By Troy Patterson
May 02, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Carry Me Home

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The trick of writing about race is to breathe fresh life into a topic often animated by the stale winds of secondhand wisdom. With Carry Me Home, journalist Diane McWhorter succeeds by presenting a civil rights history that’s both exhaustively researched and deeply felt. McWhorter’s volume is subtitled ”Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” which sets the book’s own climax at 1963.

That May, the infamy of the violent repulsion of a children’s protest forced Birmingham’s white leadership to take desegregation seriously. That September, a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The blast killed four black schoolgirls; their murder essentially made them martyrs for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This is familiar history — at least it should be — but the force of ”Carry Me Home” comes from the scope of the author’s reporting. McWhorter richly documents both the internal struggles of the integrationists (chronicling differences of strategy, conflicts grounded in class, squabbles founded in ego trips) and the complex tangle of the segregationist resistance (demonstrating the complicity of the cops and the Klan, showing how the genteel city fathers contentedly let rednecks do the demagoguing and dynamiting that supported the status quo). She sketches the players in bold strokes and summons her themes with light ones, shaping the story of ”Birmingham” into a lucid, elucidating drama about democracy.

Running through this 600-odd-page volume is McWhorter’s own history as a granddaughter of Birmingham’s white elite — and daughter of its vigilante fringe. Her girlhood view from the country club simply adds a bit of texture; her adult quest to learn the extent of her father’s links to Klan members is the book’s very motor. Though she never gets to the bottom of the matter, she gets to its heart: ”I did not understand my father, but because of that I learned to see the world in a new way. For in order to define him, I had to invoke the history of a race, of two races, and of a place.”

Carry Me Home

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