Archive for July, 2014

PBS debuts new American Experience documentary, Freedom Summer

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014 by Blair Johnson

Freedom Summer documentary from American Experience/PBS

“I don’t think people understand how violent Mississippi was.”

PBS’s new documentary, Freedom Summer, which debuted June 24, begins with this foreboding statement that proves itself true by the end of the film. And what is perhaps most shocking about that violence is that it happened in the not so distant past. Written, produced, and directed by Stanley Nelson, Freedom Summer chronicles the titular 10-weeks of 1964 during which college students from across the country traveled to Mississippi to battle the existing racism that was preventing African Americans from exercising their right to vote. The documentary covers the summer from the first days of the college student volunteers to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that went to challenge the all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention, and to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that actually began during Freedom Summer.

Volunteers and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staff from that summer share life-changing experiences in the film, some for the very first time. Linda Wetmore Halpern recalls being assaulted by a group of white men in a car while she was walking down a road. She recalled, “They started calling me ‘Hey, nigger lover! We got you. We finally got you. We ain’t killed ourselves a white girl yet. You’re going to be the first.'” The men then put a noose around her neck as they drove off in the car holding the other end, making her walk faster and faster until they finally dropped the other end of the rope. “And I just stood there. Because we had to wear skirts. We weren’t allowed to wear pants in those days, so we all had our little shifts on and everything. I peed all over myself. Just stood and just peed,” Halpern said.

While women involved with Freedom Summer were not always treated fairly, Stanley Nelson highlights two important women in his film: Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and Rita Schwerner, who was key in driving the search for three missing civil rights workers, including her husband. The press would hound Schwerner, hoping “that they would catch her at the moment of her widowhood [and see her cry], but she wouldn’t play.” The film highlights Hamer’s powerful testimony at the Democratic National Convention of 1964: “Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave? Where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hook. Because our lives be threatened daily. Because we want to live as decent human beings in America.”

Civil rights leader Bob Moses, featured in the film, reflects on Hamer’s influence on Freedom Summer and at the Democratic National Convention: “She had Mississippi in her bones. Martin Luther King, or the SNCC field secretaries, they couldn’t do what Fannie Lou Hamer did. They couldn’t be a sharecropper and express what it meant, right, and that’s what Fannie Lou Hamer did.”

The Freedom Summer documentary can be viewed on PBS or at the PBS website. NewSouth Books has published the following titles on Freedom Summer for those interested in learning more:

The Freedom Rides and Alabama: A Guide to Key Events and Places, Context, and Impact — Author Noelle Matteson recounts the events of the 1961 group of interracial riders and their experiences in Alabama from their arrival in Montgomery to the firebombing of their bus in Anniston.

The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement — The biography of Bob Zellner, the first white field secretary of SNCC, chronicling his experiences as a white Alabamian rejecting the Southern “way of life” he was raised on in pursuit of social change.

The Children Bob Moses Led — William Heath brings history to life in his fictionalized account of the Freedom Summer through the voices of real-life, legendary leader Bob Moses and a white volunteer college student.

Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs — Two classic collections of freedom songs (We Shall Overcome [1963] and Freedom is a Constant Struggle [1968]) are reprinted in a single edition to guide the reader through the history and experience of the Civil Rights Movement with sheet music for the songs, important documentary photos, and firsthand accounts by participants in the movement.

All of these titles are available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Remembering John Seigenthaler, with author John Pritchard

Thursday, July 17th, 2014 by Brian Seidman

From left, Ricky Skaggs, Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Seigenthaler, and John Pritchard

John Pritchard, author of three novels in the “Junior Ray” series, sent this remembrance of journalist and writer John Seigenthaler, who died in July 2014. (Pictured, Ricky Skaggs, Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Seigenthaler, John Pritchard.)

New South’s Randall Williams said it well about John Seigenthaler. Randall put it superbly, simply, and originally: “He was a good man who gave white Southerners a good name during our dark period of massive resistance, obstruction, and violence against civil rights.” As any Southerner with a lick of sense and an ounce of perspective would agree, that is a mammoth and most difficult achievement. Thus from a national as well as a regional perspective, Randall’s encapsulation gives high honor to a great person an awful lot of people regard as one of history’s finest.

John Seigenthaler was perhaps the most central and admirable personality that defined the Nashville I lived in during the 1970s. He was the apotheosis of integrity and of all that was serious and good. Anybody who knew him, even if they were his political opposites, held him in lofty esteem for the serious, smart, and incredibly intelligent human being he was. Indeed, John’s personal and professional record was well known.

He and I were by no means close friends, but we each had close friends who were close friends of us both. To John I was merely a familiar face and a good acquaintance, while he, in the geist and gestalt of that time and place, was a major figure in Nashville’s overall environment, and I was bumbling about in the thick of it there in my thirties and early forties. I lived in Nashville from the summer of 1970 until February of 1981. Like Memphis, Nashville was, in a social sense, a very small community. Everyone knew or knew about everyone else in all the odd and colorful corners of the city’s make-up — its politics, Music Row, Nashville’s huge academic community, downtown’s exceedingly high finance, dinner at Sperry’s Restaurant and late-night parties on Belle Meade Boulevard — it didn’t matter, anyone could be everywhere . . . plus, everyone was connected or outright related, either on purpose or accidentally. I loved it all, and for a long time, life there then was electric.

I taught school. I waited tables. I lucked up and landed a momentary part as an on-camera-double for James Hampton, in a Burt Reynolds film, W.W. and The Dixie Dance Kings, and I failed an audition at Opryland. They asked me if I could sing and dance, and I said, “No, but I will.” Yet most of all I learned how to write songs on Music Row, primarily in and around Ray Stevens’ Ahab Music, on Grand Avenue, and later over on 17th as a member of Tree International’s stable of close to ninety or a hundred other writers. Tree was the largest music publishing house in the world, and I think it is now Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, or some such, and, I am certain, has very little recollection of my existence. In any case I learned more on Music Row about a writer’s craft in general, by writing lyrics for pop and country songs, than at any other time or in any other place. All the principles involved in putting together a country song are exactly the same principles one applies in writing a short story or a novel. In any case, back then I was struggling to make a living.

Somehow John Seigenthaler was aware of my efforts, and one day in the summer of 1972 when I was waiting tables down on Elliston Place at the Ritz Cafe, John, who was eating lunch there with several others, called me aside and offered me a part-time job as a copy editor at the Tennessean. I had recently written and sold two feature pieces to the Tennessean, but I don’t think that had anything to do with John’s momentary life-saving offer, which I gratefully accepted.

I lasted less than a month on the rim, but produced what I have always thought was a dynamite headline — Smyrna Mayor Steers State Auto Group. However, because I was not adept in the math of making heads fit their space, my masterpiece broke and did not run. Nevertheless, even today I consider myself quite the clever headline-ist.

A few years later I had two full-time jobs — one as an English instructor and another as a full-time Metropolitan Deputy Sheriff for Nashville and Davidson County. As an English instructor I was employed by the Dominicans who adored John, and as a deputy I worked for John’s boyhood friend, fellow Democrat and Irish Catholic, Nashville’s High Sheriff, “Fate” Thomas. I didn’t get hired by either of those two entities because of John; I mention him only to illustrate my claim that everything there was in fact linked in what might accurately seem an infinite number of hooks and eyes. Anyhow, there I was, flanked by two enormous archetypes: Working for Mother Superior one one hand and on the other . . . for Father “Fate”!

The most direct reason I got the job as deputy was that Sheriff “Fate” Thomas decided he wanted to go to college to at least earn an associate’s degree, and he was my student. He often did not show up but would send one of his deputies to sit in class with a recorder and take notes. “Fate” performed remarkably well in Sophomore Lit. It was only later I discovered that everyone downtown in the Sheriff’s Office had had a role to play in writing “Fate’s” papers. But it was during that time that “Fate” told me he knew I needed extra employment and wondered if I would like to work for him as a deputy.

“Will I have a badge?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

I couldn’t wait to report for duty. I got the badge and was, like all my fellow deputies, forbidden to arrest anyone, ever, under any circumstances no matter what. That sort of enforcement was the job of the Nashville Police. As Sheriff’s deputies we did a thousand other things, and most of us, me included, only “went armed” when one or more of our county inmates escaped, which could mean they simply walked away with the visitors and went home. Whenever “an escape” happened, we deputies would “surround the house.” Bear in mind most of us were teachers, coaches, recently unemployed young people, and one of our number was the drummer in the band on Hee Haw. But in those days there in Nashville, if you were a Catholic or a Democrat — or even knew any Catholics and Democrats — you could be a deputy. And I was fortunate beyond words and in every direction.

Suddenly it was 2005, twenty-four years after I was long gone from the days of those experiences I’ve described, and I found myself sitting with John in a studio at Nashville Public Television, taping a segment for his long-running program, A Word on Words. He was asking me about my first novel, Junior Ray, and saying wonderful things about the book, which was dubbed “hilariously tasteless” by Publishers Weekly and called, in the Mobile Press Register, “perhaps” the most profane literary work in recent history (both of those comments, I must add, were first-rate accolades). John, however, was the first of only a very few individuals who have taken notice of the non-profane parts of Junior Ray, specifically the poetry that makes up much of “The Notes of Leland Shaw.” I have to say, not as hyperbole but as fact, that if John Seigenthaler had been the only one who ever asked me anything at all about my book, that would have been sufficient for the rest of my life.

Then, in less than an Augenblick and thirty-two years after those Nashville “salad” days of “cakes and ale,” last December I was once again with John for A Word on Words at NPT — and I got my picture taken with Doris Kearns Goodwin and Ricky Skaggs . . . talk about covering the proverbial waterfront! This time John would be interviewing me about my third novel, Sailing to Alluvium. [A Word on Words audio available online.] I was almost 76, and John was ten years older. And on that crepuscular occasion and a long time before the cameras rolled, he and I spoke together about those far-away days and especially about “Fate.” We laughed a lot — particularly over a moment one night in Sperry’s. I saw John at a table and I went across the room to speak to him. He was smiling and said: “I was in Washington, and the FBI told me they think ‘Fate’ is involved in organized crime. Do you think ‘Fate’ is involved in organized crime?”

“Well, if he is,” I said, “it’s the end of organized crime.” The humor was automatic and explosive, and I shall remember the exchange even if my brain should shrink to the size of a Chiclet.

John Seigenthaler led a life that gives current meaning to everything Benjamin Jowett saw when he translated that last line in the “The Death of Socrates” from Greek to English: “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, and justest, and best of all the men whom I have ever known.”

John Pritchard is the author of Junior Ray, The Yazoo Blues, and Sailing to Alluvium. He resides in Memphis, Tennessee.

Texas Institute of Letters spotlights Rod Davis’s thriller South, America

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 by Brian Seidman

South, America by Rod DavisThe prestigious Texas Institute of Letters (TIL) has good words to say in its April/May/June newsletter about NewSouth Books author Rod Davis. His new thriller South, America, which has been described as “a triumph of Southern noir,” is finding strong reviews in a number of publications from the Southern Literary Review to the Dallas Morning News to the Austin Chronicle. Check out all the reviews at the links, or find them at Rod Davis’s official website.

You can also catch Rod and author Tom Zigal as part of the Malvern Books program “Hard Side of the Big Easy: Crime Noir and Katrina,” available for your viewing pleasure on YouTube.

Heres what the TIL newsletter says about Rod and South, America:

Rod Davis, our very prolific and relatively new member (as of 2013), has published a mystery thriller, South, America (please note the important comma). The hero is a former Dallas television weekend anchor living in New Orleans. Rods first book, a non-fiction effort entitled American Voudou, was published by Fran Vick when she headed the University of North Texas Press. You can see an ecstatic review of South, America, in the Dallas Morning News. You will remember Rod as editor of the Texas Observer, not to mention other things.

Rod Davis’s South, America is available in paperback and ebook from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

New from Keith Donnelly: Three Dragons Doomed; Three Deuces Down in paperback

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014 by Brian Seidman

Three Dragons Doomed by Keith DonnellyWhen foul play happens in East Tennessee, there’s only one detective to call.

Gumshoe Donald Youngblood is back in the fifth of author Keith Donnelly’s Donald Youngblood mysteries, Three Dragons Doomed. The new hardcover arrives just in time for the first paperback release of Donnelly’s first Youngblood novel, Three Deuces Down.

In Three Dragons Doomed, Youngblood must solve two cases: discovering the identity of a long-buried body while at the same time stopping a serial killer’s murderous spree. The latter case quickly becomes personal when the serial killer CJK wants a showdown with Youngblood himself.

In Three Deuces Down, Wall Street shark turned private detective Donald Youngblood gets his first real case when he’s hired to find a missing heiress. But the case is complicated by Youngblood’s unhappy girl friend, a beautiful blond police officer, a New York mob boss, a troublesome bodyguard, and a killer on the loose gunning for Youngblood and his friends.

Both books use the rich detail of Donnelly’s hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee and the surrounding East Tennessee area.

On Amazon, a reader raves that Donnelly’s Three Devils Dancing, the third book, “takes the reader on a thrill ride until its conclusion. Dont miss this book!” Midwest Book Review calls Donnelly’s fourth book, Three Deadly Drops, “an exciting mystery that will prove hard to put down … much recommended.”

Three Dragons Doomed will be out in August, and Donnelly is already working on his sixth Donald Youngblood book. Three Deuces Down is now available in paperback and ebook from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

Author Faye Gibbons attends First Lady of Alabama’s Scholastic book giveaway; Gibbons’s next YA novel due out shortly

Friday, July 4th, 2014 by Blair Johnson

Halley by Faye Gibbons

As a part of the #FirstLady500 Scholastic book giveaway, Dianne Bentley, Alabama’s First Lady, presented 100 Scholastic books to Holtville Elementary School on May 15, 2014. Mrs. Bentley chose to read one of her favorite children’s books, Night in the Barn, written by her favorite Alabama children’s author Faye Gibbons, to the students assembled.

In attendance at the event was Gibbons herself, making the First Lady’s visit to the school “particularly special,” according to Bentley’s blog.

Gibbons, author of several well acclaimed children’s and young adult books, has a new YA novel, Halley, due out in August from NewSouth Books. The eponymous heroine of the books is a gritty fourteen-year-old of Depression-era Georgia who must move in with her controlling, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist grandfather after her father dies.

Alabama First Lady Dianne Bentley and author Faye Gibbons (Halley)

Alabama First Lady Dianne Bentley and author Faye Gibbons at Holtville Elementary School (courtesy of the Office of the First Lady)

Praised as “a real treasure of a book” by National Book Award winner Han Nolan, Gibbons’s Halley is sure to find a place on the bookshelves of schools and homes alike, including on the bookshelf of the First Lady of Alabama.

Read WAKA Montgomery‘s coverage of the event.

Halley is available for pre-order from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.

Anniston, Alabama’s pitfalls, triumphs, told in books

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 by Brian Seidman

Baptized in PCBs by Ellen SpearsAnniston, Alabama has a storied, sometimes infamous history, including the burning of a Freedom Riders bus in the 1960s and more recently, legal battles over environmental pollution caused by chemical plants in the city. A new book by University of Alabama professor Ellen Spears, Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town, tackles those latter environmental issues — not to denigrate Anniston, Spears suggests in her book, but so as to face Anniston’s past and help it move forward.

Both Spears’s book, and a recent Anniston Star column about books on Anniston, cite NewSouth’s Beyond the Burning Bus by J. Phillips Noble, about the Freedom Rider attacks. Spears’s book makes powerful linkages between Anniston’s civil rights history and the polychlorinated biphenyls environmental crisis. Spears points to Noble’s memoir in her account of how both crises were handled by local leaders; she also discusses the lingering effects of both events on Anniston, its reputation, and the lives of local people.

Another recent memoir on Anniston published by NewSouth is In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal, by Anniston Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers.

Read more about these titles from the Anniston Star.

Ellen Spears’s Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town is available now. Beyond the Burning Bus by J. Phillips Noble and In Love with Defeat by H. Brandt Ayers are both available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.