Hal Crowther’s Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers and Old School Ties
–by Jinny Batterson
When, about a decade ago, I entered semi-retirement and moved from Richmond, Virginia to central North Carolina, I vowed to do better than in my preceding move (from rural Vermont to urban Virginia) at initially learning about my new locale. The Old North State might not be all that different from the Old Dominion, but I decided to make a more proactive effort to learn about it. It seems to me that our loosely-rooted culture loses something by our tenuous connections to various places we never quite call “home.” What had made North Carolina the way it was, I wondered? What might it become in the future? In a larger context, what was the gist of this mysterious, often self-contradictory region called “the South” where I’d lived most of my adult life?
Works I found helpful early on were Rob Christensen’s The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, and William S. Powell’s North Carolina: A History. More recently, as an acknowledged import, I was pleased to find a copy of Hal Crowther’s 2018 collection Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers: A Gallery of Memorable Southerners. During the 1990’s, I’d read some of Crowther’s hard-hitting editorial commentary in Richmond’s alternative weekly. He currently lambasts our foibles and praises our better angels from a home base in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Freedom Fighters adapts and expands on earlier sketches to profile 19 movers and shakers of Southern culture, starting with Texas journalist/writer Molly Ivins and finishing with North Carolina blind guitarist Doc Watson. Most of those profiled were born during the first half of the twentieth century and lived into the first decade of the twenty-first. Some were born outside the South but concentrated their activities in the region, others were raised southern and later moved elsewhere. Given the time span of Crowther’s profiles, it’s not surprising that the majority were white men. At least seven of the freedom fighters and/or hell raisers spent their most active years in North Carolina.
Among the journalists, musicians, artists, politicians and activists that Crowther spirits off the page and into our consciousness are two former Crowther acquaintances from his undergraduate days at Williams College, a liberal arts college in western Massachusetts that was all male when he attended in the 1960’s. Kirk Varnedoe, a Savannah-bred member of the class of 1967, became an expert on painting and sculpture and was for over a decade chief curator at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. James R. “Jesse” Winchester, Jr., bred in northern Mississippi and member of the class of 1966, spent most of his adult life in Canada after leaving the U.S. rather than participate in the military during U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Granted amnesty in 1977, he eventually moved back to the U.S. south in 2002. Though he never became as famous as some song-writing contemporaries, his songs have been covered by artists including Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, the Everly Brothers, and Emmylou Harris.
Just after the entry for Jesse Winchester was a paean to one of the four women profiled—Anne McCarty Braden, someone I had read briefly about in a decades-old alumnae magazine from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now co-educational Randolph College). Anne was profiled at length in the 2003 biography Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (https://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=1592#.XGxXpJNKhdg). An English major in the class of 1945, Anne later became a civil rights activist of long standing in Louisville, Kentucky. In the spring of 1954, Anne and her husband Carl purchased a house in a Louisville suburb as stand-ins for a black family who would not have been considered as buyers in the heavily segregated housing market of the times. For their efforts, the Bradens received death threats. Carl was tried for “sedition” and spent months in jail before his conviction was overturned. For most of her adult life, this “embarrassing woman” was vilified and/or ignored by the establishment of her time and place. After Carl’s death when Anne was 50, she continued for three more decades tirelessly advocating for civil and human rights. The Randolph College web entries for notable alums fail to mention Anne, but I hope that a little of her fearlessness and dedication to advancing human dignity will rub off on those of us who’ve come after her at the school.