Leaving Birmingham: Notes of a Native Son
In 1992, when Paul Hemphill went back to live for a while in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, his sister, Joyce, held a dinner for the returning prodigal. At one point Joyce's husband asked Hemphill what his new book was going to be about. Paul said: "Me and Joyce, Mama and Daddy, old friends, steel, all of that. And 1963."
Leaving Birmingham is a powerful and passionate memoir of a man's odyssey, of growing up, under the stare of the statue Vulcan's stern eye, in a city of "muscle and sweat and danger." Thirty years later, he is back, "trying to make something positive of my past, precisely at a time when the city itself was on a similar mission."
And so 1963, the blast furnace period in Birmingham's life, forms the symbolic centerpiece for this moving book. It was the year that Martin Luther King was arrested and composed his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. It was the year of Bull Connor's dogs and firehoses. It was the year, on a September Sunday morning, Youth Day at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, that four girls wearing white dresses were killed when a dynamite blast went off in the church's basement.
By then Hemphill was gone from Birmingham, seeking his fortune as a journalist, and to escape from what Birmingham had become as epitomized by the truck driver father he loved, "this good man now eaten by racism as though it was cancer."
Now Hemphill set out to revisit his past. He found his boyhood friends, and shared their memories of baseball, beer, and girls. He visited the city's political leaders, past and present, of both races, and set down the voices of these citizens who sought in their ways to dampen the horrors of the past. He sensed the effort the city was making by building its new Civil Rights Institute. His mother and father gone, he found renewal with his sister. And as he left his parents' last home, now occupied by an African-American family, he felt "an elation - a feeling that all of the blood and the tears shed over all the years had been worth it, that finally justice had prevailed."
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