He was my friend. I can’t say I knew him for many, many years, as some who read this will be able to say. But I knew him for a few years in San Miguel de Allende, in Mexico. We taught at literary conferences as fellow faculty. We were judges together on a literary anthology that included writing about San Miguel. We sent each other emails about our books, our writings, our travel.
In our second issue–November, 2010–Sol: English Writing in Mexico published his essay, I Remember You, about a friend he had lost. He gave us a short story, The Lonely Cello, for the March 2011 issue of Sol, part of a fiction collection about Mexico he was putting together.
I was proud to publish his work—proud he would offer it to us.
Wayne Greenhaw didn’t come back to San Miguel this last winter. He was busy with a tour for his new book, Fighting The Devil In Dixie: How Civil Rights Activists Took on The Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. He said he’d be back in the summer, early this summer, then again next winter. He assured me he had more material for Sol, and that he would return to read for us this coming winter in the San Miguel PEN/Sol: English Writing in Mexico series we produce each year to raise scholarship money for Mexican children.
Then, this spring, I received an email from him, saying a needed surgery would delay his return—perhaps by a month or so, but not by too much. The surgery was meant to prolong his life.
Instead it took it. And we were stunned and we were shocked. And we grieved.
How to even begin to say who this man was? His writer’s resume is filled with awards: The Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer, the University of Alabama College of Communication’s Clarence Cason award, given previously to such distinguished writers as Gay Talese, Rick Bragg, Diane McWhorter, and Howell Raines.
Those are only two of a list of awards far too lengthy to reproduce here.
Wayne Greenhaw was a writer’s writer. Starting out as a journalist in Alabama in the 1960s, he never lost his journalist’s love for finding the story—the real story. He wrote poetry, he wrote fiction, he wrote nonfiction, he wrote plays. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
But he never stopped being a journalist. He was, for a time in the 1980s, editor and publisher of ALABAMA Magazine. In the early 1990s, he was a columnist with the Alabama Journal and The Montgomery Advertiser.
Already the possessor of a long list of publications, as the years went by, Wayne Greenhaw seemed to be putting out books with increasing frequency. Between 2005 and 2011, he published four books, two of which were about the Civil Rights movement he had covered as a young reporter: Thunder of Angels, the inside story of the Rosa Parks bus segregation protest, and his last book, Fighting the Devil in Dixie: How Civil Rights Activists Took on the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.
Positive reaction to the book began early. Rick Bragg, Professor of Writing at the University of Alabama said, “Wayne Greenhaw’s Fighting the Devil in Dixie does more than take you behind the picket lines, along the dark country roads and under the white hoods of the civil rights struggle. It takes you inside its very skin, and inside the South’s broken heart.”
And Howell Raines, former Executive Editor of The New York Times, and a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote that the book was “a major addition to the historic literature of the Southern Civil Rights movement… Greenhaw was an eye witness to events that changed America. With this book, he richly fulfills Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teaching that we must all bear witness for justice.”
Throughout the winter and spring, the praise continued. Wayne shared those glowing reviews with his friends by email. And when I read Fighting the Devil… I knew I had an amazing and wonderful book in my hands: a story that had not been told before, and would probably never be equaled.
On his website, Wayne Greenhaw left this author’s note:
I look back on a world suffering from racial schizophrenia. In the aftermath of the federal court ruling that ended legal segregated public education, most white adults in my home state of Alabama were silent while a small minority rode nightly, terrorizing black people, burning houses and churches, castrating and killing. The silent whites simply demanded that their children go to school, come home, and stay out of trouble.
But there was another reaction to the violence. That story is a long and twisting road through emotional curves and hollows. As it moves around curves and through unseen pitfalls, we see the number of black attorneys in Alabama increase from four to five, six to seven, and more. As the roads become bumpy and dangerous, a few Southern white attorneys blossom in Alabama and fight the good fight next to their African American brothers and sisters.
FIGHTING THE DEVIL IN DIXIE is the story of these people and their struggle.
And, although he did not say so there, this is Wayne Greenhaw’s story, too. He was one of the heroes, one of the courageous: one of the reporters in the American South who risked their lives, their homes, their livelihoods—to tell the story of a people’s quest for due process and justice.
We will miss him.