Publisher’s note: I have never known anyone quite like Chervis Isom. I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend of mine — though he is, and a very good one — but because I feel fairly certain that you’ve never known anyone quite like him either.
If asked for a single story about Chervis, some anecdotal insight that provides a telling glimpse of the man, I would tell you this: As happens from time to time, Chervis phoned me one afternoon to see whether I might be able to meet him for a drink after work that day. I had plans to meet another friend for that very purpose and invited Chervis to join us, which he did.
For purposes of the story, it bears pausing here to note that the friend I was meeting is a 29-year-old black man, and that Chervis is 74 and white. I made the introductions, and Chervis began asking my friend about himself. Was he from Birmingham? Where did he go to high school? College? What kind of work did he do? My friend responded cordially, with appropriate elaborations, and then regarded Chervis.
“So how about you? What’s your story?”
Chervis didn’t hesitate. “Well, I used to be a racist.”
I thought this was a remarkable statement at the time, and the longer I reflect, the more remarkable I think it. That he would offer it so willingly tells you a lot about the kind of person you’re dealing with — deeply thoughtful, unswervingly honest, frankly confessional, inherently caring and compassionate.
These terms apply as well to Chervis’ new memoir, The Newspaper Boy: Coming of Age in Birmingham, Alabama, During the Civil Rights Era. As an author, he spares himself nothing in the telling of his life — from a callowly racist youth who delivered The Birmingham News and Birmingham Post-Herald to customers in the Norwood neighborhood of the 1950s, to a young lawyer hired by one of the most enlightened and outspoken advocates for justice in Birmingham’s history, to a highly-respected member of his profession and a person devoted to what he refers to in the book as his “responsibility to bring a measure of peace into the world.”
Chervis celebrated the publication of The Newspaper Boy at a Feb. 6 book signing at The Alabama Booksmith. I was pleased to sit down with him the following morning to talk about the book, his reasons for writing it and his thoughts about the past, present and future of Birmingham.
Weld: What compelled you to write this book?
Chervis Isom: There were a bunch of reasons, but I guess the primary reason was because I started having grandchildren. I’d never written anything down for my children, but I felt compelled to try to write something for my grandchildren, to let them know about the times I grew up in. That was the times of Jim Crow racism. Of course, it’s different now, very different, but we don’t need to go back to that bad place, and people who didn’t experience that need to know how it used to be.
So I had that in mind, but I also just wanted to write some stories. I didn’t think about it as a book for a long time. I’d been writing stories for several years, and one day I looked at them and I could see a kind of an arc there. I began to think that maybe there was a book. I guess I was writing for about 10 years, but actually working on a book for probably the last five.
Weld: The book is not simply about racism, but very specifically — and very confessionally — about your racism, the racial attitudes you held as a young person. It seems to me that virtually any white teenager who grew up in Birmingham during that era would display a very casual, unquestioning sort of racism. Was that the case? Was your being a racist the result of a conscious process, or were you just a product of the atmosphere of the time?
C.I.: It would have been very difficult for me not to have been a racist, because that was absolutely the culture of the town. Race as an issue was maybe much more present in my family than most because my father was a Greyhound bus driver, so he was on the front lines of the early conflicts. Even before the push for integrated schools was the push for integrated transportation, and as the captain of his ship, so to speak, it fell to him to separate people according to the law.
As black people began to push back against that, he was very frustrated and upset, and he told us about his experiences when he came in from his job. As time went by, and the Movement progressed, it became almost a daily thing for him, as black people were willing to push the envelope more and more. So my family was caught up in it, not just in the general racism of the day, but in particular the racism that we saw from my father’s perspective.
It was the way things were. Jim Crow racism and white supremacy were the order of the day. There was no way to escape it, and I think it would be a rare individual who could grow up in that kind of culture and not acclimate himself to it. Certainly, we did.
Weld: Do you think it’s important that people — white and black — understand that?
C.I.: Part of what I’m trying to say in this book is that it’s hard to come out of that, so I did want to talk about my personal experience, rising up out of that culture. Another thing I wanted to do was express my gratitude for those people who helped me through that process. It’s easy to say “thank you” when people do something for us, but maybe a little more difficult when someone changes the way you think over a process of years. When do you say, “thank you”? I saw the book as that opportunity.
One other thing that made me want to write it was the thought that each of us is not totally alone here in the universe, though we sometimes feel like it. We need to be a part of a community, and even to be involved in what goes on in our community. It’s a human need, and I think it’s very important to our development as individuals.
Finally, I guess I was trying to say that there’s a place for people of a certain age, like myself. You know, you reach retirement age and you say to yourself, “What’s left? Is this all there is?” Well, this is not all there is. There’s a lot going on, lots of opportunities to contribute to the community, so just get out there and do something.
Weld: Leaving aside for a moment the racial realities of the time, what was it like being a kid in Norwood?
C.I.: It was a magical place — and I think it still is. A lot of that magic came from the fact that it was pretty much self-sufficient. It was like a peninsula, in that we were surrounded by heavy industry on the north, the east and the south. To our west were Druid Hills and Fountain Heights, a continuum of what Norwood was part of, this string of residential neighborhoods along the ridge that bounds the north side of Jones Valley.
At the time I grew up there, certainly it was mostly blue-collar, but we had our share of well-to-do people, people who owned businesses. There were a few doctors and dentists, the people who owned the hardware store and the drug stores. We had Norwood Hospital, later known as Carraway, and Norwood Clinic. We had a funeral home and grocery stores, and pretty much all the commercial businesses the families around there needed. It was a pretty easy, comfortable place to grow up.
Weld: As a newspaper boy, delivering for both the News and the Post-Herald, you got to know Norwood probably better than most.
C.I.: I delivered papers from the time I was 13 until I finished high school at 18. In fact, I didn’t do so well in school because I put all of my time and attention into my paper routes. In a way, I was educated on the streets. That was good in some respects, because I learned a lot about people — a lot of good people, but also some who were not so good. I saw some things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Weld: In the book, you talk about how it was that you decided to start soliciting black subscribers.
C.I.: I wanted to win a car [Laughs]. The News was giving away a car to the delivery boy who signed up the most new subscribers. The only way I could win it was to go to what we called the “colored” enclaves, along the railroad tracks on the margins of my regular route. For the first time in my whole life, I met black people. I’d never gone to school with a black person, never had any interaction with blacks. They were alien, and it was an interesting experience for me to find out that they were no different than whites in their hopes and aspirations. It took me a long time to accept that completely, but it started with soliciting subscriptions in those black neighborhoods.
Weld: You made a reference earlier to your gratitude toward people who made a difference in your life and your way of thinking. I want to ask you about three of those people, two of whom were a married couple, the Millers. What can you say about them?
C.I.: It was November of 1955 that the Millers moved onto my paper route. Vernon and Helen. He was from Minnesota; she was from one of the Dakotas, I think it was South Dakota, and they had two little boys. He had come down to work at Progressive Farmer in some sort of editorial function. First of all, I was attracted to them because she was beautiful. I was a 16-year-old boy and she was probably 25, and she was just beautiful.
But they showed an interest in me. On Saturdays, when I would collect for the paper, they’d invite me in for a Coke or a glass of water or something, just to rest a few minutes and chat. And I had this screaming need to convert them to the Southern way of life because they had missed the opportunity. They were immovable, and they taught me that the Southern culture I had grown up in was not necessarily as full of morality as I thought it was.
They surprised me at every turn. They were everything that I was not. They were Catholic, and I was Protestant — and had a pretty good prejudice against Catholics at the time. They were, I found out to my horror after putting my foot in my mouth, of immigrant stock. She was from Norway and was first-generation American. He was second-generation from Germany, and when I talk about my foot in my mouth, it was when he told me that he had fought his German relatives at the Battle of the Bulge.
They should have closed the door in my face, because I know I said things that were offensive to them, trying to make them understand why whites were superior to blacks. But they were good, kind people who stuck with me. And over a couple of years, the seeds they put down began to germinate, and I began to see the truth of what the Jim Crow culture was all about.
Weld: The other person I want to ask about is Abe Berkowitz, the lawyer and civic leader who hired you into his firm when you got out of law school.
C.I.: Abe Berkowitz was a person I followed through the newspapers. My family, we were blue-collar people, and we didn’t know any important people, anyone in the law, for example. But I knew him because of the letters he wrote to the editor of the newspaper. Based on that and that alone, I went to see him about a summer job for the summer before my last year of law school. I did not get a summer job, but I got much more because he became a very important person in my life. He hired me when I graduated from law school and was a mentor to me.
Of course, I’ve since learned a lot about what he did, not only during the Civil Rights Era, but much earlier than that. He displayed tremendous courage in writing letters to the editor with regularity in which he took Bull Connor to task. He did it over and over again, and I know his life was somewhat endangered by that. He told me once that he kept a police whistle by his bed, and whenever he got one of those phone calls in the night, he’d blow that whistle into the phone [Laughs]. He said, “They didn’t call back.”
Weld: I know you’re aware that he’s one of the people Weld included in its review of the 50 most influential people in the history of Birmingham. How do you see Berkowitz in that regard?
C.I.: He was a man of courage who staked out his position. He did that regularly for many years, and eventually, it bore fruit. He was influential in changing the city’s government at a critical time. If he hadn’t been behind that — I know there are other people who were behind it, too, but he provided the elder leadership to that movement. He gave it a credibility it might not have had if the “Young Turks” alone had been doing it. He absolutely deserves that kind of place in history.
I’m just grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him for the years I did. I came from a culture so different from his, but he hired me. That’s particularly interesting in light of the background I had, as someone who had attended White Citizens Council meetings and responded to racial demagogues. There again, thank God for the Millers, because they helped drag me out of that long before I met Abe Berkowitz.
Weld: Let’s go back to a comment you made earlier about the importance of community. How does that apply to where we are today in Birmingham?
C.I.: Birmingham has had a lot of false starts over the years, but maybe the time is ripe for it to take off in directions a lot of us would like to see it go. There seems to be a commitment back toward downtown, which is encouraging. We’ve been so Balkanized, divided up into all of these small cities and towns, and we can’t seem to get our shoulders behind the wheel. It can’t be just one shoulder or two, we need everybody.
The book does touch on that need for community, and the need for recharging our communities and making them livable. That’s all in line with being a city where people want to live, where people want to come to live. Birmingham used to be a city that produced good citizens for other cities. A lot of young people left Birmingham. I think that’s changing. Fewer and fewer people are leaving, and younger people are beginning to think of Birmingham as a cool place. I see it when we interview law students, and it’s gratifying to me to know that they want to come here.
Weld: A final question about The Newspaper Boy. Do you see the book as redemptive in any way? Was that something you thought about as you wrote it?
C.I.: Certainly it’s redemptive on a personal level. I did something that is no different than a lot of other people have done, which is to come out of a cultural bias as completely as I could. I hope I’m fully redeemed in my viewpoints.
I practiced law for about 40 years without really thinking much about community or anything else. I kept my nose to the grindstone, in what Walker Percy called “the everydayness of life,” so I didn’t really think about the bigger picture. I suppose I reached a certain maturity and began to think about the city and my role in it. I wanted to go beyond making a living, into doing some things for the community, so I guess I’ve tried to redeem myself there. I wanted to talk about my father being redeemed from racism, and I wrote a chapter about that. So yeah, I think the book is about redemption on several levels.