Field Notes for "On the Shoulders of Giants"

Debi Goodwin, producer of On the Shoulders of Giants, writes about a Birmingham park that bravely commemorates the city's civil rights struggle:

 

While we were getting shots in Birmingham for our documentary we spent time in one of the most remarkable parks I’ve seen. Kelly Ingram Park is just a city block big, has only a few benches, started out like any ordinary city park to commemorate a local hero… in this case a firefighter who was the first American sailor to be killed in World War I. But in the early ‘60s the park became the site of massive civil rights demonstrations and the brutal tactics of Birmingham’s police commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connors, who used fire hoses and attack dogs to suppress the crowds. Those images from that park at that time became symbols of the horrors of segregation in the American south and hastened its end.

In 1992, Birmingham honored the park, rededicating it as "a place of revolution and reconciliation." That was the same year the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened across the street with displays of Rosa Parks, segregated lunch counters and a replica of a Freedom Riders’ bus. But only those willing to go inside the institute, to face the history, would see those displays. In the park the history is there for anyone passing by to see. In one corner there’s a fairly standard statue of Martin Luther King. More remarkable is artwork installed later, graphic evidence in broad daylight of cruelty from an era not that long ago. A visitor can circle the park on the "Freedom Walk," passing by and through several poignant installations by artists James Drake. There’s one of two sculpted children huddled against a wall, two steel fire hoses pointed in their direction, another of two defiant looking children who, when you move to the right spot, stand behind bars. Perhaps the most frightening is two walls you walk through with steel, snarling dogs trying to leap at you.

We chose one of the statues for the location for reporter Leslie MacKinnon’s on camera because it showed it all: the policemen with a truncheon, the snarling dog and the frightened but determined face of a black child being attacked by both.

While we were setting up for the on camera the homeless men who came by to see what we were doing, were all black, evidence that Birmingham is still a place of great economic inequality. Still, that didn’t diminish how impressed I was by the park or by the idea that in the middle of a city once synonymous with racial hatred there was such a public admission of what had gone on here.

More about Alabama author Diane McWhorter

"On the Shoulders of Giants" reporter Leslie MacKinnon writes about Alabama author Diane McWhorter's quest for the truth about her "racist father" 

Diane McWhorter, who appears in this documentary, has an amazing personal story. As she explains, she grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, the child of the white privileged class. Ironically, she says, looking back at her childhood self, she now considers herself a white supremacist although she bore no malice towards blacks. But, she says, she had no notion of racism, nor of the violent civil rights protests going on in her own hometown. The white families she knew considered they'd solved the race problem by doing things like being nice to their black maids.   But as she grew up and became a college student at prestigious and liberal Wellesley in the east, her memories, especially of her father, began to disturb her. She knew her father was what she called a "huge racist" and that he actively resisted the civil rights movement. But how extreme was he? She was aware that as an engineer he was mechanically proficient and that he liked to tinker with firecrackers and dynamite. She suspected he was a member of the Klan.  Her most frightening thought  was that  he might have had something to do with the firebombing of the Birmingham Sixteenth Street Baptist Church  which killed four little black girls. Maddeningly, he would hint that he knew more about the incident than he could say.   Her fixation with the past lead her to write her Pulitzer-prize winning book called <a href="http://books.simonandschuster.com/Carry-Me-Home/Diane-Mc-Whorter/9780743217729" class="extLink" target="_blank">"Carry Me Home:</a> The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution " (2004). It was a project meant to take up two years; instead, it took her nineteen years to finish the book. She poured over  FBI files and old police transcripts. She interviewed members of the Ku Klux Klan who'd never spoken to a journalist before, sometimes by just looking up their names in the phone book and knocking on their doors. At times, she worried about her own safety, but most of the men she talked to were described to her by their friends as "fine Christian gentlemen,"  a code phrase she says that meant they were bigots.   Eventually Diane McWhorter confronted her own father who by then was estranged from the family and living in a trailer park. He didn't open up fully to her, but she concluded, after questioning him, that he at least wasn't a murderer. She never determined what he did at night when he went to his "civil rights" meeting, or why he kept Klan literature in his office.  She admits that she couldn't completely figure him out, but her father actually praised her book before he died.   Diane McWhorter is now working on a book about the German scientists connected to  Hitler's Third Reich who were brought by the American government to Huntsville, Alabama to help develop the US ballistic missile program. The parallels, she says, between the anti-Jewish policies of Nazi Germany and the anti-black Jim Crow laws of the American South are uncanny.