Behind The Magic Curtain: A Book Review from The Bibb Voice

Unpublished Truth Every Adult Should Know About The History Of The Civil Rights Struggle That Changed Birmingham and The South

Behind The Magic Curtain by Author T.K. Thorne, Available June 2021, NewSouth Books

I received an announcement from New South Books that there will be a June 2021 release of a new book about the history of the civil rights struggle dating back to the early 1960’s in Birmingham. I was not immediately moved. We all know that history don’t we ?

After all, it is fed to us constantly on the tube, with photographs of freedom riders, police dogs, fire hoses, church bombings, billy clubs, white hoods, street marchers, political firebrands, and letters from the Birmingham jail. This has been all memorialized by civil rights icons that have never allowed those horrible images of the 1960’s to fade or die quietly. I have been awash in that vulgar history for more than 60 years and recently am reminded of it much more often than I would like to reminisce about.

But I do not know the full story. Like most people I only know what I was allowed to see by the media of the time. And these days, I have a lurking feeling that I may not have the benefit of the whole story or the truth.

It seems like the present occupants of our beloved White House and the congressional majority are now trying to convince their public listeners that no progress in race relations has been accomplished in the last 60 years. Progressives announce that the entire white race must accept that our families, our ancestors and our heirs, are permanently tarnished and hopelessly racist, now and forever, according to the elite political class. And they don’t limit their assessment to Southerners. The outspoken left now says that white skin means white supremacist,  it is a nationwide problem,  and they are not timid about their proclamations.

Perhaps the political class has decided to throw 60 years of actual civil rights and racial progress into the dustbin of history for the sake of political expediency (theirs). My emotions stirred when I read the publisher’s promotional material for T.K. Thorne’s new book about the history of Birmingham: Behind the Magic Curtain. You can find the publisher’s notice at this link.

T. K. Thorne served for more than two decades in the Birmingham police force, retiring as a precinct captain. Her books and essays include two award-winning historical novels (Noah’s Wife and Angels at the Gate); a nonfiction telling of the 1963 16th Street Birmingham church bombing investigation (Last Chance for Justice); and a dally with murder, mystery, and magic in House of Rose.

Thorne says that she began her work on the Behind The Magic Curtain in 2013 when a group of Birmingham leaders marked the 50th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights unrest and were ready to put the old Birmingham era behind and publicize behind the scenes information. She was given access to reveal never told stories of a cast of characters that include progressive members of the Jewish, Christian and educational communities of the era. She was also able to include stories of racists businessmen and Ku Klux Klan members, some who helped the cause of civil rights.

After 8 years of grueling work on her forthcoming book she now reveals intimate inner workings of a corrupt police department under the infamous Bull Conner, news reporting and involvement in borderline illegal operations carried out by crime reporter Tom Lankford for the Birmingham News, and the political intrigue weaved by News Publisher of the era, the political kingmaker Vincent Townsend.

Thorne said that when she started her work on the book she had no idea how timely the topic would become in 2021 and even questioned herself about the need for the book along the way. As it happens the timing of the book could not have been more fortuitous.

For this reader the most interesting aspect of the book is the network of Birmingham businessmen, attorneys, judges, religious leaders, housewives, educators, and political figures who banded together to break the iron grip on Birmingham firefighters, law enforcement and politics held by the old three-commissioner system, headed by Eugene “Bull” Conner. Determined opponents of Connor’s tactics totally changed Birmingham’s form of government from a commissioner system to a Mayor-Council form of government. That work was magical and without it there would have been no success story.

Thorne’s work is gritty, microscopic in detail, and takes the reader into places that only a serious detective would ever want to go. Behind the scenes of the 1960’s civil rights movement you find out who the faceless and anonymous people were, on both sides, who made things happen, good and bad, dirty and sometimes bloody.

If you take the time to read Thorne’s book [and it is worth your time] you will get the real Birmingham story, in exquisite detail. Find out for yourself why it may have taken 50 years to resolve the 16th street church bombing case. Along the way you will find out who many of the unnamed and unsung heroes of the Birmingham civil rights story are and why they should never be forgotten. They worked hard to accomplish much. They wanted no public credit or acknowledgement.

My views about this book are my own. They are not intended to cast any shade or to minimize the leadership of any individual or group involved in the civil rights movement, rather it is to point out the complexity of the big picture, the unseen heroes that are revealed in Thorne’s book that made success possible.

Any success claimed was made possible by a lot of moving parts and determined people. These enlightened, farsighted, and dedicated leaders not only managed to successfully change Birmingham; they changed the culture of the South over the next 50 years.

Most of the heroes of the 1960’s mentioned in Thorne’s book are now deceased. I have no doubt that they would be proud of what they accomplished but I wonder if they would be saddened on the dawn of 2021 with the political landscape that now surrounds us.

Could a Vincent Townsend, Sidney Smyer, David Vann, Mel Bailey, or Karl Friedman, among a host of others, ever imagine that the descendants of those municipal leaders,  merchants, and businessmen they worked with to make a better Birmingham for the future be called racist 60 years later by their own U.S. President and the current leaders of the contemporary civil rights movements of the United States. That is not a brush we, or they,  deserve to be tarred with.

That is exactly why Behind The Magic Curtain is right on time for the current generation…the generation that did not live thru the violence and tumultuous years that Birmingham experienced…..the one that is replayed over and over in newsreels and demeaning stories about the old racist and unjust South. We are not going back.

Anyone born after 1960, and especially critics, race baiters, and skeptics should read this book. Give credit to the heroes behind the curtain who supported change 60 years ago and made it happen for your generation.  Behind the Magic Curtain is not illusory, the work was real, the meaningful gains have lasted, Birmingham and the South are still the better for it.

For more information about T.K. Thorne’s book release click here.