- - Monday, February 18, 2013

By H. Brandt Ayers
NewSouth Books, $29.95, 320 pages

The collapse of the immoral “Jim Crow” regime of racial segregation and discrimination in this country was, in historic terms, as swift as it was complete. It is a story worth remembering. We are fortunate when someone who played an important role in those events — and who is a skilled storyteller in the bargain — shares his recollections and reflections.

H. Brandt Ayers, a native of Anniston, Ala., long served as publisher of his family’s highly regarded daily newspaper, the Anniston Star. In his memoir, “In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal,” Mr. Ayers recounts his experiences from childhood and across the postwar decades, in Alabama and elsewhere. He provides readers with a disarmingly honest, richly revealing and entertaining remembrance in which local events are placed in the larger context of national politics and policy.

Anniston made the national news when, in May 1961, a “Freedom Rider” bus was burned on the outskirts of town. In response, local leaders from the black and white communities met and began “publicly moving toward a demonstration of civil common sense.” A new Human Relations Council persuaded some doctors and businessmen to eliminate segregated waiting rooms, desegregate lunch counters and erase “white” and “colored” signs on drinking fountains. In those days, Mr. Ayers writes, “it was no small thing to eliminate the signposts of an apartheid civilization.”

At the same time, sadly, other local elements (whom Mr. Ayers, saluting William Faulkner, dubs “the Snopses”) were also mobilizing. Local Klan leader Kenneth Adams, a notorious racist in his day, was at the center of this group. His allies included J.B. Stoner of the “even more rhetorically violent” National States’ Rights Party (NSRP).

In 1965, the party sponsored two nights of “White Man’s Rallies” on the steps of the local courthouse. The Rev. Connie Lynch, an itinerant specialist in inflammatory race-baiting, gave a talk proclaiming that the streets would “run red with blood.” After the second rally, an employee of Kenneth Adams named Damon Strange shot and killed a local black man, Willie Brewster, who was driving home from his night-shift job.

The Anniston Star ran Mr. Ayers’ lead editorial urging citizens not to “stand back silently and let the whole ugly box of racial violence open up.” Overnight, local leaders organized a fundraising effort. In short order, a $20,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Brewster’s assailant. The “reward money solved the case.” Anniston succeeded where other Southern communities had failed; Damon Strange was tried and convicted of second-degree murder.

Mr. Ayers gives an insightful account of the trial and its aftermath. The conviction dismayed J.B. Stoner, who was shocked that a white jury would convict a black man’s killer. Yet civil rights activist Hosea Williams was also “deflated” because plans for major demonstrations against an acquittal had been laid already. Mr. Ayers’ editorial in the Star praised the courage of the jury, for “by their decision law and order stands higher, the South stands higher, we all stand higher.”

Recounting this and a myriad of other events of larger-than-local significance, Mr. Ayers is fully cognizant of the South’s past sins and the region’s rapid change for the better. Although there were “bitter end haters,” he finds it “remarkable how light was the hold of the haters on the rest of us.” Consider: In 1959, 72 percent of white Southeners opposed school integration; in 1969, “only 21 percent objected.” The “old attitudes, along with the civilization that supported them, plummeted to an obscurity beyond the easy reach of memory.”

By 1970, Mr. Ayers writes, “the Old South had died and was laid to rest alongside legal segregation.” The Snopses — the likes of Kenneth Adams, the KKK and the National States’ Rights Party — became “increasingly isolated,” relegated to “a scorned fringe of society.” Ironically, moreover, with the big battles won, over time some civil rights organizations were “reduced to trivial complaints, searching for something to awaken outrage.”

The South is not without problems today, and Mr. Ayers does not mince words in discussing them. Yet he rightly credits Southerners of both races — “private citizens [acting] on their own initiative,” in the words of French political historian Alexis de Toqueville — who led the South out of the era of Jim Crow.

Although an unabashed liberal, Mr. Ayers is not doctrinaire. As he chronicles his evolution from anger and estrangement, to ambivalence, and finally to rediscovered love for a South that had grown “smarter, richer, and more tolerant,” his love of our country and his native Alabama pervade his narrative. He is critical of those “in the great centers for export of moral concern” who lack “the talent … to champion the cause of the black man without demeaning the average white Southerner.”

Readers of all political persuasions will find Mr. Ayers’ book rewarding, for this Alabaman’s story is really about all of us.

Ray V. Hartwell III is an Alabama native and a trustee emeritus of Washington and Lee University.

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