By Mike Thomason
The first chapter of the book describes how the author and two friends defaced an “Impeach Earl Warren” billboard and managed to escape just before the police arrived. It was after the Brown v.The Board of Education decision overturning separate-but-equal schools for blacks and whites.
That decision really set off the massive, determined and often violent resistance by white Southerners, especially in the Magnolia State. It was a scary thing for working class white kids to challenge the White Citizens Council/KKK leadership and the Jim Crow status quo … but they did, and not for the last time. Where did they get their determination to fight against the power of the Jim Crow world in which they lived?
This is a very readable and fascinating story of a white boy in Jackson, Mississippi whose parents came from Texas with little but determination and a strong sense of right and wrong. They had managed to survive the Great Depression by working with the WPA. He was a self taught Civil Engineer. She was a nurse. They came to Jackson before World War II looking for a new start in life, but the war intervened and he went off to serve in North Africa and Europe. They had a baby daughter, and Mom worked to put food on the table while dad was away. When he returned he was sick, but no one knew why until after he died.
Sick or well he had to work and did so. In 1945 their son William, the author of this book, was born. The family lived in a small frame house outside Jackson and depended on their one acre garden for fresh vegetables. There was enough to keep going but not enough to tolerate waste.
In other words they shared the life style of many working class whites in the post-war South. They were conservative Christians who supported segregation, but were not rabid in the defense of “the Southern Way of Life.” As the years went, by their attitude regarding race relations was shared by fewer and fewer whites, but they taught their children to respect blacks and see them as people and nothing less. Sounds pretty unexceptional today, but not then!
William had his two sisters (Sandy was the youngest of the three, Willanna was the oldest and their leader). As William grew up he found boys to pal around with, and over the years the group became a loosely organized club, “The Higgen Hogs.” Many of its 15 or so “members” were science majors (remember Sputnik in 1957?). They were bright and saw no reason to support anything that couldn benefit from improvement. Their willingness to challenge any status quo whether scientific, political or racial made them trouble makers for the hidebound school administrators. But their grades were consistently good and the classroom teachers loved them. It also didn’t hurt that William was handsome and outgoing. Their club had both male and female members, and it was an opportunity to argue and discuss topics which were controversial. In Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s that was radical in itself.
When William and his friends graduated from high school most went off to college in the state. William and several others went to Mississippi State University to study engineering and science. The atmosphere there was freer than high school, but still conservative and supportive of the status quo whenever possible. William got involved in the debate club and found he could do well in that environment.
In the summers he worked with a survey crew and while he liked working outdoors he concluded he could never be a civil engineer like his father, who had died from his war-time injuries by then. But what would he do instead? In his college years William ran for student government offices, won and began a program of open discussions and speakers to challenge their conservatism. Mississippi and its government did not like this, especially the “controversial’ part.
Black speakers were barred from addressing a white student audience. Using the cover of The Young Democrats organization William and his allies in the Higgen Hogs, and other groups got Aaron Henry, a pharmacist in Clarksdale, Mississippi and president of the state’s NAACP to come to campus to speak. It was 1966 and no person of color had ever spoken at any of the state-run white colleges. There was a backlash from some hide bound administrators, but the speech was given to an overflow white audience.
William and his friends often traveled to colleges in Alabama to hear speakers, such as Robert Kennedy, who were not welcome in Mississippi. Eventually the author decided to go to law school and was accepted at Harvard. It was a long way from the little house on Jackson’s south side, or from the world of Ross Barnett and his allies. But a price was paid; three assassinations, the Kennedys and Dr. King and more in bloody Mississippi.
In 1971, after Law School Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas selected William Alsup to clerk for him. Then the author returned to Mississippi and late in 1972 he and his wife Susan moved to California, her home state. After a successful career as a trial lawyer, Bill Clinton appointed him United States District Court Judge in San Francisco where he still serves. Other members of the Higgen Hogs carried on as lawyers in Mississippi, and others fanned out across the country in various other professions. They all get together from time to time to go hiking in the Sierras.
Won Over really is quite a story, one that brings back memories of the 1950s and 1960s, one few can match. Reading the book it is hard to believe it all really happened, but it did and not in some place remote from us either. People with courage and a sense of decency and fair play, often with little or no money have changed our world for the better. It has happened right here and in living memory. If we did it once we can do it again … and we may yet have to do so. Alsup was won over by the message of Civil Rights protestors and their leaders. What will win us over in our time?
(NewSouth Books: Montgomery, AL 2019); hardcover; ISBN: 1-58838-342-3; 250 pp.$27.95.
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