A journalist chronicles the peak of the civil rights movement, focusing on the African-American freedom fighters who stood firm on issues of civil rights and segregation during the movement's eventful climax in Birmingham and the white establishment that opposed them.
... an exhaustive journey through both the segregationist and integrationist sides of Birmingham's struggle ... expertly follows the tangled threads of culpability until they reveal what she calls 'the long tradition of enmeshment between law enforcers and Klansmen,' which included the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as the state and city police. [McWhorter's] precision in filling in the particulars of that collaboration contributes significantly to the historical record ... As a journalist, McWhorter is impressive at gathering facts and sourcing them precisely; her endnotes alone run 70 pages. She piles particulars on top of one another in narratives and portraits that are often compelling and artfully drawn, but not always. At times, the themes are lost in dizzying detail, the trees overwhelm the forest. The huge cast of famous characters and bit players, intricately intertwined, makes Tolstoy seem like easy reading. So determined is she to let the facts speak for themselves -- an increasingly rare virtue in journalism -- that she forfeits some opportunities to summarize, analyze and clarify. In other words, she makes the reader do a good deal of work, which is occasionally annoying but very much worth the effort ... McWhorter has a keen eye for hypocrisy, even among the good guys.
... groundbreaking ... In painstaking detail, [McWhorter] reveals the hardships and horrors (including police dogs, water cannons, and bombings) faced by the Black Freedom Fighters, but she also plainly shows the conspiracy between the town’s establishment, the city’s public officials, and the vicious Klansmen who did the 'dirty' work, in their furious resistance to segregation. Exhaustively researched yet still compellingly readable, [McWhorter’s] book is an excellent choice for libraries.
... immense in size, but rather smaller in historical and literary weight. It is a good and useful book, and it sheds light upon a few dark corners of those hard years, but it falls short of its author's ambitions ... Alas, it just doesn't work. Though it certainly is easy to understand why McWhorter is haunted by what happened in her hometown and determined to face it head on, little of what she tells about herself validates the claim she makes...Instead her autobiographical recollections mostly seem gratuitous and clumsy, pasted into a story to which they add little ... McWhorter traces this much-trod ground carefully, though in more detail than most readers will appreciate inasmuch as it does not always enrich the tale or our understanding of it.