By Mark Alpert
True story: one evening in 1968, when I was six years old, my dad made an unusual request at bedtime. He told me that a man named King had just died and gone to heaven. He was a good man, Dad said. He asked me to pray for King before I went to sleep that night.
My dad was no liberal. He was a Nixon supporter then, and he’s a Trump supporter now. He’s going to turn 82 soon and spends a large part of his day watching Fox News. But his bedtime request from 1968 is the beginning of this story. It’s a true story, but it’s a bit fictional too, because memory is selective, especially when you’re trying to remember things from so long ago. This incident stands out.
What made Dad’s request seem so unusual at the time was the prayer thing. We were a very secular family. Technically, we were Jewish, but we never went to synagogue or followed any of the Jewish laws. And because we lived in New York City — the Sodom-and-Gomorrah of the 1960s — there weren’t many religious people in our neighborhood either. The idea of a “bedtime prayer” was completely foreign to me, something I’d seen kids do in storybooks but never in real life.
But the strangeness and seriousness of Dad’s request seemed to give it extra weight. So before I got into bed that night, I knelt on the carpet and pictured the man named King, newly arrived in heaven. I had no idea who he was. They didn’t teach current events in my kindergarten, so I knew nothing about Martin Luther King Jr. or the civil rights movement. All I had to go on was his name, so I assumed — with a six-year-old’s unassailable logic — that he was an actual king. I pictured him wearing a gold crown and an ermine robe, standing amid the clouds and waiting for his interview with God.
Now let’s move ahead four years. It’s the spring of 1972 and President Nixon is running for re-election. I’m with my mom in our dining room while she’s opening the mail. She opens an envelope and pulls out a campaign flyer for George Wallace, the Alabama governor and segregationist. He’s running in the Democratic presidential primaries and getting a surprising number of votes. Mom stares at the Wallace flyer for several seconds. Then she tears it to pieces. I’m shocked to see that she’s crying.
Fast-forward another thirteen years. It’s 1985 and I’m looking for a job as a newspaper reporter. In those pre-Internet days, the Bible of the newspaper business was a book called Editor & Publisher, a thick tome you could usually find in the reference section of any decent public library. E&P contained information on every newspaper in the country, including the names and addresses of all the managing editors, so it was very useful for journalistic jobseekers. (Are those E&P reference books still published and updated every year? Or is all that information online now?) I opened the bulky book and started copying the addresses of the newspapers, which were listed by state, alphabetically — Alabama to Wyoming. At first I tackled the task with great fervor, writing down the names of all the managing editors in each state, but after a while my energy began to flag. By the time I reached the letter M, I was copying only the addresses of the very largest newspapers, which of course were the ones least likely to hire a neophyte like me. So that’s probably why I got a job offer from a newspaper in Alabama. I applied to more papers in that state than in any other, simply because it was at the front of the alphabet.
Or maybe that’s not the whole story. Maybe I was fated to go there.
Either way, within a few weeks I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in the state capital. I attended press conferences and other events at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960. I reported on the funeral of E.D. Nixon, who was president of the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter in the 1950s, when Rosa Parks served as the organization’s secretary; it was E.D. Nixon who bailed Parks out of jail after she refused to move to the back of the Montgomery city bus on December 1st, 1955. (He also selected King to lead the bus boycott that followed.) I interviewed Parks at the cemetery; she was in her seventies at the time and no longer living in Alabama, but she came back to Montgomery for the funeral.
Last but not least, I met George Wallace. To my astonishment, he was still governor of Alabama. Back in the 1972 presidential campaign, just a few weeks after my mother tore up his flyer, Wallace was shot by an unemployed busboy at a rally in Maryland; the governor survived the assassination attempt but was paralyzed from the waist down. Although his presidential hopes were dashed, he was re-elected governor in 1974 and won yet another term in 1982. By then Wallace had apologized for his segregationist past, and by the time I started going to his press conferences he was a pretty pathetic creature, wincing and squirming in his wheelchair, barely coherent (because he was taking so many painkillers). When he did emerge from his narcotic haze, he talked obsessively about history and his place in it, clearly frustrated that he would be remembered for all the horrible things he said and did in the 1960s. And though I was still just as irreligious as I was in my childhood, I couldn’t help but think that divine justice was at work.
That was the point in my life when I started writing fiction. I’d found a story I wanted to tell, one with complex characters and deep, unsettling questions. My first novel was about a governor like Wallace, and though it was never published (mostly because it had all the typical faults of a first novel), it paved the way for all the books that followed. (If you’re curious, I’ve posted the first chapters of The Emperor of Alabama here, here, here, and here.) My latest novel, The Coming Storm, is about politics too, and I make no apologies for choosing this subject. I write fiction about politics because it’s interesting.
Yes, politics can get divisive. And it can get pretty tiring as well, especially in the middle of a campaign season like the one we’re in right now. When we’re bombarded by so much bitter rhetoric, it’s natural to feel the urge to get away from it all, and fiction does a good job of providing an escape. But fiction writers can also explore and confront the bitterness. We need those kinds of novels too.
I’ll end this story by mentioning another. My favorite part of the film of To Kill a Mockingbird (which also takes place in Alabama) is the scene where Gregory Peck (playing Atticus Finch) delivers his stirring summation in the trial of the falsely accused Tom Robinson. “In the name of God,” he tells the jury, “do your duty!” Whatever your politics, make sure you vote on November 6th. Our national story is being written, and each of us has a duty to contribute to it.