American Impressions, Chapter 30: Alabama
Fascinated with death since his mother’s passing, Elvis Presley liked to walk among the embalmed dead in a Memphis mortuary and talk to his friends about the embalming process. Martin Luther King, death-obsessed for months before his assassination, sermonized of the promised land and pleaded for a brief funeral with the morbid prescience of a Hank Williams, who died while his “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” was burning up the country chart in a pyre of funereal lyrics. The three men acted as if death were part of the plan, a necessary plot twist, but not quite the end. That each man has been a mega-hit in his afterlife only underscores how the death of Southern heroes is a lot more like a gear-shifting ceremony of affirmation and defiance than a trek to the cemetery.
Nowhere is this more true than in Alabama, where the deaths of five very different Southern heroes over the years crystallized the state’s character, then allowed it to redefine a powerful—if conflicted—sense of identity for itself. It isn’t possible to sum up a state. But the deaths and afterlives of these five men come close to summarizing the cultural forces that most define Alabama today: Jefferson Davis (the Confederacy), Hank Williams and Elvis (country music), Martin Luther King (civil rights), and Paul “Bear” Bryant (football).
The running thread among them all, of course, is religion, although not in particularly unifying ways. In Alabama as in much of the South, the Bible is the common language that absolves irreconcilable beliefs: There’s a lot more in common between Jefferson Davis and Bear Bryant, who died a century apart, than between a black church and a white church sharing a street in Birmingham. Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as the Confederacy’s first (and only) president at the state capitol in Montgomery. After the war, after the northern vilification of Davis and toward the end of Reconstruction, Davis returned to Montgomery during a triumphal tour of the South, in 1886, addressing huge crowds that cheered at his jihadlike mentions of “that war which Christianity alone approved—a holy war for defense.” When Davis died in Biloxi, Miss. three years later, Montgomery was among the six cities that competed for the body and the funeral. New Orleans won, 10,000 people turned up, and although Davis’ embalming was botched enough that his body had decayed ghoulishly by the day of the funeral (the embalming fluid and the casket were Northern imports), the cult of the Lost Cause was born. It has rattled since.
In 1962, the segregationist George Wallace took his oath of office as governor on the very same spot where Davis had taken his oath a century before. A brass star marks the spot, which visitors circle and touch with the tip of their shoes, as if testing distant waters. But they’re not distant at all. Jefferson Davis’ birthday is still a state holiday. One could picture Michael Hill standing on the star and taking the oath of office as the second president of the United States of the Confederacy—whose 13 states, he says, would be the world’s third-biggest economic power if they broke away today.
Hill and I met in Tucaloosa, where he lives and has taught American history for 18 years at predominantly black Stillman College. Last month, somewhat to the relief of Stillman’s administration, he gave up tenure there and resigned to concentrate on his presidency of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organization with about 9,000 members nationwide that believes in the right to secede.
”We’re a movement—a cultural, social, economic and political movement, but not a party per se,” he says. The league is organizing political action committees and pushing for the passage of state sovereignty bills in various Southern legislatures.
”We’re willing to play within the system as far as it will take us,” Hill said over lunch at The Globe, a restaurant named after Shakespeare’s theater. A big poster of “Much Ado About Nothing” hung above us. Like a right-wing Lenin waiting out his exile, Hill is an intellectual who knows how to sound like a populist, and who’s obviously tapping into a powerful strain of Old South nostalgia. His arguments always are logical, well-grounded in history, even seductive—until you begin to question him on a few fundamentals.
He believes in reversing integrationist doctrine. Push him a little further, and his logic unravels: Slavery was wrong only insofar as it prevented slaves from learning to read (the Bible, that is), and broke up families. “That’s even worse than an occasional beating,” he said. “Slavery is not an ideal condition; it is a biblically mandated institution. However, both the Old and New Testament regulate the institution. It’s very difficult to say that it’s sinful.”
We’d been talking three hours, and by then Hill was on a roll, seceding from secular American principles to speak in those jihad-like phrases Davis had employed during his last tour of the South. Hill, the Confederate missionary, had emerged. When he’s not in Tuscaloosa, Hill is on his own tour of the South for the League. He’s only 47. He’s not ruling out running for office in Alabama. And Jefferson Davis’ work needs to be done. With a twinkle in his blue eyes, Hill notes that Davis died Dec. 6, 1889, “which, by the way, is my birthday.”
Ever since Hank Williams Sr. became Alabama’s first rags-to-riches hero across the nation, country music has been one of the state’s claims to parity with the rest of America. It explains why Eli Waldron, a reporter covering Williams’ funeral in Montgomery in 1953, described it as “the greatest emotional orgy in the city’s history since the inauguration of Jefferson Davis,” and why Elvis’ funeral in Memphis 23 years later evoked the same response. Far from mere celebrity events, the funerals were outpourings of sentiment, pride and Southernness all wrapped in grief.
Hank Williams’ death naturally affected Alabama because he was an Alabaman. But Elvis’ death shocked a particular, small corner of northwest Alabama that had been central to Elvis’—and pop music’s—rise.
The small towns of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Sheffield, each a suburb of the other, look as unremarkable today as any cluster of industrial towns mildly down on their luck. The four towns were just as unremarkable 20 and 40 years ago. But that area was—and remains—home to Sam Phillips, Elvis’ first producer (he sold Elvis’ contract to RCA for $35,000), and for decades has been a recording hub of the music industry. Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens, Jimmy Buffet, Cher, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon—many of whom owe at least a measure of debt to Elvis—have recorded there, most of them at the Muscle Shoals Sound studio, which is still recording hits.
Alabama’s rich music heritage led the state to create the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia in 1990, the first such place in the nation.
The death of Elvis, David Johnson remembers, “was like the day JFK got killed, total disbelief, a total void you know can’t be filled.” Johnson, the director of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, once owned Broadway Sound Studios in the area. Jeannie Greene, one of Elvis’ back-up singers, called him with the news on Aug. 16, 1977.
But for years music has exposed rather than bridged the sort of rifts Alabama has made famous. Hank Williams and Elvis were white stars for white audiences. Sam Phillips had detected in Elvis a talent for sounding black—Elvis was reared in Mississippi’s gospel and blues—without what was, at the time, the unmarketable disadvantage of looking it. His popularity was in large part drawn from white, rural, middle- and lower-middle-class Americans. Even though he was as indifferent to politics and social concerns as any major public figure has ever been, Elvis became a symbol of Southern pride at the very time when the South was mired in its second civil war, this one precipitated by the civil rights movement.
When the nation’s media focused on the Alabama of George Wallace’s “Segregation now!” and of Eugene “Bull” Connor’s attack dogs, Elvis provided the ideal, reassuring counterpoint for his fans. His death, which drew 80,000 mourners to Graceland within 24 hours, was an occasion to say thanks for the music—and the escape.
When Hank Williams died, some blacks attended his funeral in Montgomery. But they had to sit in the balcony. When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis in 1968, the South got a Jefferson Davis funeral in reverse: as subversive of Yankee claims to victory and dominance as Davis’ funeral had been, so was the King funeral subversive of Southern whites’ claims to preeminence. Mourners wore African-style clothes, jeans and work clothes and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Atlanta churches and restaurants fed funeral food to 26,000 people, and King’s coffin was taken to the cemetery on an old farm wagon pulled by two mules. The nearly 200,000 people who attended were not all black, but Georgia’s governor did not attend, nor did a single Southern congressman or senator. Atlanta, “The City Too Busy to Hate,” was the exception.
The remarkable thing is how much of an example it has been for other cities. In Birmingham, where 50 bombings in the late 1950s and ‘60s had earned the city the nickname of “Bombingham,” it is as if King’s legacy dominates the city more than any other. The surprise in Birmingham is not its cosmopolitanism, its diverse industries (hospitals, banking, Mercedes’ and Honda’s manufacturing ascendance). The surprise is the extent to which the city has embraced its recent, terrible past and turned it into a “won cause” in stark opposition to the “lost cause” of the Confederacy.
The city has created a Civil Rights District that includes the Civil Rights Institute, a park dominated by a statue of Martin Luther King and rimmed with graphic sculptural reminders of Birmingham’s barbaric treatment of blacks, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where a 1963 bombing killed four girls. The Institute itself includes a long, almost tunnellike exhibit that immerses visitors back into the struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s in sights and sounds.
”If we are wrong,” the visitor hears King’s voice declaim in its familiar tremors, “the Supreme Court is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God almighty is wrong.” A juxtaposition of the Institute and the League of the South is a clash of colors and biblical interpretations, which is why the two sides will remain—Southern courtesy and pretensions of working things out aside—as segregated as black Birmingham is from its white suburbs (the city is 70 percent black).
It was only with the funeral of Paul “Bear” Bryant in 1983 that the splintered crowds of previous great funerals mingled into the biggest, most ecumenical outpouring of hero-worship Alabama—and the South—had ever seen.
Three churches were needed to contain a crowd of 1,500 attending the service for the University of Alabama football coach; 10,000 people lined the streets of Tuscaloosa, where the funeral procession began. Another 500,000 to 700,000 mourners lined a 53-mile stretch of Interstate 59 to see the five-mile long motorcade of 300 cars slowly make the journey to Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, where another 10,000 people waited to see the interment. Black players from the 1982 team were among the pallbearers. Blacks and whites, Protestants of every denomination and quite a few Catholics (who could always remember that the Bear never defeated Notre Dame) turned out for the ceremonies.
They turn out still—at Bear’s simple grave- site, where they leave Coke and Golden Flake potato chips in remembrance of his endorsements, or at the Bear Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, where they can watch endless video clips of his endless victories and hear commentators eulogize every game as if the Bear were Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt bringing victory and liberation to millions.
The thing is, that’s just what Bear signified to Alabamans. He was their Churchill, or, more appropriately, their Jefferson Davis, except that he couldn’t lose. Other Southern teams hated the Crimson Tide when they faced each other, but when the Tide went North, the South rallied behind the Bear as every game turned into a battle, and almost every battle was a victory. The Bear was a Confederate who always won: The winningest coach in the history of college football, he owned 323 victories against just 85 losses, 232 of them at Alabama, between 1958 and 1982, where he won all six of his national championships. That he did so at a time when Alabama’s image was bloodied by the barks of Bull Connor and his dogs gave the state something good to latch onto. That he had been a poor Arkansas boy who’d made it rich (like Elvis), that he could preach religion to his players like a minister, that he could cuss, drink, smoke and party with redneck abandon (as he did all his life) only endeared him more to his fans across classes.
Never mind that he was slow to integrate UA’s football team, that it took Southern Cal’s black running back, Sam Cunningham, in a brilliant thrashing of UA in a game in 1970, to do to the team what even Martin Luther King had failed to do. Never mind that Bear could brutalize his players for the sake of winning, or that the hundreds of parents who name their children after the Bear are, to this day, exclusively white (UA holds an annual namesake day). It is Bear’s myth that endures, and that gives Alabama a claim to parity and greatness in the eyes of the Union.
”There are three sports in Alabama: Football, spring football, and recruiting,” says Taylor Watson, the curator at the Bryant museum. “And recruiting lasts 365 days a year.” It may be difficult for an outsider to understand football’s preeminence in Alabama, but it doesn’t take long to sympathize: Alabama still doesn’t have too much else. Seventeen years after his death, the Bear looms as big on Alabama as Bryant-Denny Stadium does at UA, its funnellike mass of concrete and steel rising from the center of campus and overwhelming the little red-bricked buildings and their little white columns and their little scholarly contents.
At Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, two gaudy red arrows guide visitors through the maze of roads to Bear’s grave. It is where all roads might as well end for Alabama, a touching coda to a state that has fallen and risen in its heroes’ wakes, quite literally. The only thing missing at the gravesite are the audible arrows of Hank Williams Jr. promising that “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie I don’t want to go If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie I’d just as soon stay home.”
ALABAMA IN BRIEF
Total area: 52,237 sq. miles (rank: 30)
Population (1997): 4,319,154 (rank: 23)
State capital: Montgomery
Economy: Pulp and paper, manufacturing, chemicals, food processing.
Nicknames & Motto: Heart of Dixie; Camellia State; We dare defend our rights.
Entered union: Dec. 14, 1819 (22 nd)
Notable facts: George Wallace, who had shouted “Segregation forever!” at his inauguration as governor in Montgomery in 1962, by 1970 had repudiated his racist stand, and by the time he died last year, was eulogized by Jimmy Carter as “one of the most dedicated and effective Southern leaders in bringing about reconciliation among our people.”
Alabama in quotes: “When ‘Bama went north and east and west, it wasn’t going to play just a football game. It was going on a crusade, and Bear was our Richard the Lion-Hearted. Bear was our best, and our best could and did beat the best of anywhere else and that was important to all of us below the Mason-Dixon line.”—Mississippi sports writer Paul Borden.
* Peter Guralnick’s final volume of a scholarly, two volume biography of Elvis Presley, “Careless Love,” has just been published by Little, Brown and includes the most comprehensive account to date of Elvis’ last days and funeral.
* The Paul Bryant Museum sells “Echoes of the Bryant Year,” a four-hour audio collection of interviews and play-by-play from Alabama’s best years, priced at $29.95; the museum can be contacted at 205-348-4668.
* The books of Frank Sikora, a longtime Birmingham News based reporter (“Until Justice Rolls Down: The Birmingham Church Bombing Case”; “The Judge: The Life and Opinions of Alabama’s Frank M. Johnson, Jr.”; and “Selma, Lord, Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days”) offer a good retrospective of Alabama civil rights era. The books are all still in print and available at amazon.com.
* The League of the South: www.dixienet.org
* A complete multi-part history of the Muscle Shoals music heritage is just being completed by Terry Pace and Robert Palmer of the TimesDaily in Florence, at www.envisionthefuture.com/timesdaily/
* The Alabama Music Hall of Fame: www.alamhof.org
* The Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham: http://bcri.bham.al.us
* University of Alabama: www.ua.edu
* Paul Bryant Museum: www.ua.edu/bryant.htm