Novel embodies the civil rights struggle

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 24, 2013

“Four Spirits,” by Sena Jeter Naslund. HarperCollins/William Morrow

“Four Spirits” is the novel that you lived through; if you didn’t, then your parents did. Author Sena Jeter Naslund did live through the events portrayed in the novel. She was born in Birmingham, Ala., and attended Birmingham-Southern College as these events were taking place.
The core of the book is the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham during the height of the civil rights movement and the ongoing struggles to integrate the public places within the city and the South.
Although “Four Spirits” is a novel, many of the names and characters in the book are very real; in some cases they are portrayed much as they were, while in other cases their various thoughts and actions are somewhat fictionalized. In addition, many of the events really happened, though in some cases they have been rearranged; other events are staged specifically for the novel but could easily have occurred, if not in Birmingham then certainly somewhere else, or at some other time.
A chapter of “Four Spirits” has Stella, age 5, and her family, visiting old Aunt Charlotte, born many years ago into slavery. It is an honor visit, a visit of respect, for Stella and her family are white. On the way home, all except Stella are killed in a tragic auto accident. After most of the action of this novel has occurred, Stella will visit Aunt Charlotte one more time.
In May 1963, years later, Stella, now working at Fielding’s Department Store, avoids the ongoing demonstrations, as does her friend Cat. Others, such as Christine, and Charles, along with many more, mostly black, suffer under the firehoses and the wrath of Sheriff Bull Connor.
Still others, TJ among them, a black veteran of the Korean War and World War II, at first watch silently and then become involved when the dogs are let go on the demonstrators. On the sidelines stand those of the Ku Klux Klan, Dynamite Bob Chambliss among them, waiting their own time of vengeance.
The fateful month of September comes, and Christine and her friend Gloria attempt to eat at the lunch counter at Woolworths with no luck. Then, on the 15th, the church is bombed, taking the lives of three 14-year-old girls and one 11-year-old, as well as injuring a number of others. His training kicking in, TJ helps lead the disaster response. Christine and Gloria are at the church that day, and see it all before them.
November brings another disaster when President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, and to the consternation of many, much of white Birmingham rejoices in the news. Overt racism, directed not only at blacks but at sympathetic whites, seems to spread with the death of Kennedy. Yet, those who are fighting for civil rights go on, inspired all the more by the events that have taken place.
By the summer of 1964, Stella and her wheelchair-bound friend Cat have taken a position at black Miles College, where they are working for Lionel Parish in adult education and literacy. Ryder Jones, a friend of Chambliss and active in the KKK, is married to Lee, whom he regularly beats and rapes, and feels the need to become a bomber himself and targets the college.
Over the course of the next months, there will be bomb threats and harassment at Miles, and harassment of the students, including Agnes, who is TJ’s wife. In the fall, TJ tries to register to vote, and loses the job he has held for years due to his “uppityness.” Then he and Agnes have their house invaded by the Klan, and TJ is severely beaten. As is common, the police instead point the finger of blame at him, though the follow-up action allows Agnes to wrangle TJ’s job back through a bit of subterfuge.
When there is another bomb threat at the school, wheelchair-bound Cat refuses to evacuate the building, determined to hold her ground and stop running. She does this firmly with the point of a gun which she holds on those wishing to push her out. Slowly, some of the others return to support her. The bomb does not go off.
At this point in the book, a number of fictionalized passages come together, bringing to a head Lee’s relationship with Ryder, the lunch counter sit-ins and the corruption and racism of Bull Connor’s police. Events transpire until the book, and the reader, find themselves once again sitting in a church, and once again there are four coffins in front of them, only the bodies within are different. After the funerals, some go their various ways, but many arrive at Parish’s on New Year ’s Eve of 1965. Sadly, even there, some are followed home by those in robes, for things are slow to change.
In real life, there were several young white women who did help teach at Miles College during this time; one of those was author Sena Jeter Naslund, and another was her good, wheelchair-bound friend, Carol Countryman. If you are reading this, or any of Naslund’s books, you can guess what became of her — she became a writer and author. Her friend Carol became a pioneer in the field of rights for the handicapped.
I was 13 in 1963, but I was a news junkie reading two newspapers daily and sometimes as many as six on Sundays. I was also brought up by a very socially conscious mother and carried my own independence. I remember the events of 1963 in Birmingham, in Montgomery, in Dallas and other locations, as well as the events of the following years, almost as if they occurred yesterday. So reading “Four Spirits,” if one removed the made-up parts, was almost like reading a diary for me.
I think “Four Spirits” is probably the book that Naslund must most closely identify with and is perhaps closest to her heart. It is, I think, also one of her best books, if not her best. It is worth the reading for the story, and it is worth reading for the memories.