Sometimes One Man Can Make A Difference

Mr. Legrand

Whatever there is that shucks down upon us fortune,
out of a cloud bank,
a sort of seed-com, –let’s give it thanks.
Nothing ordained
it would pluck Mr. Legrand out of life’s vicious lottery
to be his pit-boss
in the tin mine at which they toiled.

Still, it happened.
It’s what’s called a mysterious choice.
They’d have laughed at such a cringing
after dumbbell destiny.
Neither believe there was anyone
watching from above, to harmonize it all.

It was spooky, though,
to catch Mr. Legrand’s eye
roving about that clattering newsroom
somehow on guard for them all.
A monitor or self appointed sentinel making sure
that what went hobbling past,
wrong-headed, hateful, murderous, pitiful, grim–
should receive a minute gentle prod
in a sort of hopeful direction–
–that what was going to happen anyway,
might be snookered off, perhaps hurried back,–
before it could drag anyone
under their times’ vicious, Kali-like wheels.

That decade, the South
was shooting craps for its soul.

Safer to live in quiet corners,
shape and spell what happened,
plumb that asshole of sentiment called politics,
and roost out the daily quotas of hunger, misery, loss,
–human nature growling at its bone–,
But through it all,
there sat Mr. Legrand, handsome, kind,
like all of them, a little mad, displaying the talisman,
the shining conceit, called decency.

As though in the midst of killing, bombing, beating,
burning, whatever fiercely tried bitterly
to force them all to swallow death,
might somehow be forced to lighten up,
if shamed by a single decent, civil, face.

© 2020 by Andrew Glaze, previously unpublished.

I’m not sure when my father first began working on this poem. It is possible that Duard Legrand’s death in 1978, at the age of 63, got him started. It may have come sometime after 2002 when my father re-established residence in Birmingham, or it may have been inspired by the final edition of the Birmingham Post Herald on September 23rd, in 2005..

The staff at the Birmingham Post Herald must have been a singularly idealistic bunch. Most of them were young and hungry to out-scoop stories from their larger competitor the Birmingham News. They doggedly shone a light on the early 1950’s protests of the Civil Rights Movement, and came in direct conflict with Bull Connor, the cities brutal Police Commissioner, as well as the Klu Klux Klan and MOB members.  In the mid-50’s, my father happened to witness police beating a Black demonstrator and testified in court about it. Afterwards, due to safety concerns, he was transferred from his beat at the Birmingham courthouse to the Arts and Entertainment department of the newspaper. His testimony was later mentioned in the book, Speak Truth to Power: the story of Charles Patrick, a Civil Rights Pioneer.  Years later, my father’s two year assignment as the reporter for the Birmingham Courthouse beat became the basis for the poem, “I Am The Jefferson County Courthouse”.

Clark Stallworth was one of my father’s coworkers and a friend. When the  Birmingham Post Herald had its final edition in 2005, Stallworth was invited to reminisce along with other recent and former staff members. He described a moment in the early 1940’s, when “Two Klansmen attacked me, and I remember the sound of the hammer as it whistled past my head. But I boarded a handy Greyhound bus and got away.  Later, at a night Klan meeting in Warrior, I remember the bitter taste of fear as I was surrounded by hooded men with rifles and shotguns.  One of them was Robert Chambliss, who later blew up Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls. I got out of that one, too.”  By 1954 Stallworth was busy following leads on gangsters who killed an aspiring attorney general

But the biggest news story came in May of 1961. That was the year a staff photographer named Tommy Langston captured a single photo of unmasked Klu Klux Klan members beating up a Freedom Rider who had just arrived on a Trailways bus. As soon as the camera flash went off, the crowd turned on him as well. He later said, “I had a Minolta around my neck, and they grabbed the strap and nearly choked me to death. I just hit the ground and tried to cover my face. I think one of them was swinging a chain, because it caught me right across the face and broke my glasses. Then they started kicking me in the ribs. I don’t know if they thought I was dead, but finally they stopped.”  In the melee they also broke the lens for his main Rolleiflex camera, but the film in it remained undamaged. His single photo was quickly shared by newspapers and TV stations around the world. Not only did it help the FBI identify members of the assault group, including one who turned out to be a secret informant, but it embarrassed the hell out of several Birmingham businessman visiting Japan for a Rotary Convention.  A few months after they arrived home, Bull Connor’s reign of terror ended when he was fired.

The Birmingham Post Herald also became known for hiring young reporters just out of college and serving as a launching pad. My father’s colleague Larry Fiquette went on to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Howell Raines ran The New York Times for a while as Senior Editor, and Martin Waldron, became the Southern correspondent for The New York Times. One of the Black reporters that Legrand hired was Harold Jackson. Straight out of college, “I went to the Birmingham News and they told me I wasn’t ready. I went to the Birmingham Post-Herald and (then-editor) Duard LeGrand said “l’ll give you a chance,'” In 1991 Jackson won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In 2005, when the newspaper finally ended its 84-year run, former reporters wrote loving paragraphs about their time there for the final issue:
“Inspired by Editor Duard LeGrand, the Post-Herald became a consistent advocate for civil rights”. 
“We were always the fun paper; we were never the paper of record. We were the paper that would take chances and take courageous stands.”

In 1978, when Duard Legrand died at the age of 63, the Birmingham Public Library actually sponsored a full book biographical tribute to him titled, A Singular Presence, Duard Legrand Newspaperman, by Ruth Bradbury Lamonte.

About Legrand, Clark Stallworth later wrote, “Duard was the best boss anyone ever had”. After reading my father’s poem, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that my father must have felt the same way.

—E. Glaze. 

To learn more about Tommy Langston’s confrontation with the KKK and see his famous photo visit:

Birmingham Post Herald Press Photo of Andrew Glaze during his days as a  reporter for the paper.  Circa early 1950’s, by a staff photographer.
Photo property of the Andrew Glaze Estate.

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