The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

March 23, 2013

Publisher gets personal with Southern history

— MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — For people who think they have read plenty about the South's history over the past 70 years, Anniston Star Publisher H. Brandt Ayers offers a fresh take, with his personal stories chronicling not only change across the region, but the evolution of his personal politics.

In his memoir, "In Love With Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal," Ayers gets to stretch out beyond the editorials that have earned him nationwide recognition, but scorn at home from critics who call his paper the "Red Star."

The 78-year-old author shares stories that will cause Southerners of a certain age to reminisce about seeing the old South fade away and the region become more like the rest of the United States.

Ayers writes about growing up the privileged son of a newspaper publisher in Anniston during the days of segregation. He admits embarrassing himself as a child when he used a racially offensive colloquialism in front his family's black chauffeur.

In an interview, Ayers said he was typical of any white child in the segregated South. "We were all good little segregationists. That's all there was," he said. "Some of us evolved, and some of us didn't."

The chauffer, Eli Wilkins, played a key role in Ayers' transition into "the locked-down loneliness of a Southern liberal." Ayers writes that it happened in 1953 when the chauffeur drove Ayers' parents to Danbury, Conn., to attend his graduation from prep school. The hotel where his parents were staying wouldn't admit the chauffeur because of his race. Ayers and his roommates invited the chauffeur to stay with them on the all-white Wooster School campus.

"We integrated Wooster," Ayers writes.

In later years, Ayers writes, he "evolved into a committed Southern liberal — a lonely species, too hot for home, but not hot enough for high-churched liberals in Manhattan and Los Angeles."

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