Grady’s Gift

January 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

On December 1, 1999, Howell Raines, the Executive Editor of The New York Times from 2001 until he left in 2003 and contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio, published a remarkable tribute to the African American woman who raised him.  It appeared in the New York Times Magazine. I present it in its entirety.


“…she taught me the most valuable lesson a writer can learn, which is to try to see — honestly and down to its very center — the world in which we live.”

GRADY SHOWED UP ONE DAY at our house at 1409 Fifth Avenue West in Birmingham, and by and by she changed the way I saw the world. I was 7 when she came to iron and clean and cook for $18 a week, and she stayed for seven years. During that time everyone in our family came to accept what my father called “those great long talks” that occupied Grady and me through many a sleepy Alabama afternoon. What happened between us can be expressed in many ways, but its essence was captured by Graham Greene when he wrote that in every childhood there is a moment when a door opens and lets the future in. So this is a story about one person who opened a door and another who walked through it.

It is difficult to describe — or even to keep alive in our memories — worlds that cease to exist. Usually we think of vanished worlds as having to do with far-off places or with ways of life, like that of the Western frontier, that are remote from us in time. But I grew up in a place that disappeared, and it was here in this country and not so long ago. I speak of Birmingham, where once there flourished the most complete form of racial segregation to exist on the American continent in this century.


Gradystein Williams Hutchinson (or Grady, as she was called in my family and hers) and I are two people who grew up in the 50’s in that vanished world, two people who lived mundane, inconsequential lives while Martin Luther King Jr. and Police Commissioner T. Eugene (Bull) Connor prepared for their epic struggle. For years, Grady and I lived in my memory as child and adult. But now I realize that we were both children — one white and very young, one black and adolescent; one privileged, one poor. The connection between these two children and their city was this: Grady saw to it that although I was to live in Birmingham for the first 28 years of my life, Birmingham would not live in me.

Only by keeping in mind the place that Birmingham was can you understand the life we had, the people we became and the reunion that occurred one day not too long ago at my sister’s big house in the verdant Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook. Grady, now a 57-year-old hospital cook in Atlanta, had driven out with me in the car I had rented. As we pulled up, my parents, a retired couple living in Florida, arrived in their gray Cadillac. My father, a large, vigorous man of 84, parked his car and, without a word, walked straight to Grady and took her in his arms.

“I never thought I’d ever see y’all again,” Grady said a little while later. “I just think this is the true will of God. It’s His divine wish that we saw each other.”

This was the first time in 34 years that we had all been together. As the years slipped by, it had become more and more important to me to find Grady, because I am a strong believer in thanking our teachers and mentors while they are still alive to hear our thanks. She had been “our maid,” but she taught me the most valuable lesson a writer can learn, which is to try to see — honestly and down to its very center — the world in which we live. Grady was long gone before I realized what a brave and generous person she was, or how much I owed her.

Then last spring, my sister ran into a relative of Grady’s and got her telephone number. I went to see Grady in Atlanta, and several months later we gathered in Birmingham to remember our shared past and to learn anew how love abides and how it can bloom not only in the fertile places, but in the stony ones as well.

I KNOW THAT OUTSIDERS TEND to think segregation existed in a uniform way throughout the Solid South. But it didn’t. Segregation was rigid in some places, relaxed in others; leavened with humanity in some places, enforced with unremitting brutality in others. And segregation found its most violent and regimented expression in Birmingham — segregation maintained through the nighttime maraudings of white thugs, segregation sanctioned by absentee landlords from the United States Steel Corporation, segregation enforced by a pervasively corrupt police department.

Martin Luther King once said Birmingham was to the rest of the South what Johannesburg was to the rest of Africa. He believed that if segregation could be broken there, in a city that harbored an American version of apartheid, it could be broken everywhere. That is why the great civil rights demonstrations of 1963 took place in Birmingham. And that is why, just as King envisioned, once its jugular was cut in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham in 1963, the dragon of legalized segregation collapsed and died everywhere — died, it seems in retrospect, almost on the instant. It was the end of “Bad Birmingham,” where the indigenous racism of rural Alabama had taken a new and more virulent form when transplanted into a raw industrial setting.

In the heyday of Birmingham, one vast belt of steel mills stretched for 10 miles, from the satellite town of Bessemer to the coal-mining suburb of Pratt City. Black and white men — men like Grady’s father and mine — came from all over the South to do the work of these mills or to dig the coal and iron ore to feed them. By the time Grady Williams was born in 1933, the huge light of their labor washed the evening sky with an undying red glow. The division of tasks within these plants ran along simple lines: white men made the steel; black men washed the coal.

Henry Williams was a tiny man from Oklahoma — part African, part Cherokee, only 5 feet 3 inches, but handsome. He worked at the No. 2 Coal Washer at Pratt Mines, and he understood his world imperfectly. When the white foreman died, Henry thought he would move up. But the dead man’s nephew was brought in, and in the natural order of things, Henry was required to teach his new boss all there was to know about washing coal.

“Oh, come on, Henry,” his wife, Elizabeth, said when he complained about being passed over for a novice. But he would not be consoled.

One Saturday, Henry Williams sent Grady on an errand. “Go up the hill,” he said, “and tell Mr. Humphrey Davis I said send me three bullets for my .38 pistol because I got to kill a dog.”

In his bedroom later that same afternoon, he shot himself. Grady found the body. She was 7 years old.

Over the years, Elizabeth Williams held the family together. She worked as a practical nurse and would have become a registered nurse except for the fact that by the early 40’s, the hospitals in Birmingham, which had run segregated nursing programs, closed those for blacks.

Grady attended Parker High, an all-black school where the children of teachers and postal workers made fun of girls like Grady, who at 14 was already working part-time in white homes. One day a boy started ragging Grady for being an “Aunt Jemima.” One of the poorer boys approached him after class and said: “Hey, everybody’s not lucky enough to have a father working. If I ever hear you say that again to her, I’m going to break your neck.”

Grady finished high school in early 1950, four weeks after her 16th birthday. Her grades were high, even though she had held back on some tests in an effort to blend in with her older classmates. She planned to go to the nursing school at Dillard University, a black institution in New Orleans, but first she needed a full-time job to earn money for tuition. That was when my mother hired her. There was a state-financed nursing school in Birmingham, about 10 miles from her house, but it was the wrong one.

BETWEEN THE DEPRESSION AND World War II, my father and two of his brothers came into Birmingham from the Alabama hills. They were strong, sober country boys who knew how to swing a hammer. By the time Truman was elected in 1948, they had got a little bit rich selling lumber and building shelves for the A.&P.

They drove Packards and Oldsmobiles. They bought cottages at the beach and hired housemaids for their wives and resolved that their children would go to college. Among them,they had eight children, and I was the last to be born, and my world was sunny.

Indeed, it seemed to be a matter of family pride that this tribe of hard-handed hill people had become prosperous enough to spoil its babies. I was doted upon, particularly, it occurs to me now, by women: my mother; my sister, Mary Jo, who was 12 years older and carried me around like a mascot; my leathery old grandmother, a widow who didn’t like many people but liked me because I was named for her husband.

There was also my Aunt Ada, a red-haired spinster who made me rice pudding and hand-whipped biscuits and milkshakes with cracked ice, and when my parents were out of town, I slept on a pallet in her room.

Then there were the black women, first Daisy, then Ella. And finally Grady.

I wish you could have seen her in 1950. Most of the women in my family ran from slender to bony. Grady was buxom. She wore a blue uniform and walked around our house on stout brown calves. Her skin was smooth. She had a gap between her front teeth, and so did I. One of the first things I remember Grady telling me was that as soon as she had enough money she was going to get a diamond set in her gap and it would drive the men wild.

There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which such a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism. Indeed, for the black person, the feigning of an expected emotion could be the very coinage of survival.

So I can only tell you how it seemed to me at the time. I was 7 and Grady was 16 and I adored her and I believed she was crazy about me. She became the weather in which my childhood was lived.

I was 14 when she went away. It would be many years before I realized that somehow, whether by accident or by plan, in a way so subtle, so gentle, so loving that it was like the budding and falling of the leaves on the pecan trees in the yard of that happy house in that cruel city in that violent time, Grady had given me the most precious gift that could be received by a pampered white boy growing up in that time and place. It was the gift of a free and unhateful heart.

GRADY, IT SOON BECAME clear, was a talker, and I was already known in my family as an incessant asker of questions. My brother, Jerry, who is 10 years older than I, says one of his clearest memories is of my following Grady around the house, pursuing her with a constant buzz of chatter.

That is funny, because what I remember is Grady talking and me listening — Grady talking as she did her chores, marking me with her vision of the way things were. All of my life, I have carried this mental image of the two of us:

I am 9 or 10 by this time. We are in the room where Grady did her ironing. Strong light is streaming through the window. High summer lies heavily across all of Birmingham like a blanket. We are alone, Grady and I, in the midst of what the Alabama novelist Babs Deal called “the acres of afternoon,” those legendary hours of buzzing heat and torpidity that either bind you to the South or make you crazy to leave it.

I am slouched on a chair, with nothing left to do now that baseball practice is over. Grady is moving a huge dreadnought of an iron, a G.E. with stainless steel base and fat black handle, back and forth across my father’s white shirts. From time to time, she shakes water on the fabric from a bottle with a sprinkler cap.

Then she speaks of a hidden world about which no one has ever told me, a world as dangerous and foreign, to a white child in a segregated society, as Africa itself — the world of “nigger town.” “You don’t know what it’s like to be poor and black,” Grady says.

She speaks of the curbside justice administered with rubber hoses by Bull Connor’s policemen, of the deputy sheriff famous in the black community for shooting a floor sweeper who had moved too slowly, of “Dog Day,” the one time a year when blacks are allowed to attend the state fair. She speaks offhandedly of the N.A.A.C.P.

“Are you a member?” I ask.

“At my school,” she says, “we take our dimes and nickels and join the N.A.A.C.P. every year just like you join the Red Cross in your school.”

It seems silly now to describe the impact of this revelation, but that is because I cannot fully re-create the intellectual isolation of those days in Alabama. Remember that this was a time when television news, with its searing pictures of racial conflict, was not yet a force in our society. The editorial pages of the Birmingham papers were dominated by the goofy massive-resistance cant of columnists like James J. Kilpatrick. Local politicians liked to describe the N.A.A.C.P. as an organization of satanic purpose and potency that had been rejected by “our colored people,” and would shortly be outlawed in Alabama as an agency of Communism.

But Grady said black students were joining in droves, people my age and hers. It was one of the most powerfully subversive pieces of information I had ever encountered, leaving me with an unwavering conviction about Bull Connor, George Wallace and the other segregationist blowhards who would dominate the politics of my home state for a generation.

From that day, I knew they were wrong when they said that “our Negroes” were happy with their lot and had no desire to change “our Southern way of life.” And when a local minister named Fred L. Shuttlesworth joined with Dr. King in 1957 to start the civil rights movement in Birmingham, I knew in some deeply intuitive way that they would succeed, because I believed that the rage that was in Grady was a living reality in the entire black community, and I knew that this rage was so powerful that it would have its way.

I learned, too, from watching Grady fail at something that meant a great deal to her. In January 1951, with the savings from her work in our home, she enrolled at Dillard. She made good grades. She loved the school and the city of New Orleans. But the money lasted only one semester, and when summer rolled around Grady was cleaning our house again.

That would be the last of her dream of becoming a registered nurse. A few years later, Grady married Marvin Hutchinson, a dashing fellow, more worldly than she, who took her to all-black nightclubs to hear singers like Bobby (Blue) Bland. In 1957, she moved to New York City to work as a maid and passed from my life. But I never forgot how she had yearned for education.

Did this mean that between the ages of 7 and 14, I acquired a sophisticated understanding of the insanity of a system of government that sent this impoverished girl to Louisiana rather than letting her attend the tax-supported nursing school that was a 15-cent bus ride from her home?

I can’t say that I did. But I do know that in 1963, I recognized instantly that George Wallace was lying when he said that his Stand in the School House Door at the University of Alabama was intended to preserve the Constitutional principle of states’ rights. What he really wanted to preserve was the right of the state of Alabama to promiscuously damage lives like Grady’s.

IT IS APRIL 23, 1991. I approach the locked security gate of a rough-looking apartment courtyard in Atlanta. There behind it, waiting in the shadows, is a tiny woman with a halo of gray hair and that distinctive gap in the front teeth. Still no diamond. Grady opens the gate and says, “I’ve got to hug you.”

Grady’s apartment is modest. The most striking feature is the stacks of books on each side of her easy chair. The conversation that was interrupted so long ago is resumed without a beat.

Within minutes we are both laughing wildly over an incident we remembered in exactly the same way. Grady had known that I was insecure about my appearance as I approached adolescence, and she always looked for chances to reassure me, preferably in the most exuberant way possible. One day when I appeared in a starched shirt and with my hair slicked back for a birthday party, Grady shouted, “You look positively raping.”

“Grady,” my mother called from the next room, “do you know what you’re saying?”

“I told her yeah. I was trying to say ‘ravishing.’ I used to read all those True Confession magazines.”

Reading, it turned out, had become a passion of Grady’s life, even though she never got any more formal education. For the first time in years, I recall that it was Grady who introduced me to Ernest Hemingway. In the fall of 1952, when I had the mumps and “The Old Man and the Sea” was being published in Life, Grady sat by my bed and read me the entire book. We both giggled at the sentence: “Once he stood up and urinated over the side of the skiff. . . .”

Partly for money and partly to escape a troubled marriage, Grady explains, she had left Birmingham to work in New York as a maid for $125 a month. Her husband had followed.

“So we got an apartment, and the man I worked for got him a job,” Grady recalls. “And we got together and we stayed for 31 years, which is too long to stay dead.”

Dead, I asked? What did that mean?

For Grady it meant a loveless marriage and a series of grinding jobs as a maid or cook. And yet she relished the life of New York, developing a reputation in her neighborhood as an ace gambler and numbers player. Through an employer who worked in show business, she also became a regular and knowledgeable attender of Broadway theater.

There were three children: Eric Lance, 37, works for the New York subway system; Marva, 33, is a graduate of Wilberforce University and works in the finance department at Coler Memorial Hospital in New York; Reed, 29, works for a bank in Atlanta, where Grady is a dietetic cook at Shepherd Spinal Center. It has not been a bad life and is certainly richer in experiences and perhaps in opportunities for her children than Grady would have had in Birmingham.

At one point Grady speaks of being chided by one of her New York-raised sons for “taking it” back in the old days in Birmingham.

“He said, ‘I just can’t believe y’all let that go on,’ ” she says. “I said: ‘What do you mean y’all ? What could you have done about it?’ What were you going to do? If you stuck out, you got in trouble. I always got in trouble. I was headstrong. I couldn’t stand the conditions and I hated it. I wanted more than I could have.

“I always wanted to be more than I was,” she adds. “I thought if I was given the chance I could be more than I was ever allowed to be.”

I felt a pang of sympathy for Grady that she should be accused of tolerating what she had opposed with every fiber of her being. But how can a young man who grew up in New York know that the benign city he saw on visits to his grandmother each summer was not the Birmingham that had shaped his mother’s life?

Among black people in the South, Grady is part of a generation who saw their best chances burned away by the last fiery breaths of segregation. It is difficult for young people of either race today to understand the openness and simplicity of the injustice that was done to this dwindling generation. When you stripped away the Constitutional falderal from Wallace’s message, it was this: He was telling Grady’s mother, a working parent who paid property, sales and income taxes in Alabama for more than 40 years, that her child could not attend the institutions supported by those taxes.

Even to those of us who lived there, it seems surreal that such a systematic denial of opportunity could have existed for so long. I have encountered the same disbelief in the grown-up children of white sharecroppers when they looked at pictures of the plantations on which they and their families had lived in economic bondage.

For people with such experiences, some things are beyond explanation or jest, something I learn when I jokingly ask Grady if she’d like her ashes brought back to Pratt City when she dies.

“No,” she answers quite firmly, “I’d like them thrown in the East River in New York. I never liked Alabama. Isn’t that terrible for you to say that? You know how I hate it.”

WORD THAT I HAD FOUND Grady shot through my family. When the reunion luncheon was planned for my sister’s house, my first impulse was to stage-manage the event. I had learned in conversations with Grady that she remembered my mother as someone who had nagged her about the housework. None of the rest of us recollected theirs as a tense relationship, but then again, none of us had been in Grady’s shoes. In the end I decided to let it flow, and as it turned out, no one enjoyed the reunion more than Grady and my mother.

“You’re so tiny,” Grady exclaimed at one point. “I thought you were a great big woman. How’d you make so much noise?”

My mother was disarmed. In the midst of a round of stories about the bold things Grady had said and done, I heard her turn to a visitor and explain quietly, in an admiring voice, “You see, now, that Grady is a strong person.”

Grady is also a very funny person, a born raconteur with a reputation in her own family for being outrageous. It is possible, therefore, to make her sound like some 50’s version of Whoopi Goldberg and her life with my family like a sitcom spiced with her “sassy” asides about race and sex. But what I sensed at our gathering, among my brother, sister and parents, was something much deeper than fondness or nostalgia. It was a shared pride that in the Birmingham of the 50’s this astonishing person had inhabited our home and had been allowed to be fully herself.

“She spoke out more than any person I knew of, no matter what their age,” my sister observed. “She was the first person I’d ever heard do that, you see, and here I was 18 years old, and you were just a little fellow. This was the first person I’d ever heard say, ‘Boy, it’s terrible being black in Birmingham.’ ”

As Grady and my family got reacquainted, it became clear that my memory of her as “mine” was the narrow and selfish memory of a child. I had been blind to the bonds Grady also had with my brother and sister. Grady remembered my brother, in particular, as her confidant and protector. And although they never spoke of it at the time, she looked to him as her guardian against the neighborhood workmen of both races who were always eager to offer young black girls “a ride home from work.”

“Even if Jerry was going in the opposite direction,” Grady recalled, “he would always say: ‘I’m going that way. I’ll drop Grady off.’ ”

In my brother’s view, Grady’s outspokenness, whether about her chores or the shortcomings of Birmingham, was made possible through a kind of adolescent cabal. “The reason it worked was Grady was just another teen-ager in the house,” he said. “There were already two teen-agers in the house, and she was just a teen-ager, too.”

But it is also hard to imagine Grady falling into another family led by parents like mine. They were both from the Alabama hills, descended from Lincoln Republicans who did not buy into the Confederate mythology. There were no plantation paintings or portraits of Robert E. Lee on our walls. The mentality of the hill country is that of the underdog.

They were instinctive humanitarians. As Grady tells it, my father was well known among her relatives as “an open man” when it came to the treatment of his employees. I once saw him take the side of a black employee who had fought back against the bullying of a white worker on a loading dock — not a common occurrence in Birmingham in the 50’s.

The most powerful rule of etiquette in my parents’ home, I realize now, was that the word “nigger” was not to be used. There was no grand explanation attached to this, as I recall. We were simply people who did not say “nigger.”

The prohibition of this one word may seem a small point, but I think it had a large meaning. Hill people, by nature, are talkers, and some, like my father, are great storytellers. They themselves have often been called hillbillies, which is to say that they understand the power of language and that the power to name is the power to maim.

Everyone in my family seems to have known that my great long afternoon talks with Grady were about race. Their only concern was not whether I should be hearing such talk, but whether I was old enough for the brutality of the facts.

“I would tell Howell about all the things that happened in the black neighborhoods, what police did to black people,” Grady recalled to us. “I would come and tell him, and he would cry, and Mrs. Raines would say: ‘Don’t tell him that anymore. Don’t tell him that. He’s too young. Don’t make him sad.’ He would get sad about it.”

Grady told me in private that she recalled something else about those afternoons, something precise and specific. I had wept, she said, on learning about the murder of Emmett Till, a young black boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

To me, this was the heart of the onion. For while some of the benefits of psychotherapy may be dubious, it does give us one shining truth. We are shaped by those moments when the sadness of life first wounds us. Yet often we are too young to remember that wounding experience, that decisive point after which all is changed for better or worse.

Every white Southerner must choose between two psychic roads — the road of racism or the road of brotherhood. Friends, families, even lovers have parted at that forking, sometimes forever, for it presents a choice that is clouded by confused emotions, inner conflicts and powerful social forces.

It is no simple matter to know all the factors that shape this individual decision. As a college student in Alabama, I shared the choking shame that many young people there felt about Wallace’s antics and about the deaths of the four black children in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963. A year later, as a cub reporter, I listened to the sermons and soaring hymns of the voting rights crusade. All this had its effect.

But the fact is that by the time the civil rights revolution rolled across the South, my heart had already chosen its road. I have always known that my talks with Grady helped me make that decision in an intellectual sense. But I had long felt there must have been some deeper force at work, some emotional nexus linked for me, it seemed now on hearing Grady’s words, to the conjuring power of one name — Emmett Till — and to disconnected images that had lingered for decades in the eye of my memory.

Now I can almost recall the moment or imagine I can: Grady and I together, in the ironing room. We are islanded again, the two of us, in the acres of afternoon. We are looking at Life magazine or Look, at pictures of a boy barely older than myself, the remote and homely site of his death, several white men in a courtroom, the immemorial Mississippi scenes.

Thus did Grady, who had already given me so much, come back into my life with one last gift. She brought me a lost reel from the movie of my childhood, and on its dusty frames, I saw something few people are lucky enough to witness. It was a glimpse of the revelatory experience described by Graham Greene, the soul-shaking time after which all that is confusing detail falls away and all that is thematic shines forth with burning clarity.

Our reunion turned out to be a day of discovery, rich emotion and great humor. Near the end of a long lunch, my sister and my brother’s wife began pouring coffee. In classic Southern overkill, there were multiple desserts. Grady spoke fondly of my late Aunt Ada’s artistry with coconut cakes. Then she spoke of leaving Birmingham with “my dreams of chasing the rainbow.”

“I used to say when I was young, ‘One day I’m going to have a big house, and I’m going to have the white people bring me my coffee,’ ” Grady said, leaning back in her chair. “I ain’t got the big house yet, but I got the coffee. I chased the rainbow and I caught it.”

OF COURSE, GRADY DID NOT catch the rainbow, and she never will. Among the victims of segregation, Grady was like a soldier shot on the last day of the war. Only a few years after she relinquished her dream of education, local colleges were opened to blacks, and educators from around the country came to Birmingham looking for the sort of poor black student who could race through high school two years ahead of schedule.

Grady’s baby sister, Liz Spraggins, was spotted in a Pratt City high-school choir in 1964 and offered a music scholarship that started her on a successful career in Atlanta as a gospel and jazz singer. Grady’s cousin Earl Hilliard, who is 10 years younger than she, wound up at Howard University Law School. Today he is a member of the Alabama Legislature. When Grady and I had lunch with the Hilliards, the family was debating whether Earl Jr. should join his sister, Lisa, at Emory or choose law-school acceptances at Stanford, Texas or Alabama.

If Grady had been a few years younger, she would have gone down the road taken by her sister and cousin. If she had been white, the public-education system of Alabama would have bailed her out despite her poverty. Even in 1950, fatherless white kids who zipped through high school were not allowed to fall through the cracks in Alabama. But Grady had bad timing and black skin, a deadly combination.

At some point during our reunion lunch, it occurred to everyone in the room that of all the people who knew Grady Williams as a girl, there was one group that could have sent her to college. That was my family. The next morning, my sister told me of a regretful conversation that took place later that same day.

“Mother said at dinner last night, ‘If we had just known, if we had just known, we could have done something,’ ” Mary Jo said. “Well, how could we have not known?”

Yes, precisely, how could we not have known — and how can we not know of the carnage of lives and minds and souls that is going on among young black people in this country today?

In Washington, where I live, there is a facile answer to such questions. Fashionable philosophers in the think tanks that influence this Administration’s policies will tell you that guilt, historical fairness and compassion are outdated concepts, that if the playing field is level today, we are free to forget that it was tilted for generations. Some of these philosophers will even tell you that Grady could have made it if she had really wanted to.

But I know where Grady came from and I know the deck was stacked against her and I know who stacked it. George Wallace is old, sick and pitiful now, and he’d like to be forgiven for what he, Bull Connor and the other segs did back then, and perhaps he should be. Those who know him say that above all else he regrets using the racial issue for political gain.

I often think of Governor Wallace when I hear about the dangers of “reverse discrimination” and “racial quotas” from President Bush or his counsel, C. Boyden Gray, the chief architect of the Administration’s civil rights policies. Unlike some of the old Southern demagogues, these are not ignorant men. Indeed, they are the polite, well-educated sons of privilege. But when they argue that this country needs no remedies for past injustices, I believe I hear the grown-up voices of pampered white boys who never saw a wound.

And I think of Grady and the unrepayable gift she gave with such wit, such generosity, to such a boy, so many years ago.

Grady told me that she was moved when she went to a library and saw my book, an oral history of the civil rights movement entitled “My Soul Is Rested.” It is widely used on college campuses as basic reading about the South, and of everything I have done in journalism, I am proudest of that book.

I was surprised that Grady had not instantly understood when the book came out in 1977 that she was its inspiration. That is my fault. I waited much too long to find her and tell her. It is her book really. She wrote it on my heart in the acres of afternoon.

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§ One Response to Grady’s Gift

  • Susan Becker says:

    Thank you so much for re-publishing this piece. It is so movingly and gracefully written, and unfolds so many nuances of that time, that place, that family and of the story of one individual–at once tragic and triumphant–and all it says about our society then and now.

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