The Late Jim Crow

A memoir of growing up black in the South as segregation crumbled

By Isabel Wilkerson

The civil rights movement has assumed a strangely distant and ceremonial rank in American life. It has become a roped-off holy place, dusted off like the good china for a holiday, spoken of in the low whispers or the high eulogies reserved for the dead. It unfolds in grainy footage of fedora-topped now-famous men marching across Southern bridges and faceless others standing firm against sheriffs and water hoses--more Old Testament than 20th century.

What is not yet built into the American memory is the sense of ordinariness that makes the mythic human and thus real. People who were not part of that period may have a hard time seeing themselves in it because it seems no place for ordinary mortals. We deprive it of its meaning because we buried it before its time, excavating it as a parenthesis in debates on such things as affirmative action or welfare.

It may be a sign of maturity--a true embracing of its role in American life--when the people who inhabited the civil rights era in the South begin to feel free to tell their stories of missing a protest rally because of a flat tire, or being tempted to break a bus boycott because it was freezing and they were human. This may or may not have been the intent of Deborah E. McDowell, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, in writing her memoir, "Leaving Pipe Shop," but it is perhaps the book's most memorable contribution.

The book is ostensibly about the author's return, after more than 20 years, to the Alabama town where she grew up in the 1950's and 60's, to investigate her father's death. A class action lawsuit, filed by victims of asbestos poisoning at the foundry where her father worked, brings her back to the neighborhood outside Birmingham known as Pipe Shop and forces her to confront the authoritarian, working-class bubble that had protected and imprisoned her until she and Jim Crow left.

"Leaving Pipe Shop" is about the little things that happen to average people in a very small place in the middle of a revolution. Wisely, Ms. McDowell does not lard her book with the pious sermonizing or the thick social policy prescriptions that the civil rights era sometimes engenders. If anything, she re-creates with astonishing recollection and sometimes delightful, sometimes numbing detail the mundane moments of growing up, in a way that loosely recalls the interior journey of Eudora Welty's protagonist in "The Optimist's Daughter."

Ms. McDowell's world was filled with bourgeois domestics; cheating, charming men; old women with the gift of prophecy; flawed and zealous parents who popped their children for getting too "biggity" because they feared there was no point in nourishing false dreams. They did not realize it fully at the time, but the entire social order--not just segregation as they knew it but parental totalitarianism, the black caste system and the odd comfort in knowing your place even if you resented it--was crumbling around them. This was a time when Martin Luther King was wildly popular but not yet canonized, and not everyone was convinced that this protest thing was a good idea. Some people in the author's church were skeptical of the confrontations their pastor, the Rev. Timothy Lockhart, a doomed steward of the movement, got into as he fought for the right to vote: "Despite their pronouncements, there were those members who only wanted a taste of freedom, only wanted to sample it as they might some unfamiliar food like sturgeon or hard-boiled eggs in aspic."

A boycott of Birmingham's white businesses tested everyone as Easter neared in 1963. The new dotted-swiss dresses and butterfly hats would have to wait until merchants agreed to desegregate their drinking fountains, restrooms, and sales staffs. This was a bigger sacrifice than walking the several miles to work during the bus boycott.

The lone parishioner who flouted the protest, Miss Annie Pearl Wilkes, did so by "stealing into Loveman's for a banana-yellow linen dress." The neighborhood was "abuzz with rumors that she was a traitor to the cause." And when she showed up in church in the offending outfit, the pastor broke from his sermon to convict her with words from the New Testament: "Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment?" Miss Annie Pearl did not bother to show up the next Sunday. Segregation ended without her.

The people in Ms. McDowell's world got caught up in the revolution not as heroes bracing against sheriffs' dogs but pressed against the windows from inside looking out in amazement and wonder. Dr. King came to speak at a nearby church in 1963, and Ms. McDowell's father took her and a cousin to hear him. By the time they got there, no room was left in the little church. So they huddled in the crowd out front, clapping on cue with the applause inside, though no one could hear anything King had said. They were captive outside their own declaration of independence.

In the book as in life, great events take shape next to more immediate concerns, as the adolescent narrator saves up for a powder blue mohair sweater and feeds her curiosity about sex with "Peyton Place." Her observations run from sweet images of clandestine wooing in the church basement to strained descriptions of sexual arousal that read like a pulp romance novel. Ms. McDowell comes of age--and under pressure from boys--in the sexual revolution of the 60's but before Roe v. Wade, a paradox that lands her at the doorstep of an underground abortionist. At first, she resists the crude mechanics: "Don't go closing your legs now," the woman says in the mocking told-you-so's one endured in the matriarchal South. "You should have closed 'em long 'fore now."

Ms. McDowell never learns what caused her father's death. But in her book, she uses the lawsuit as a stage for flawed, human characters who were the unwitting soldiers and civilians of an American revolution. And while we learn more than we care to about some and not enough about others and are at times made impatient with undisciplined minutiae, "Leaving Pipe Shop" is an appealing take on a side of the museum piece known as the civil rights era. It is a side that deserves much further exploration. In small but not insignificant ways, there was probably as much going on in the back rows of those legendary protest marches as in the front.

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