55th Post: 7th DIXIE. BIRMINGHAM – Bishop Parsley


 2001 April: Tuesday

As we drove south out of Chattanooga next morning, Ann said: “You’d best turn your watch back one hour – we’re moving from Eastern Time to Central.” We had crossed over the border into Alabama and into a countryside of rolling wooded hills. Roddy told me that Alabama was split into three different parts. “Going from north to south, the north are mountain people, the middle are Bible Belt, and from there on down to the Gulf, it’s Delta country.”

Travelling south-west, we passed close to the town of Scottsboro. Scottsboro had been the setting for an extraordinary episode in American legal history. It was here, in 1931, that nine black teenagers had been arrested and accused of raping two white women on a train. In a courtroom surrounded by lynch mobs, with a blatantly prejudiced judge and an all-white jury, and despite abundant proof of their innocence (including an admission of lying by one of the women), the boys were found guilty and sentenced to death.

After a series of trials, the case reached the Supreme Court which eventually quashed the death sentences. The Scottsboro Boys still spent many years in the harshest jails before the last one was released 19 years later. They were finally pardoned in 1976. It was this case that inspired Harper Lee to write her famous book ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.

After about 70 miles, Roddy pulled over into a service station. My next contact was waiting there for the switch-over. He was a corporate lawyer in his early forties named James – a slightly-built, bespectacled, pleasant man. I waved a reluctant farewell to my Chattanooga hosts – they were a couple I’d really liked.

View across Birmingham – looking east

As I set off with James for the last 70 miles to Birmingham, he told me about the city. Not surprisingly, it had been named after the British original, mostly because its English founders wanted to advertise its manufacturing ‘Workshop of the World’ credentials. As the city had only been founded in 1871, by 1882 it had been too small a venue for Oscar’s tour. It was now a metropolis of over a million people. On the downside, it had been declared the third most dangerous city in the USA, behind Atlanta and St Louis.

We drove into the downtown area and stopped in 16th Street. It seemed that I was on a crash course about the history of racial hatred this morning. First Scottsboro;, now we were parked right beside the Baptist Church where the Ku Klux Klan had set off a bomb that killed four little black girls in 1963. It had been the climax of a series of Klan terrorist bombs against black targets that had led to the city being nicknamed ‘Bombingham’.

The church in Birmingham where four black girls were killed by a KKK bomb

However, this was not just history. James told me that the trial of two of the killers had opened just that morning – 38 years after the event. (Later, the two were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment).

Newspaper report of the bombers trial in 2001

James led me into the Civil Rights Institute just opposite the Baptist Church. It was a well-organised display of reconstructions and videos from the days of segregation – the colour bar soda fountains and buses, the speeches of Martin Luther King, the Selma March, etc. A black woman guide realised that I was British. In a deadly serious voice, like a teacher admonishing an errant child, she said: “Now y’all take real good notice. See whut yo eyes tell ya. And tell the folks back home whut happened here.” Oddly, she made me feel complicit in the crimes of the past.

Wilde had been in contact with the Southern blacks himself. ‘‘I saw them everywhere, happy and careless, basking in the sunshine or dancing in the shade.” On arrival at New Orleans he reported bathing in the Gulf of Mexico and ‘engaging in voodoo rites with the Negroes’.

My lodgings in Birmingham, Ala.

Driving south, we reached a long ridge of hills overlooking Birmingham. These hills were crowned by some of the most magnificent homes that I’d seen in the USA, one of which belonged to James and his wife Lyn. Their property seemed almost dedicated to recreating the English country mansion style; and, unlike so many of the draughty, moth-eaten originals, it oozed comfort. Lyn was also in her early forties, an attractive and welcoming hostess. I was introduced to their daughter Alice-Elizabeth, a shy, rather studious-looking seven-year-old. A-E was sitting at a piano attempting to play Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. From her forlorn expression and single finger picking at the ivories, she seemed intent on turning it into ‘Ode to Misery’. After lunch beside their swimming pool, I retired for a siesta.

The garden at the Birmingham lodgings

At 6pm we drove to the evening’s venue – another glorious country club. This one was even more spectacular than Pinehurst N.C. A row of 30ft Doric columns guarded the entrance, which led into enormous rooms dominated by chandeliers, and views out across the immaculate golf courses beyond. Uniformed black servants stood to attention as we passed.

The Birmingham Country Club – the Wilde venue

I was led to the top table – of course – and introduced to my four fellow diners. One was the heir to an immense fortune, together with his flawlessly beautiful wife; the other pair were the 10th Bishop of Alabama, Bishop Parsley, and his wife. As I settled into polite small talk, it dawned that this evening’s show could be problematical.

One of the key sections of the monologue concerned religion. After bemoaning the deleterious effect that thought has on facial beauty, Oscar continued:

“Except, of course, in the Church. But then, in the Church they don’t think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen, and, as a natural consequence, he always looks perfectly delightful.”

Back in Charlotte I had felt a bit uncomfortable declaiming these words while having the wall behind me lined with portraits of Lutheran bishops. Tonight, it was not going to be portraits. Tonight, it was going to be the real thing. Oh dear.

Fortunately, things fell out quite differently. I’d been rather wary of what reaction I might get in Alabama – a state with a historically dreadful reputation for rednecks and bigotry. However, as I blew out the candle at the end of the show, a blast of approval swept across – two curtain calls and even some cheering. Bishop Parsley approached me, his face beaming with pleasure, and asked me to repeat the ‘bishop’ line.

“I must remember that for my sermons!”

The Country Club, Birmingham – the auditorium for the Wilde show

Later, I gathered the props and waited outside the club with James and Lyn. The remnants of the audience were also standing around. The men in black tie dinner dress, the women in long elegant gowns, their slow courteous southern drawls, lanterns gleaming out of the purple darkness and lighting the tall white columns of the club, the smell of tropical flowers, the damp heat, the black servants flitting off to collect the cars ‘for de white folks’ – if you’d swapped the cars for horse-drawn carriages this could easily have been the ante-bellum South. Scarlett O’Hara could have walked out of the door and no-one would have turned a hair. Slavery might have died, but the class system certainly hadn’t.

Sitting back in their kitchen sipping brandy, James seemed quite high on the success of the evening. Hearing that I had a spare couple of days after the next gig, he and Lyn invited me to stay at their holiday cabin in the Tennessee forest. I agreed with alacrity – it would avoid some crippling hotel bills and they were a delightful family.

The view from the lodgings in Birmingham

Next week on Tuesday June 26 – Montgomery Alabama – Where Gatsby Met Daisy.

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