Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Carry Me Home, about her native Birmingham during the civil rights crisis, came to give the annual Ayers Lecture, which honors my parents, Col. Harry M. and Edel Y. Ayers.
Diane is as animated as a college cheerleader but she has the conscience of a moral philosopher. She describes herself as a “sorority-girl scold.”
And she asks one of the more profound questions of any age: What do you do in the face of moral evil?
One example she used was the city of Weimar, where the first German democracy was born, which became a metaphor for the best and the worst in humankind.
Roman Herzog, a former German Federal president, said, “Without Weimar, the history of German culture cannot be imagined,” meaning that it was the home of culture but also the birthplace of barbarism.
Many famous names are connected with Weimar. For instance, it was the hometown of the writer Goethe; other cultural greats the city nurtured were Bach, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Liszt and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others.
On a hill eight miles from the culturally harmonious town center rose miles of barbed wire, enclosing the ghastly Buchenwald concentration camp.
What blinded the citizens of this culturally rich city to the horrors outside, evidence of which was available by noxious sight and smell to anyone on a Sunday drive in the countryside?
The camp was built in 1937 simultaneous with a festival for German youth there, during which an organizer called Goethe’s Faust, THE German book. He said the book embodied the German soul and called upon the youth to be prepared for sacrifice for the fatherland and Adolf Hitler.
If there is no logic to rallying youth with the example of a man who sold his soul to the devil, this chilling propaganda is one of the stranger mysteries of errant cities such as Birmingham.
Diane’s book presents her hometown as a massive conspiracy that linked city government, the police, the Ku Klux Klan, dominant lawyers and civic leaders, the local newspaper and even members of her family in a pact to deny the truth and obstruct citizens in their pursuit of basic American liberties.
Similarly, the civil rights conflict in Little Rock squeezed into the frame of a TV set made it seem the whole city was protesting, but 124,500 of the city’s 125,000 went about their business and watched the other 500 at night on television.
The majority in Weimar, in Birmingham, in Little Rock, knew what was happening. Citizens of other cities in the world where evil thrives know what is happening, but few are moved to act. Why?
Put that question to Southern whites who never committed nor considered committing any atrocities, who were trying to adjust to the new ways, and who got fed up with the adjectives applied to them in the media.
Their anger had roots in unacknowledged shame at their own impotence when face-to-face with dehumanizing wrong; good people handcuffed by cultural cowardice.
How that happens was described from the personal experience of a decent man, a juror who had no feelings of racial animosity. Yet, he voted to acquit two white Mississippi half-brothers of the savage murder of a 14-year-old black child, Emmett Till.
The juror said that to do the right thing and convict the brothers he would have to scale a three-level test of moral courage — a summit he could not attempt. He would have to believe that the bedrock of his civilization should be changed, that it was possible to do so, and, finally, he would have to believe that he personally could do something to alter the old ways for the better.
It is possible to feel twinges of sympathy for Southerners, for Germans, for anyone torn by helplessness in the face of evil. But again the question rises, why, what is the force that freezes the moral impulse of decent people?
The glue that held the old, segregated South and prewar Germany together, which binds our society today, is the sameness of everyday life, workaday rituals, habits of civility and conformity to the norm (what would the neighbors or my church think?), and add to that ambivalence, indifference and resignation.
Relieving the pain of moral paralysis seems to be extremely hard. In Germany it took a war and in the South it took the turbulence of an organized, national civil crusade.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.