By: Wayne Greenhaw
Reviewed by: Colin Crews
Lawrence Hill Books, 2011
$26.95, Hardcover; $21.95, eBook
Fighting the Devil in Dixie is an enthralling mosaic of individuals and organizations working to achieve civil rights and the groups that fought against them. Harper Lee Award winner Wayne Greenhaw’s latest work is as much a character study, personal journey, and legal drama as it is a first-hand account of the struggle for equality. The narrative flows from motivations and intent to historic speeches and Ku Klux Klan terrorist attacks.
Greenhaw’s writing stands out with his meticulous depictions of the players. The author gives the same cinematic attention to detail to Montgomery detective Jack D. Shows as he does to titanic Civil Rights figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. About Detective Shows, Greenhaw writes, “Shows knew every cab driver on a first name basis. He let it be known with a wink and a grin that he appreciated a well-chosen tip.”
The author puts elected leaders under the same exacting scrutiny. Alabama governor George Wallace’s political trek is followed closely. Beginning his career as a young progressive, Wallace transforms into a staunch segregationist after losing an election to a KKK-backed opponent. Throughout the fifties and sixties, Wallace acted as an opportunistic politician, advancing his career by fighting desegregation and exploiting the “pure fear that the white folks felt deep down in their bones.”
Greenhaw’s book is also a legal odyssey. Circumventing the institutionalized bigotry in Southern courts, he writes, civil rights lawyers such as Fred Gray, Orzell Billingsley, and Morris Dees turned to the appeals process. These intrepid attorneys found that they were more likely to win their cases and advance their cause in federal court.
Greenhaw’s book is especially relevant today as contemporary political rhetoric becomes increasingly hyperbolic. References to the Civil Rights Act as “the most monstrous piece of legislation ever enacted” or coverage of The Patriots Rally Against Tyranny are eerily similar to news headlines in 2011. The author points out the consequences of such overheated political speech. Hours after Wallace stopped African American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, NAACP activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, he notes.
Fighting the Devil in Dixie closes with legal victories against the KKK and accounts of redemption and forgiveness. The reconciliation of African-American sheriff John Hulett with the murderer of a civil rights activist is understated and effective. George Wallace’s search for atonement is just as noteworthy. In 1963, Wallace literally stood in the way of desegregation in Alabama schools. But according to NAACP state president E. D. Nixon, Wallace became “the most important friend that black people could have in the early 1980’s.” In the hands of Wayne Greenhaw, Alabama’s journey across the racial Rubicon is inspiring, frightening, and deeply personal. Feb. 2011
Colin Crews is a freelance writer living in Irondale, Ala.