from registering to vote as well as from voting, and to stop them from attending white schools such as the University of Alabama, famous for many years for its winning football teams and its coach “Bear” Bryant. Rosa Park’s role in helping to end segregation on public transportation in Montgomery is inspiring, and Taylor describes her as a perfect civil rights protestor who doesn’t have a skeleton in her family closet or anything to be ashamed of and to hide.
His own father shifted from liberalism to neo-conservatism; he’d started as a Roosevelt Democrat and ended as a Reagan Republican, a political journey that was made by many in his generation who decried the protests and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. Taylor points out that in 2009, the mayor, the police chief, and the superintendent of schools in Birmingham were all African Americans, and that Alabamans both white and black voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008.
“I don’t want to sound too Pollyannaish or naïve,” he writes. He goes on to explain that today Alabama poverty is one of the worst in the U.S.A. “I am haunted by my past,” he exclaims at the end of the book, and it does indeed read like a story about the ghosts of racism that go on haunting not only the author but all of American society and even with an African American president in the White House. Our Southern Home offers a sobering tale about the past that many Alabamans would just as soon forget, but that the author will not allow to die a quiet death.
—Jonah Raskin is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and a professor at Sonoma State University. Review written for Swans Commentary.
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