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
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