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PAST TENSE

PAST TENSE

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It’s been 38 years since dynamite killed Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley in Birmingham, Alabama; 37 years since members of the Ku Klux Klan shot and killed James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi; 36 years since a lone gunman shot and killed Jon Daniels outside a rural grocery in Lowndes County, Alabama; and 35 years since fire bombs hit the home of Vernon Dahmer near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, leading soon after to Dahmer’s death. Dahmer was a middle-aged black businessman and landowner respected by blacks and whites alike. Daniels, age 26, was a white seminarian originally from Vermont. Chaney, 20, was a black from Meridian; Goodman, 20, and Schwerner, 23, were whites from New York. All five participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964, and all, for that reason alone, were objects of suspicion, potential targets of white violence. Denise, Carole, Addie Mae, and Cynthia were not local civil rights activists, however, nor were they “outside agitators” acting on conscience and publicly calling for an end to bigotry. They were, on September 13, 1963, four girls in their early teens in Sunday school at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. But their church had been the starting point the previous April for a march led by Martin Luther King Jr., and when dynamite ripped through its foundation, the blast blew their Sunday best from their backs. Who was directly responsible for these crimes? Initial investigations on top of reopened investigations over the past several decades have identified the guilty, overturned in some cases innocent verdicts, and put those guilty behind bars. But several new books -- one memoir, one biography, a photography collection, and two major histories -- depict more than the well-covered events enacted by equally well-known players. Together they concentrate on individual figures, some known, some not-so-known, who shaped or were shaped by the uncivil Sixties South. One of those not-so-knowns was a minister named Robert Marsh, who moved his family from the relative quiet of southernmost Alabama in the spring of 1967 to become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Laurel, Mississippi. This was a plum assignment for an up-and-coming “Man of God, revered by everyone who knew him for his preaching and teaching and spiritual insight,” a Man of God equipped as well with the build of a line-backer and “killer good looks.” The words are those of Marsh’s son Charles, who in The Last Days: A Son’s Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of the New South (Basic Books) tells of just how unquiet Laurel’s corner of Mississippi was in 1967, especially unquiet if a pastor so much as questioned his white congregation’s basic stand on race. And it was Bob Marsh’s basic stand too until two events drove him near to breakdown: his handing of the Jaycee of the Year award to a man who within the hour was arrested for killing Vernon Dahmer; and his subsequent talk with a black minister in Laurel who gave Bob Marsh a lesson in the price paid for taking an honest stand. But the book is more: an especially close look at the fine-tunings of racism within a single, extended, Southern family -- from the author’s grandfather, Kenneth Toler, who “dared to tell Jim Crow’s dirty secrets” as a reporter covering Mississippi politics for The Commercial Appeal, to an uncle in Kosciusko who helped found that town’s virulent Citizen’s Council. Any wonder, then, that Bob Marsh, on the invitation of Green Acres star and Laurel native Tommy Lester, preached to Jesus freaks for a few weeks north of San Francisco? Laurel had changed him, California changed him, and Bob Marsh (along with the political gains of blacks in the South generally) helped change Laurel upon his return. Author Charles Marsh, professor of religion at the University of Virginia, changed too -- into directing the “Project on Lived Theology,” a topic his father taught him even as his father perhaps scarcely realized it. Lived theology took a life-ending turn, however, in 1965, in Alabama, in the person of Jon Daniels, subject of Charles Eagles’ recently republished Outside Agitator (University of Alabama Press). A child of New England Congregationalist parents, the quiet, bookish Daniels hardened himself at the Virginia Military Institute, quit Harvard as an English graduate student his first year, and turned his sights to the priesthood when he entered the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There his training required work with the inner-city poor, and there, in the spring of 1965, he heeded Martin Luther King’s call for clergy to march from Selma to Montgomery. And it was in Alabama that Daniels mostly remained -- registering black voters, integrating churches, manning protest lines -- until August, when he and other demonstrators (including Stokely Carmichael) were arrested in the town of Fort Deposit for marching without a permit. The mayor was advised to release them, but he could not advise Tom Coleman, who encountered Daniels, along with the Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe and two black women also serving as civil rights workers. Outside a grocery near Hayneville, Coleman pulled out a shotgun, fired on Daniels, who died instantly, and fired on Morrisroe, hitting him in the back, an injury from which he eventually recovered. An all-male, all-white jury took 1 hour, 31 minutes to find Coleman not guilty of manslaughter. The defendant, the jury informed the court, was understandably acting in self-defense against two churchmen Coleman alleged were armed In 1994, the Episcopal church officially made Daniels a martyr of the church and added his name to its Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. And in the Chapel of Saints and Martyrs of Our Own Time at Canterbury Cathedral, his name appears alongside Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero. This for a man Charles Eagles in his thoroughly researched and equally troubling Outside Agitator calls “a civil rights activist who was not a leader.” What Eagles means is a self-knowing leader in his own eyes in his own time. But T.S. Eliot, with eternity in mind, called a martyrdom “a design of God, for his love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to his ways.” Make God, then, the designer; Jon Daniels, the non-knowing means back to God’s ways. (And if this makes Tom Coleman an unwitting tool, you are welcome to your beliefs.) A year before Daniels’ murder, the look, the black and white look of civil rights volunteers from North and South, you can find in the photographs by Herbert Randall in Faces of Freedom Summer (University of Alabama Press). Published here are a handful of the 1,759 negatives Randall’s camera generated thanks to a fellowship which enabled him to spend a year creating a photographic essay on black life, an essay, thanks to the urging of Sandy Leigh, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary, Randall centered on the committee’s work that summer in Mississippi, Hattiesburg in particular. Randall’s end-products were negatives not even he had thought to print until a University of Southern Mississippi staff photographer went to work producing them for the school’s archives and an exhibition in 1999. And what the resulting photographs lack in polish they make up for in immediacy: whether it’s Pete Seeger smarting under the glare of a Southern sun, Vernon Dahmer topped in a pith helmet and instructing Northern volunteers on the anatomy of a cotton plant, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld’s blood-stained head and shirt, or Sandy Leigh’s anxious expression during a community center get-together in Palmer’s Crossing -- an expression denoting full knowledge that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had disappeared. Did Leigh know or not know then that on August 4th their bodies would be found? What he certainly did know was Birmingham 1963, “Magic City” turned “Bombingham,” and King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” What we now know, thanks to S. Jonathan Bass’ Blessed Are the Peacemakers (Louisiana State University Press), is not only a textual analysis of that landmark document but the lives of the men to whom it was ostensibly, though not formally, addressed: the eight city clergymen who had called on King, in print, to follow a gradualist course of action in order to safeguard the nation from what they sincerely feared to be guaranteed acts of further violence. But it was King who changed these clergy to varying degrees, not the clergy who changed King, and none more so than then Catholic bishop of Alabama Joseph A. Durick, soon to be bishop of Tennessee and, as events in Memphis would prove, the greatest risk-taker of the group. Bass focuses squarely on these men, respectfully: their careers, their ministries, their heartfelt beliefs, their sense of justice applied and misapplied, what they stood to gain and loose, what they owed to the culture that produced them. What history makes of them isn’t Bass’ job because a history this comprehensive has yet to be written. Just as no future history of Birmingham the city can now do without Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (Simon and Schuster), the product of 15 years of research by New York Times reporter and privileged daughter of Birmingham society Diane McWhorter. Privilege blinded the author’s eyes to much as a 10-year-old in 1963, as sheer or willed ignorance did to privileged and unprivileged alike throughout much of Birmingham’s story. But with close to 600 pages of highly readable text and 70 pages of microscopically sized notes, it will be impossible not to cite McWhorter in future books on the period and place. From anti-unionizer industrialists to nascent Communist cells, from tough-as-nails Dixiecrats to New Dealer sympathizers, from prominent city politicos and white-shoe lawyers to Ku Klux Klanners and the truly psychopathic fringe, from hardhead City Commissioner Bull Connor to equally hard-headed civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, from Hoover’s FBI to Kennedy’s White House, there was hardly room for King to engineer the publicity he needed to restore his flagging image, and “engineer” is the right word for King’s tactics, as both Bass and McWhorter leave us without doubt. Whenever McWhorter questions her own father’s capacity for trash-talk and his knowledge of explosives, however, the view in Carry Me Home presents a truly chilling prospect, one even Vulcan, Birmingham’s good god on Red Mountain, can’t warm. Trust then to the arm of justice, not to the arm of a torch-bearing god: In May 2000, two longtime, still-living suspects in the deaths of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley were indicted by a state grand jury and turned themselves in to Birmingham’s county jail. The charge: murder. No bond.

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