In a magnum opus designed to be one author’s remembrance of the 1960s, Frye Gaillard trains his pen on an era he not only knows well, but wrote extensively about during his time as the Southern editor for the Charlotte Observer, covering topics such as the city’s school desegregation and the ministry of televangelist Jim Bakker. Now, 20 books later on topics as varied and interconnected as race relations, politics and culture — including the award-winning “Go South to Freedom” (https://bit.ly/2PODeu6) — the veteran journalist and observer has published “A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility, and Innocence Lost” (NewSouth Books), a massive and exhaustive undertaking that turns a storyteller’s eye to an era so many around the world watched unfold through a less-inclusive lens.
Gaillard, writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama, recently agreed to take a few questions about his newest work of nonfiction from Mountain Times. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
MT: In your epigraph to “A Hard Rain,” you quote Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, yet it is from the musician that you chose to take your title. Does Dylan, for you, somehow sum up the era?
FG: In many ways that’s true. Dylan was one of the major poets of the decade, and while he has remained relevant for his entire life and career, for many of us who were young in the 1960s — and certainly for me — his social commentary songs early in the decade continue to be his definitive influence. “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” was one of his best and most prophetic.
MT: You open the nonfiction work with a scene that North Carolinian’s are well aware of — the Feb. 1, 1960, sit-in at the segregated lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro. In addition to giving you a good starting date to begin a book about the 1960s, is there something else about that event that made you want to start here to lay the groundwork for the story of what was to come?
FG: Yes. The Greensboro sit-in was an act of courage, motivated by idealism in its purest form. Here were four college freshmen, all from strong African-American families, all raised to believe — to know — that they were as good as anybody, reflecting on the maddening, pervasive insult of segregation. These were introspective young men, and it occurred to them that they, themselves were partly to blame because they had never done anything directly to challenge this crippling reality in their lives. So the next day, they did. I was lucky enough to be friends in later years with one of the four, Franklin McCain, a fascinating man who had a vivid memory for detail. He helped make the story come alive.
The other striking thing about the student sit-ins is that they spread like wildfire. A much larger student group in Nashville had been planning for months to do the same thing, and had been taking classes in nonviolence from a remarkable minister named James Lawson who framed the protests as an act of radical Christian love. Martin Luther King would enlarge on this theme, but Lawson and these other students put their bodies on the line in the winter of 1960 and made the philosophy concrete and real. The decade was off to a powerful start.
MT: Also, from the way you open “A Hard Rain,” with the personal accounts of those black students at the Woolworth’s lunch counter — McCain, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond and Ezell Blair — it’s clear that the reader is in for a story, rather than a historical tome. Why was it important that you present the history of this era as a storyteller rather than more academically, as might a college professor or historian?
FG: I am a storyteller at heart. History comes alive when you make it a story. I’m not talking about making things up. I’m talking about exploring the human condition through real-life events. There were so many flawed, heroic, flesh-and-blood human beings who stepped to the stage of history during this time, some quite deliberately, others less so. I thought as young historians consider these times, bringing the value of greater detachment, I could offer a memory of how it felt. It was important to say what happened, to remember that this is a work of history; but as you noted, it is not an academic history. For better or worse, really for better and worse, it’s personal. In his great book, “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” Todd Gitlin tried to do much the same thing from the perspective of a former student radical. My perspective is slightly different. I was just a student, and yet I had the extraordinary good fortune to personally encounter such figures as Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, and to sense their humanity as well as their greatness.
MT: Given the vast ground you cover — civil rights, women’s liberation, the war in Vietnam, art, religion, science and characters as diverse as Mister Rogers, Andy Warhol and Angela Davis — there must have been some difficult decisions about what to include, what to condense and what to leave out. If your publisher had given you an additional 100 pages, what would you have expanded on or added to the narrative?
FG: The manuscript was more than 840 double-spaced pages when I finished and I didn’t dare suggest any further expansion. I was astonished, in fact, that the publisher didn’t ask me to cut. I could certainly have written more. There were other anecdotes, other characters, that I could have — maybe even should have — included, but as a narrative we would have soon reached the point of diminishing returns. I’m sure there will be knowledgeable readers who will question my priorities and perspective, here and there. And fair enough. But I hope even those critics will be moved to acknowledge, “Hey, the guy clearly worked pretty hard at this.”
MT: In chapters such as “Dylan, Woodstock and Cash,” you write as if you knew your subjects personally. What was your research like for this book?
FG: I did know Johnny Cash personally. I interviewed him at some length for my first book, “Watermelon Wine: The Spirit of Country Music.” I found him fascinating — larger than life, though in the interview he didn’t act like it. In his office he had a framed album cover from Bob Dylan, autographed: “To John and June, Love, Bob Dylan.” I was struck by that and he talked about it in a very personal way. It helped make Dylan, who I’ve never met, come alive for me. The stuff on Woodstock and Jimi Hendrix is based on the great documentary about the festival, and on seeing the interview that Dick Cavett did with Hendrix. I’ve always loved music, and especially the music of those times. I see it, really, as a form of literature, the lyrics offering a window into history and life.
MT: In the final chapter, “Redemption,” you call the 1960s a time of “hope, tragedy and blood,” and say that at last the story “was beginning to change.” Viewing the time between then and now through a historical lens, has the story changed in the way you would have expected?
FG: In some ways, even after the assassinations of the 1960s, and all the pain and disillusionment that went along with them, the story turned darker than I would have expected. Richard Nixon introduced a level of cynicism into our politics that, as a nation, changed our spiritual DNA. Here was a man, as historians have later confirmed by reading the documents in his presidential library, who personally ordered the sabotaging of peace talks to end the war in Vietnam because he thought progress toward peace would hurt his chances of winning the 1968 election. When it was clear that surrogates for Nixon had urged the president of South Vietnam not to participate in the talks, Nixon’s opponent, Hubert Humphrey, simply could not imagine that Nixon himself could have known about this in advance. Humphrey, in an act of high-mindedness that now seems quaint, chose not to make a scandal out of this or to exploit it in the final run-up to the election. He thought it would be too divisive.
To me, one of the most surprising divisions late in the decade was over what to do about division itself. Robert Kennedy tried passionately, desperately, to heal it. So did Republicans like John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller. But politicians like Nixon or George Wallace saw the politics of division and rage as the surest path to victory.
MT: At the very end of “A Hard Rain,” you ask, and I’m paraphrasing, if we’ve learned from our mistakes — but you don’t provide an answer. What makes that question so difficult?
FG: When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I thought America had learned from its mistakes. We live in a country founded in the moral disconnect between the ideals of liberty and the realities of chattel slavery. I used to believe that one way to see American history was as a slow and painful advance toward the realization of our highest ideals. Slavery was eventually abolished, even though it took a bloody war to do it. Not quite a hundred years ago, women were finally allowed to vote. The civil rights movement and the women’s movement and the environmental movement and, late in the decade, the gay rights movement, all seemed to be pushing us toward the ideals of freedom and justice that our founding fathers talked about but didn’t fully embrace. These movements pushed us, really, toward a collective embrace of the common good — the idea that we should create a better country for our children.
So, I was optimistic despite the ups and downs of the intervening years that we were making progress. But then came the backlash against Obama. I’m not talking about disagreement with his policies. Some of that would have been fair game. But the hatred he and his family endured — and what a beautiful family they are — those bizarre and demonic projections that he was a Muslim or born in Kenya, and the cynical decision by the Republican Congress not to work with him at all — all of these things were, to me, proof beyond any shadow of a doubt that Dr. King was right when he (reportedly) concluded, sadly, late in his life: “the majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.” But this does not mean, of course, that all white Americans are racist or that we can’t, even in these difficult times, forge a coalition of decency to redeem our country from what it might become. In that regard, the 1960s continue to offer us hope.