An interviews author Frye Gaillard.
UAP: How did you begin your career?
FG: I started writing for the student newspaper at Vanderbilt, where I was a history major from 1964-68. I found that I loved the process of journalism – asking questions of interesting people, some famous, some not, trying to understand what made them tick. I also think it helped that I was a history major because I think it helped me to see certain stories, including the civil rights story, in a larger context.
UAP: How did the civil rights era affect you as a journalist?
FG: Coming of age in that era, you knew you were living in the middle of history, a time when the country was forced to answer basic questions about itself: What kind of people are we? What do we really believe in? Do we really believe in the ideals of equality and democracy contained in our founding documents. The opportunity to write about the movement in that philosophical / historical context was one of the things that pushed me into a career in journalism.
UAP: What encouraged your transition from journalist and later editor to writer and author of several books related to southern studies?
FG: It seemed a natural transition. I was still trying to tell the same kind of story, or stories, but just in a different format. I discovered I loved writing at book-length, the opportunities for greater depth that came with that format.
UAP: Several of your books have garnered awards, including “The Cradle of Freedom” released in 2004. What inspired you to write this book?
FG: As I’ve already said, the civil rights story was extremely important to me and I had always written about it in one way or another. I knew a lot of books had been written about civil rights history, and about that history in Alabama. But I thought I could write it as a story – to make it read almost like a good novel. I don’t mean making things up or taking liberties with the truth; but I think Cradle of Freedom weaves together the stories of ordinary people, as well as the civil rights icons like Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, and gives those stories a human face.
UAP: What do you hope readers will learn as a result?
FG: Readers have told me that they see more clearly the humanity of people on both sides of the civil rights struggle as a result of reading the book. I think that’s important. I also think it’s important to see that this is a time when the nation – and particularly the South – really did make progress. Not as much as we might have hoped; there are still major problems. But things are not like they were fifty years ago.
UAP: At close to 400 pages, the book is a hefty read and full of leaders and events both known and lesser known. Describe your approach to writing this book.
FG: I thought the story was genuinely a mixture of characters both known and unknown. There were great, iconic leaders and there were also people – ordinary people – who did extraordinary things. That to me was the essence of this history.
UAP: Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth are some of the giants of Alabama’s civil rights struggle. How did you hear about lesser-known figures like Mr. Cammeron, of Gadsden, for example?
FG: One interview – and there were a hundred or so before I was finished – just kind of led to another over the course of three years of research. Some of my favorite moments were talking to people like Mr. Cammeron.
UAP: In the book you cover several of the seminal events in Alabama’s civil rights history like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 16th Street bombing and the Freedom Rides. What are some of the lesser-known events that you believe to have been just as impactful?
FG: Well, in the book, I also write about the movement in the Black Belt – in Lowndes County, Greene County, in little communities like Gees Bend. There’s the story of Tuskegee, of events in Tuscaloosa, Gadsden, Huntsville, Mobile. The truth is, every community has its civil rights story. I tell a lot of them in the book, but not as many as I wish I had had room for.
MC: Alabama was once known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” and during the 50’s and 60’s you the state shed that moniker, birthed the civil rights movement and became what you have described as the “Cradle of Freedom.” 150 years after the Civil War and 60 years after the Civil Rights Movement, where do you think the state stands now?
FG: That’s a really good question. I find our current moment in history to be a little disheartening. In the immigration debate, for example, I hear the echoes of our old prejudice. I worry that we may be slowly losing ground, and in that context it’s important to remember where we came from.
Frye Gaillard has been a journalist for the Associated Press and the Charlotte Observer. He is the author of Race, Rock and Religion: Profiles from a Southern Journalist, The Dream Long Deferred: The Landmark Struggle for Desegregation in Charlotte, North Carolina, Becoming Truly Free: 300 Years of Black History in the Carolinas, and Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America. He is currently writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.