“At the least, keep your eyes open and take good notes,” she told the crowd gathered at JSU’s stadium tower for the 26th annual Ayers Lecture Series.
McWhorter wrote “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. The book was also named by Time as one of the 100 best non-fiction books published since the magazine’s founding. She also writes about race and civil rights history for publications such as The New York Times and USA Today’s Op-Ed page.
McWhorter, a Birmingham native, said her work was possible because of the bravery of journalists like Anniston Star publisher Brandt Ayers. He and other writers of that period were the ones that faced real danger, she said.
“The biggest risk I ran was having a drink thrown in my face at the Mountain Brook Club,” McWhorter said.
Ayers introduced McWhorter to the audience Thursday and said the author reminds him of anti-apartheid activist and South African politician Helen Suzman.
“She could see a path to justice that those around her either could not or would not see,” Ayers said.
McWhorter began her speech by describing her trip to Weimar, Germany, location of the Buchenwald concentration camp. She visited the site in 2006, conducting research for her upcoming book about Nazi rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun, who immigrated to America to become heroes of the Cold War.
She said that before she visited the memorial of the camp with her children, she asked them not to focus only on the victims of the Holocaust, but to think about the perpetrators, too.
“They were human beings,” she remembered telling them, “and I want you to understand what human beings are capable of.”
McWhorter said renowned photographer Margaret Bourke-White took a famous shot of the liberation of Buchenwald, which depicted the residents of Weimar looking away from the atrocities of the camp.
McWhorter said many people feel the civilians in the picture were disgusted by the acts, but she believes they were upset more that they were forced to look at what they allowed to happen.
“Their reluctance had a certain tinge of self-interest, for they just wanted to plead their own ignorance,” she said.
As a woman who grew up in segregated Birmingham, she said those photos resonated with her.
“Any white person who lived under apartheid in the South and tolerated it, if not benefited from it, understands the principle of ‘the good German,’” she said.
To reinforce her point, McWhorter sang a quick line, “Look away, look away, look away Dixieland.”
What so many people struggle to comprehend, and what she tries to convey is the degree to which those on the wrong side of history distorted reality — then and now. If one were to talk with the children of those who led Birmingham in the 1960s, she said, one would think that half of Birmingham consisted of closeted integrationists.
But McWhorter said she remembers being told in 1963 as a sixth-grader that Martin Luther King came to Birmingham to stir up trouble for his own financial gain. She also said rumors floated around Birmingham that the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing were in the ladies lounge smoking cigarettes. And that the demonstrators attacked by Bull Connor’s dogs had T-bone steaks stashed in their jacket pockets to attract the animals.
McWhorter said that while she was researching her new book, many of her sources seemed perplexed as to why she was interested in the subject. She said they were just as confused as many of the Birmingham residents were while she researched “Carry Me Home.”
“Why do you journalists insist on opening old wounds,” she remembered one source asking her. “Well, I didn’t find any scars on them.”
Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @DGaddy_Star.