Cruelty and courage in the 60s South
by Sena Jeter Naslund
The publication of my novel Four Spirits this month is the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself long ago. Back in the 1960s, witnessing the civil rights struggle in my home city of Birmingham, Alabama, I promised myself that if I ever did become a successful fiction writer I would write about the courage and pain, the unspeakable cruelty and abiding love of those transformative times.
It took nearly 40 years and the publication of five earlier books for me to have the confidence to try to tell the civil rights story as I had lived it, observed it, heard stories and read about it. In a number of ways, the character of Stella Silver in Four Spirits replicates some of my own experiences. My own idealistic family were educated, liberal, loving people. For a long time, I was sheltered from the racial fear and hatred in my city and the South, but, while I was a freshman at Phillips High School, the Rev. Mr. Fred Shuttlesworth, while attempting to enroll his children in an all-white school, was beaten with chains and brass knuckles in front of the building and his wife was stabbed.
Like Stella, the scales fell from my eyes as an impassioned high school teacher from the North spoke to my class of racial prejudice as a mark of ignorance. Soon, I was hearing and reading with horror of beatings, of castration, and of more than 40 homes and businesses of blacks destroyed by dynamite in Birmingham. However, like many citizens of Birmingham and of the nation, it was when I learned that four young girls of the bombed Sixteenth Street Baptist Church had been killed that I made a new commitment to work to overcome racial prejudice in my city and in America.
Joined by a disabled friend in a wheelchair, I began teaching on the campus of all-black Miles College. I began to know personal fear. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I witnessed widespread joy in the populace of Birmingham because a rising champion of integration was dead. As I worked the switchboard of a major department store that Friday night, my own isolation and alienation from a city I truly loved increased my resolve to some day tell the truth, through fiction. I believe triumph can be wrung out of tragedy. Largely through nonviolent political action rooted in love, the South has been transformed, if not utterly changed, and the whole of America has made a greater legal and moral commitment to racial justice.
While my novel Four Spirits truthfully suggests something of the violence, sacrifice and heartbreak of those times, it is a positive book and celebrates courage, friendship, family and community.
Sena Jeter Naslund lives with her husband in Louisville, Kentucky. Her new novel, Four Spirits dedicated to the victims of the Birmingham church bombing is being published by William Morrow.