H. Brandt Ayers: Past clearer than present
Apr 29, 2012 | 2121 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Interviewed Monday on tape about the civil rights era for a local museum project, it occurred to me that only when the turbulent passions of the time are past can they be compressed into neatly labeled boxes.

And I wondered if this thrice-told tale might bore the viewers.

Assured that those who were too young to have understood, and most who have forgotten local history or have no reason to revisit painful events will find it interesting, here’s part of the tale I was asked to tell:

The period covered is the decade of the 1960s, the most intense times were the five years from 1965 to 1970 during which the old segregated South went through agonized, violent death throes.

By 1970, it was apparent that the old civilization was dead, to be replaced by another civilization that was yet to be defined.

My part of the story begins in North Carolina where the sit-in movement began, and I was a young political reporter for The Raleigh Times. There, Govs. Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford took the edge off the race issue and enriched the state’s economic and social life with the creation of the Research Triangle Park.

It was there I read newspaper accounts of the bus burning outside Anniston, and later as a Washington correspondent I first learned about the violent integration of Carnegie Library back home in the office of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Burke Marshall.

It was deeply troubling to learn that the civil rights storms had hit my hometown with fury but from Washington they were like dispatches from the front read in the peaceful context of our temporary home in Arlington, Vs.

My last big story as a Washington correspondent was the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous speech but I was more impressed by hearing for the first time the anthem of the movement: We are not afraid; we are not alone, We will overcome some day.

We returned home in 1963 as strangers to my native state where George Wallace in his tornadic quest for governor had stirred resentment and racial strife everywhere he touched down.

As a couple Josephine and I had to mourn President Kennedy’s murder alone, “infected” as we were with the civil common sense of North Carolina and the high-minded vision of JFK’s Washington.

Alabama became even stranger to a native son in 1964 when Sen. Barry Goldwater, an opponent of the Civil Rights Act, carried the white vote by 77 percent and the familiar, admired Democratic congressional delegation was wiped out in the Republican sweep of the South.

The next year, 1965, acts of civil rights and civil wrongs came tumbling over each other as if the state had become a centrifuge or giant washing machine and we were witnesses from inside the machine.

There was the melee on Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge, a Mother’s Day Ku Klux Klan march in downtown Anniston, “white man’s” rallies on the steps of the courthouse, young men who attended the rally murdered an ordinary black working man, Willie Brewster, a local doctor inspired a group to put up a $20,000 reward for Brewster’s murder and sign their names to a full page ad in the Sunday paper, one of the thugs who knew the murderer turned state’s witness to collect the award, he won a gun fight at a local dive with the murderer who recovered, was tried and found guilty, thus aborting civil rights demonstrations that were organized and which would have made the town another Selma.

By the time a dizzy, punch drunk region reeled into the 1970 governors’ elections it was evident the forces of order were in the ascendance with progressive Democrats elected in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina as well as a Republican in Virginia, all of whom vowed to put aside racial rhetoric and concentrate on their states’ real problems.

Anniston in 1971 would endure troubles stemming from the integration of Wellborn High School that ignited black demonstrations, arrests, shots fired into the home of a civil rights leader, a mutinous police sit-down strike. State intervention and yet another resurgence of enlightened local leadership created a lasting period of order and inter-racial communication.

So what does one take away from a rather breath taking, five-minute history of a tumultuous decade? For instance what was it all about? Nothing more complicated than delivering on the promise of the Declaration of Independence.

The state with narrow-minded bitter-end resistance to that promise bred disorder and left behind a bitter political culture of fighting mad, anti-government resignation.

Anniston, like any town with good leadership, was able to meet and overcome every evil act by calling up, like a reserve national guard, the deep but normally dormant spirit of human decency.

It was a story that, as it was experienced, was too chaotic to judge or articulate whose shape and meaning became clear looking back from a distance.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.
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