Why do it at all?
In my case, it was a duty I owed to Carol Nunnelley, a former editor of The Birmingham News, who has written essays and chosen columns of mine from each decade for a collection to be published by the University of Alabama Press.
My assignment from Carol was to look at the columns she cut in order to shorten the book, which I did and agreed in every case but one, though it is hard for a writer to willingly put his babies to sleep.
At the end of the process, with the advantage of hindsight, I was struck with dismay that even a young journalist in his 20s could be so clear-eyed about the direction history was taking when older men with authority could not.
The collection begins with a hopeful note and a warning. Viewing the 1963 March on Washington from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was more impressed by the singing than the speeches, even Dr. Martin Luther King’s biblical oration.
The anthem I heard for the first time impressed me more, “We are not alone, We are not afraid, We will overcome some day.”
The March left this impression: “Negroes will march in the streets of other cities. Their protests will continue because when people sing, and sing as the marchers did, their grievances are too deep; they can not be crushed.”
Flipping through history like a grade-school Weekly Reader, one soon comes upon the awful year, 1965, the year of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, and at home a Klan march downtown, racist rallies on the courthouse steps and the nightrider murder of a black pipe-shop worker who had no role in the movement.
The decades roll by, phantoms from times we once lived, with atrocities committed and borne, meanness, bigotry, heroism and hope — everything of which man is capable.
My hometown, Anniston, was not exempt from the horrors of 1965 but each time the forces of blind bigotry made a beachhead advance, the more-powerful army of decency rallied to throw the bigots back into oblivion.
One forgotten column on Feb. 15, 1970, reminded me how angry we used to get at Yankee hypocrisy (and still do), mad enough for our own failings to disappear.
In part, the column read: “Seldom has it been admitted so openly as it was last week by U.S. Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, the Connecticut liberal, but Yankee hypocrisy is an old story as old as Southern intransigence.
“The self-righteous attitude taken by drawing-room liberals in other sections has variously enraged or amused generations of Southerners … In a way, we in the South have come to depend on, to actually rely on Yankee smugness just as they have counted on us to rigidly defend the morally indefensible.”
Ribicoff suggested that it be made national policy for desegregation to be enforced in all regions, not just the South. To do so would violate the Treaty of National Tunnel Vision, North and South perceiving each other in the shadows of our own prejudices.
Pressing on through the inches of paper, there are commentaries on the wipeout of an admired Democratic congressional delegation and the landslide victory in Alabama and the South of Barry Goldwater — on the strength of his opposition to the civil rights bill.
There was a brief shining decade, which we called the New South, that began in 1970 with the election of moderate, non-racist governors throughout the South, from which Alabama abstained, clinging instead to George Wallace.
There was elation at the election of Georgian Jimmy Carter when this reporter had backdoor access to the White House, which he enjoyed until the Iranian hostage crisis and the president’s inability to make contact with the public combined to doom his presidency.
The New South ended in 1980 with Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan, who, with his winning personality, presided over the monotonous construction of a one-party, right-wing Republican South.
This one-party or no-party South has proven in only one way superior to the one-party Democratic South; Southern Republicans have the humanity to be embarrassed when their racist origins slip out.
Finally reaching the last decade of columns the question is raised, how far have we come to realizing what Congressman and Alabama native John Lewis, with wounds enough to embitter him, calls “the Beloved Community?”
“Far enough for white businessmen in some communities to take an interest in improving majority-black schools. Far enough for the moral core of the civil rights movement to weaken and the indictment ‘racist’ to become an all-purpose complaint. Far enough for all the obvious indignities of segregation to vanish into an unimaginable past.
“But not far enough to voluntarily end our isolation from the rest of America, enough to surrender our cussed independence that makes us — whatever path the nation takes – choose to go in the opposite direction.”
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.