by H. Brandt Ayers; NewSouth Books, 2013; 350 pages, $29.95.
If you want to know how H. Brandt Ayers mixed it up with America’s presidents all the way back to JFK, with federal judges, with governors and with other political big shots, read the many insightful and entertaining anecdotes recounted in his just-published autobiography.
If you are interested in H. Brandt Ayers’ journalistic leadership on difficult racial progress, check out the book’s chapters about riots and murders in his own backyard of Anniston.
And if you don’t understand just how much H. Brandt Ayers cherishes his Anniston Star and embraces the responsibilities of a community newspaper, read the “Prologue” and “Afterword” in that memoir.
Others can and will profile Ayers’ impressive public career as presented in his autobiography, “In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal.” What I want to do here is profile “Brandy” as a person, using excerpts from the book to more fully portray this complex man and his progressive mission.
A valuable personal portrait
Most local folks know that the Ayers family name is synonymous with journalistic, cultural and philanthropic efforts in this small corner of the world; many know little about H. Brandt Ayers other than that he is the big boss at what’s sometime referred to as the “Red Star.” Those who read “In Love with Defeat” will realize his influential reach throughout this region, in Washington and extending to Russia, China, South Africa and other parts of the globe.
Even more rewarding, those who read this worthwhile memoir will get to know him as a warm, interesting, humorous son of the South, whose personal story involves many of their own joyful memories and sad experiences. And they will better understand “the making of a Southern liberal.”
Understanding Brandy Ayers
A proud Alabamian, Brandy Ayers writes that the accumulated influence of his dad, family, church, school and work nurtured his progressive sentiments. Sometime in his 20s, he determined exactly who he was politically: “I had evolved into a committed southern liberal — a lonely species, too hot for home, but not hot enough for high-church liberals in Manhattan and Los Angeles.”
He has always been bothered by the South’s “bad choices” at critical junctures of history. “They so cherish the emblems and ensigns of the Lost Cause that they are literally — in love with defeat.”
Hence, the title of his autobiography.
Now, for the rest of the story. His new book depicts — sometimes through candid introspection and at other times with tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation — a full, meandering and rewarding journey.
By his own admission, Brandy was an errant frat boy at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa during the 1950s, paying as much attention to Elvis Presley as to Autherine Lucy. “These were serious times, but my awareness of them remained dim as I engaged in fraternity house frivolity.”
After taking a job with a North Carolina newspaper, Brandy went on his first date with outspoken wife-to-be Josephine — and it went badly. “I wore a straw hat, which she thought ‘fruity.’ When we arrived at my apartment and encountered a couple campaigning for Terry Sanford, she treated them rudely, because her father, J.C.B. (Blucher) Ehringhaus Jr., was supporting Lake. Inside the apartment, I angrily made a comment not calculated to endear me. ‘If I knew you better, I’d spank you.’”
As a Washington correspondent, Brandy didn’t want to come back home to Alabama as his father’s health deteriorated in the early 1960s. “I didn’t want to go. It was too soon. Next year were political spectacles I yearned to see and write about, the two party conventions and the presidential election. I would be stuck in Anniston.”
Back home in Alabama
Upon returning to Alabama, Brandy ventured briefly into electoral politics. Actually, it was only one campaign — he ran as a Lyndon Johnson delegate in the 1964 presidential race. He was crushed at the polls and ridiculed by George Wallace. “Bran-dit ran for a little office and lost his own home box two to one.”
Later on, as the Star’s managing editor, he went “armed and dangerous” into the dark night of racial turmoil in Anniston. That’s right; in 1964, Brandy toted a gun, a loaded revolver, as the protector of a local good guy rendezvousing with a Klansman/FBI informer behind Woodstock School. “I should have been fired for behaving so irresponsibly, but I couldn’t fire myself.”
About that same time, he flashed foolish bravado when confronted by three racist bullies as he wandered along a dark, deserted street during the trial for murderers of a black man. One of the three toughs was Kenneth Adams, a local Klansman credited with organizing the burning of the Freedom Riders bus in Anniston and leading the attack on Nat King Cole in Birmingham. Brandy mouthed off and steeled himself for a beating; he was relieved when Adams said, “Aww, Brandy, we’re not going to whip you. You’ll holler and scream, and get us in trouble.”
Brandy weaves sad memories and sober reflections throughout the book.
First, and most painful, are memories of his father’s mental decline and public ramblings toward the end of a long, distinguished career. It was, Brandy writes, “too painful to believe.” The death of his mother still bears heavily on his heart.
He also has felt for years the regional stigma of his political views. “To be liberal in the Lower South is to know a deep, double loneliness: An object of condescension to the ‘other’ America and yet never fully accepted by your own.”
Among his current disappointments is the fact that President Barack Obama has yet to reach out to Southerners: “If Obama wishes to unify the Deep South with the nation, he will have to understand the cultural sensitivities, the virtual sacraments of the region.”
And, finally, hope for the future
Perhaps the best way to conclude my review is to look at the last few words of this autobiography, where the author conveys a cryptic sense of something better to come, for himself and his homeland: “So, the journey ends with the hope of a lifetime still unfulfilled, but certain in a belief that the Deep South is the key to a truly unified nation.”
It is easy for Southerners to view privileged, progressive Yankees as limousine liberals, but Alabamian Brandy Ayers defies such simplistic characterization. He comes from a well-to-do family, and he preaches the “do-good” gospel with the best of America’s liberal journalists. But this very personalized book reveals him as something redeemingly different — one of our own whose do-goodism is grounded in the Southern values of small-town life and stubborn respect for his heritage.
Glen Browder is emeritus professor at Jacksonville State University, after a lengthy career in the classroom. He also is a former U.S. Congressman, Alabama Secretary of State and Alabama State Legislator.