March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

by Diane McWhorter

This epic of reportage and history about Birmingham, Ala., in the early ’60s reads like a big ambitious novel. But it’s all too true. McWhorter revisits in fascinating detail the battle for integration and its horrifying white backlash in the city that came to be known as Bombingham after the explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four black girls on Sept. 15, 1963. McWhorter’s complex narrative roves skillfully forward and backward from that moment. The cast is huge and vivid, the story brimming with courage, drama, villains and heroes. Among the latter is the flamboyant black preacher Fred Shuttlesworth, who stood up to the Ku Klux Klan and struggled behind the scenes with Martin Luther King Jr. for leadership of the civil rights movement. The antagonists, too, are chillingly real. One of the gripping tensions in the book is McWhorter’s pursuit of her own father, who she suspected was a member of the Klan. (Simon & Schuster, $35)

Bottom Line: The War and Peace of the civil rights movement

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