Going Home

Actress Laura Bell Bundy attends the 61st Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 10, 2007 in New York.
Getty Images/Peter Kramer
In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes a look at America's yearning for the safe and familiar, the theme of a new book by political reporter Curtis Wilkie.
This week terror struck home again. This time home was CBS News. Last Saturday there was a "false alarm" in our Washington bureau: a letter coated with white powder turned out to be benign. But on Thursday word came that a colleague in New York had a moderate case of anthrax poisoning, according to the CDC.

There is no way to really be normal or objective when the target hits so close. Getting the facts, as a way of getting a grip, is the first step. And the facts appear to be somewhat comforting. Yes, anthrax can be lethal but it can be treated. Yes, the media is a target but probably more as a means of spreading fear than a group to kill. So you try to keep on working and keep a regular schedule but mainly you just want to go home where it's safe and friendly and familiar. This sensation apparently affected the House of Representatives which gave "risk averse" new meaning by closing down for the first time in history in response to an outside threat. And Comedy Central's "Daily Show," which has adopted the logo "America Freaks Out," reported that 91 percent of Americans say "I want my mommy."

Going home is the theme of a new book by political reporter Curtis Wilkie. It's not about anthrax or Afghanistan but about that same yearning to be someplace warm and secure. Wilkie, a native of Mississippi and 26-year reporter for the Boston Globe, has written a very personal political and social history of the American South which details his coming of age in Mississippi, his anger at segregation and the violence of the civil rights movement and his eventual return to a place where people "just seem kinder."

The book is filled with wonderful political yarns -- some serious and many hilarious -- all told with characteristic Wilkie flair. Many of his friends who know him as a certified liberal will not be surprised at his youthful campaigning for the first woman to run for Governor of Mississippi. What might surprise them is that candidate, "Hacksaw Mary Cain," the editor of the paper in Summit, Miss., was a staunch opponent of Washington and the federal government which she considered a "bloated abomination." Wilkie talks honestly about his discomfort with the racism in the South but admits his own complicity with many of its segregated ways.

His politics changed in 1961 when he was a student at "Ole Miss" and James Meredith tried to enroll as its first black student and rioting broke out. He spent the next six years covering the civil rights movement for the Clarksdale Press Register in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. He tells great tales about the bumbling racist Governor Ross Barnett, of Robert Kennedy's visit to hungry, poor families in thDelta and of a civil rights pioneer, Aaron Henry, whom he considers a true hero.

In 1969 Wilkie left Mississippi. In a chapter entitled "Free At Last" he discusses his decision to leave Mississippi "which was in the death throes of segregation" and head north where he thought he'd find a refuge. He dreamed of living in Boston, "the cradle of the abolitionist movement." But he found in Boston the same ugly racism he found in the South. He hated the cold winters and resented the northern hypocrisy of vilifying the South for ugly attitudes which existed everywhere.

In 1976 he was assigned by the Globe to cover the Carter presidential campaign and his writing about the struggle inside the Democratic Party between two southerners, George Wallace and Jimmy Carter, brought him to national prominence. But it was Billy, not Jimmy, Carter who won Wilkie's affection and he spent many an afternoon in Plains at the service station with Billy's pals. The feeling was apparently mutual. Billy invited Wilkie to fly to the inauguration in Washington with him and his buddies. Wilkie gladly gave up his seat on the final flight of Peanut One to ride with that gang.

As time went on there was a yearning in Wilkie to go back to the South. His friend and mentor Willie Morris who made the journey north and then came back, kept pushing him to return. In 1993 he convinced the Boston Globe to let him go the New Orleans. His editor, Matt Storin, agreed saying that most of their readers were more familiar with Western Europe than the American South. "Go cover the place like a foreign country," he said.

The book ends with a sentimental tribute to Willie Morris and Wilkie’s thoughts as his funeral cortege snaked through Yazoo City in 1999. "Even though I was angry with the South and gone for years, I never forsook my heritage. Eventually, I discovered I had always loved the place. Yes, Willie, I came home to be with my people."

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