Bailey Thomson Professor
Journalism Department
Box 870172
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
Tel: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780

 

March 14, 2000

A Gift of the Word

By Bailey Thomson

Earlier this month, our journalism department brought a native son home to reflect on his craft. Howell Raines, who is the editorial page editor of the New York Times, hails from Birmingham and received part of his formal education here at the University of Alabama.

He is the third author to receive the annual Clarence Cason Writing Award for non-fiction. It’s named for the founder of our department -- a man with a sharp pen himself. Before his death in 1935, Cason wrote a beautiful rumination on the South titled 90 Degrees in the Shade. The book remains in print as a testament of one writer’s anguished hopes for his region.

Many in the banquet audience probably expected Raines to fire away at the state’s injustices, as he had done on other occasions.  Instead, he enthralled us by recounting his hard and often humorous journey from apprentice to polished craftsman. Along the way, he has written several good books, won a Pulitzer Prize and risen to the pinnacle of American journalism.

As I listened, I wondered why contemporary Alabama has produced a remarkabe crop of able writers but few if any great political leaders. Consider, for example, Harper Lee from Monroeville. Her primer on moral courage, To Kill a Mockingbird, has outsold just about everything except the Bible. Then there’s Edward O. Wilson, last year’s Cason Award winner, who from his professor’s roost at Harvard makes complex scientific thought wonderfully lucid for common readers. And if you want to understand jazz and feel its tempo in prose, I recommend Harlem’s Albert Murray, whose roots lie in Mobile County.

By contrast, I’m hard pressed to name anyone in politics who has achieved similar acclaim. Alabama has produced a few great statesmen in the past – former U.S. Senators Lister Hill and John Sparkman, for example – but they are long dead, without much prospect for worthy successors. Of course, we have politicians who know how to push the right buttons among the voters, but my defining term here is “leader.”

One reason Alabama does better with writers is that they, almost alone among God’s children, concern themselves with truth and its sometimes awful consequences. They don’t have to worry about some opponent hurling their words back at them in a 30-second attack ad. Neither must they speak in political code when they bemoan how Alabama often plays favorites with the rich at the expense of the poor. I do not suggest that writers live in a rarefied world. Clarence Cason so worried about angry reaction to his book that he committed suicide on the eve of its publication. One of his students, Hazel Brannon Smith, faced down the White Citizens’ Council when she editorialized for racial justice in Mississippi – a brave act that won her a Pulitzer in 1964. And Raines has been condemned by at least three Alabama governors for his uncompromising words.

But such truthfulness frees the soul from political bondage. Indeed, words can be mighty weapons against those who depend on ignorance, intolerance and greed to protect their privileged places. And little by little, words can inspire others to behold the truth as well, even if progress moves more like a glacier than an avalanche.

One day, our political culture may catch up with our prodigious production of literature and journalism. We in Alabama may yet enjoy a generation of leaders who will act upon inspiring words.

As Clarence Cason wrote just before his death, we need a quiet revolution, a revision of our fixed ideas, a redirection of our courage and audacity. May our great writers continue in his noble spirit, always ready to explain our state’s distinctiveness but never to excuse its shortcomings.

Gift of the Word