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mind that I might be late,'' Diane McWhorter said in a stage whisper
when we agreed to meet for lunch, the breakneck cadence, if not quite
the accent, sounding a little like the actress Holly Hunter. ''I'm
whispering to try to fool myself into thinking I'm supposed to be
there at 1.'' Sure enough, she showed up at 1:35, but the
conspiratorial aside was revealing in two ways. First, like the air of
cheery bonhomie in the voice, the casual theatricality is typically
Southern -- not for nothing did McWhorter achieve what she terms ''the
platonic ideal of white Birmingham girlhood,'' the presidency of the
elite high school sorority Theta Kappa Delta back in 1969. And second,
she does, it seems, have a thing about time, as evidenced by the 19
years it took her to write what she first envisioned as a modest
memoir about her hometown and its horrific role in civil rights
''The idea was a little journey home to discover what really happened in my hometown,'' said McWhorter, who now lives in Manhattan. ''I can't remember if it was my agent or publisher who asked how long it would take. And I said, 'I can't imagine working on anything for longer than a year, so let's double it and say two years.' And then two years into it, I didn't even know what it was about.''
Partly, the vicissitudes of life got in the way. Somewhere between the idea and the execution of ''Carry Me Home,'' she married, had two children, now 9 and 11, and saw various characters in her narrative die off -- or assume they would before she gave birth to the book, her first. ''My Uncle Hobart had a heart attack a few years ago,'' she said. ''I called him at the hospital and said, 'Good God, you're not going to die before my book comes out.' And he paused and said, 'I'll never live long enough for your book to come out.' '' (As it turns out, he did.)
But mostly, McWhorter found herself digging deeper and deeper into one of the ugliest periods in American history. She pored through old files and transcripts, searched out aging Klansmen and probed into the intimate connections between the lions of industry -- the Big Mules of Birmingham, Ala., whom she used to see every day at the exclusive Mountain Brook Club -- and the underworld of racist thugs who gave Birmingham the appellation of Bombingham. McWhorter was born in Tupelo, Miss., but her father's roots were in Birmingham, and the family moved back there when she was 5. She was in grade school during the most cataclysmic events of the civil rights era.
But, as she tells it, for many white residents, the city's torturous battles over integration might as well have been happening far away. Indeed, the most privileged white folks lived (and still live) not just outside town, but on the other side of Red Mountain, in well-heeled Mountain Brook. ''We grew up so isolated,'' McWhorter said. ''We always heard that outsiders stirred up all the trouble and then left, and it didn't have anything to do with us nice white folks over the mountain.''
McWhorter wasn't that naĀve. She knew that her own father, an eccentric who had defiantly exiled himself from his upper-crust roots, was sneaking out at night to play some part -- she was never sure what -- in Birmingham's white resistance to integration. But she sailed through her youth, went north to Wellesley College, eventually got a job at Boston magazine and decided she wanted to be a writer. She said the idea that became her book came to her when she was leafing through a bicentennial history of Alabama, expecting the coverage of her city to be ''a salute to the Pittsburgh of the South,'' only to find an analysis of the role Birmingham's power structure played in trying to thwart Martin Luther King Jr. -- with one of her cousins in the middle of the tale.
That discovery started her on a reporting journey that ultimately allowed her to lay out in excruciating detail the way those at the top and the bottom of the heap in Birmingham, the men in the suits and the old boys who knew their way around a stick of dynamite, worked together to foster an atmosphere of bigotry and brutality that even for its time was almost without equal. She traces that history of violence and division back, not just to race but to money and class, in that the efforts of the city's industrialists to undermine the New Deal and local labor unions led almost inevitably to efforts to maintain segregation.
''I had certain assumptions,'' she said. ''The first was that the steel industry, through its absentee ownership, used racism to enhance profit, and it turned out to be so much truer than I thought and so much worse than I could have imagined.'' The book took so long, she said, ''because, after a while, I had to know everything.''
But if the big picture became clear, the smaller one remained full of mystery. In the climactic moment of her personal drama, she confronted her father about his role on the dark side of the movement. ''Well, you had Klan plus and you had Klan minus,'' he told her. ''We were Klan minus,'' meaning, more or less, that he and his pals sympathized but weren't part of the violence and terrorism of the time. But what he was doing at night, she still doesn't entirely know.
And what to make of Birmingham? Eventually, the city's leaders got behind the idea of integration, and Birmingham today has black political leadership and is dominated economically more by its medical center than by steel. The city where the daughters and granddaughters of the Big Mules cheered in gym class when they heard President John F. Kennedy had been shot now feels like a quintessentially American place, part of the conservative suburban majority that elects our presidents. But McWhorter's analysis of what brought the city to give up on segregation is hardly uplifting. ''Once the business leadership decided that segregation was bad for business, they changed,'' she said. ''Power does what it does to preserve itself. Segregation ended when the business community finally said it had to go because it was bad for profits.''
McWhorter said that it was too early to tell how the book would be received in her hometown. Family members had largely been supportive of her research, though her Uncle Hobart has already disparaged the book in a local newspaper, questioning its portrayals of key figures. Her father, on the other hand, praises it.
He remains perhaps the biggest mystery of all. In ''Carry Me
Home,'' he emerges as a perplexing loner -- one part Jack Kerouac
figure, who could have become a radical progressive, one part Klan
sympathizer; one part Mountain Brook, one part trailer park. ''That
was one of the great lessons of the book,'' McWhorter said. ''That you
can know less about people who are closest to you, who are most
responsible for who you are, than you know about a close friend. I
never got to the bottom of what he was doing. But in the course of
trying to, I created this book.''
Peter Applebome, a deputy metropolitan editor at The New York Times, is the author of ''Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics and Culture.''